Checking In With the State's Task Force . . . : The Quest for Self-Esteem

Times Staff Writer

Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, the man who had the self-esteem (some say the political savvy) to get the state to fund the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, describes the group as "a scouting party for the rest of California."

This lookout team consists of 25 Californians, chosen from an eager pool of more than 350 applicants, the largest number ever to apply for any commission or task force in state history. The appointed pathfinders have all volunteered to meet for a minimum of one day a month over the next three years to figure out how self-esteem might reach the rest of us in larger quantities.

They're rolling now, with three meetings completed and general agreement reached on the group's mission, goals and operating procedures. (In general, the idea is a long way from mandating attendance at neighborhood self-esteem workshops--with or without hot tubs--as some have feared. Rather, the group's aim is to review the voluminous literature on self-esteem and figure out ways to make the most effective material available to all Californians.)

As might be expected, the gatherings of this group are not typical state-sponsored affairs. This month's meeting, for instance, was a two-day retreat last Thursday and Friday at Vallambrosa Center in Menlo Park, an event the group refused to call a retreat and promptly renamed an "advance." As task-force member Gerti Thomas explained, "We're not going backwards, we're going forward."

Though the task force is a long way from issuing its final report and its plan for providing Californians with information that could enrich the quality of their lives, it has already had an impact on the rest of the country.

Other States Get in the Act

According to the group's associate director, Ruta Aldridge (who is not one of the official 25 members), government representatives from eight other states have requested information on how self-esteem task forces can be implemented in their states.

And since the task force started meeting in March, it appears that similar commissions may soon be cropping up at the local level throughout California. Larry Naake, executive director of the County Supervisors Assn. of California, is encouraging the establishment of self-esteem task forces in each of the state's 58 counties. To assist that effort, Vasconcellos and other legislators have sponsored a new resolution calling for a task force to be set up in every county.

Getting on the Bandwagon

Even authors are jumping on the self-esteem bandwagon, with book titles that suggest self-esteem has become a bona fide buzzword of the late 1980s. Feminist Gloria Steinem recently announced that the title of her upcoming book will be "The Bedside Book of Self-Esteem." And actress Elizabeth Taylor is reportedly working on a book titled, "Elizabeth Taylor Takes Off on Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image and Self-Esteem."

In the meantime, increasing numbers of corporations are bringing in self-esteem experts to boost the productivity of their workers, adding further validation to the concept.

Vasconcellos, a Santa Clara Democrat who serves as chairman of the Assembly's powerful Ways and Means Committee, credits much of the group's impact and visibility to what some initially saw as an attack: a series of Doonesbury cartoon strips satirizing the task force.

But Vasconcellos turned out to be delighted that cartoonist Garry Trudeau appointed Barbara Ann "Boopsie" Boopstein to be one of his esteemed group's members. He points out that the task force might have labored for three years, released its report, made its recommendations and perhaps even have implemented some programs without raising the consciousness of the country on the subject of self-esteem as much as Doonesbury did.

As Dr. Emmett Miller, a task-force member and psychophysiological medicine specialist, commented, "If there's ever been someone who recognizes the incredible importance of what we're doing, it's Garry Trudeau. I see his cartoons as saying (to the task force), 'You've got a lot to live up to.' "

Why are self-esteem and a task force to study it suddenly important enough to warrant being satirized in the nation's comic pages?

Link to Social Problems

The underlying premise, which has been argued by countless social researchers, is that low self-esteem is at the root of virtually every social problem: chronic drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, welfare dependency, teen-age pregnancy and more.

Critics have questioned if it is the government's job to study and possibly validate that research. They argue that, no matter what the social scientists say, it is not the duty of the state to devise ways to promote the personal self-esteem of its residents.

Vasconcellos and task-force members are quick to respond that government has essentially been forced to be concerned with these issues, because government pays for the results of a society that doesn't have much respect for itself.

As was noted in the bill itself, "The (state) Attorney General estimates criminal activities cost California citizens $6 billion dollars in 1985 and $1.6 billion in costs of new construction of new prison facilities alone."

(Similarly hefty figures were also supplied for other of the state's social problems.)

At first glance, the task force--with all its touchy-feely, New Age, group-grope implications--may seem to be more in tune with the previous, liberal Democrat administration of former governor Jerry Brown, often referred to as "Gov. Moonbeam." It's not the sort of thing routinely associated with the administration of his successor, conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

But, as Vasconcellos noted, Brown was not known for championing interpersonal issues and was far more intrigued with such topics as the environment and outer space. Vasconcellos suspects the bill eventually made sense to Deukmejian (the governor once vetoed an earlier version) because it's "a very conservative use of money that could enable many Californians to become more self-sufficient and less destructive and that would save lots of dollars and lots of lives."

More specifically: "We spend close to 20 grand a year for one convict. One convict going in at age 20 and staying in to age 60, that's $800,000, which is more than the cost of this bill."

(The taxpayer price tag on the bill, which funds the commission for three years, is $732,000.)

The task-force members responsible for how those funds are spent and the eventual results they produce are a group whose diversity and singularity is quintessentially Californian. Considerable care was taken to ensure a thorough mix (men, women, white, black, brown, Asian, Latino, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight); adequate minority representation was written into the language of the bill.

Included in the task force's 25 pro-active, preventive pioneers--briefly profiled here with their photos--are a chairperson who runs "ultra-marathons" and describes himself as "a recovering expert," a former mayor, the editor of a book titled "Gourmet Parenting," and a neuroscientist who teaches kundalini yoga.

Among the numerous psychological counselors who sit on the task force is the first family therapist to head a symposium on family therapy principles in a communist country. And among the commission's several educators is one who has trained hundreds of California teachers in techniques for improving self-esteem.

Law enforcement and correctional system executives are likewise well represented in the group. Only about half of the task-force members are veterans of the human potential movement.

"They're all wonderful people with wonderful spirit," said Miller, who years ago taught Vasconcellos stress-reduction techniques and was one of the earliest physicians to begin practicing in this area. "I feel like I'm sitting in on the meetings that were held to draw up the Declaration of Independence."

At the same time, though, Miller also observes a paradox: that there is not much that's really new about the work of the task force.

"There's really nothing new that we're doing," he ventured. "Everybody basically knows this (emphasis on self-esteem) is right. We all know this is the secret. Now the government is taking the responsibility at the very least to authenticate in a formal way what we all know. It's reflecting back to people what we all know in our hearts."

As for how that reflection might look three years down the line, the man who set the task force in motion was not willing to be too specific at this time.

"I'm not a prophet," said Vasconcellos. "I hope that by the end of the three years, every Californian will appreciate the significance of having self-esteem in his or her life and will know more about how to address needs in that respect." Meanwhile, the assemblyman is more optimistic than ever about what he characterizes as "a public effort to institutionalize faith rather than cynicism."

As he pointed out, fan mail for the task force is beating out the critical notes at a rate of about 10 to one.

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