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California’s Newest Export : Culture: The self-esteem task force will fold this month, none too soon for some critics. But its message is circulating worldwide.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After three years of praise and potshots, most notoriously from Garry Trudeau’s satirical “Doonesbury” cartoons, the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility is about to drain its hot tubs and go home.

As mandated by law, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos’ 25-member, $735,000 “scouting party” for the rest of California officially goes out of business on June 30.

But that won’t be the last of this politicized incarnation of the human potential movement. Get ready for a new round of California-nurtured notions on self-esteem to break out across the state and country, if not throughout the world.

There are now local versions of the state task force in 49 of California’s 58 counties. And the East Coast wants in on the act, too.

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Maryland and Virginia have copied the California model, establishing their own, state-funded task forces. Continuing the work done here, they’re expected to further study what to do about low self-esteem and explore its links to expensive social ills such as drug abuse and chronic welfare dependency.

In addition, governors or legislators in Arkansas, Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington and Missouri are considering efforts to further the self-esteem movement.

And in August, Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) is scheduled to present his ideas on self-esteem and “the new politics"--in which he sees distinctions not between Republicans and Democrats nor liberals and conservatives but between cynics and idealists--at a meeting of the National Council of State Legislators in Nashville, Tenn. The powerful chairman of California’s Ways and Means Committee is also expected to speak at an upcoming hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Children, Youth and Families.

California-born ideas for implementing inner fitness, as outlined in the task force’s final report, are also spreading internationally. Vasconcellos recently discussed self-esteem on an Australian talk show. People from Spain, England and Canada have been inquiring about the task force’s work. And, also in August, Vasconcellos may take his message to the first international self-esteem convention in Oslo.

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“I can tell you, the rest of the world is looking at what the task force has done in California,” enthused Danny Walker, a special assistant for drug education to Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, one of about 300 people attending the task force’s final, two-day “summit conference” in Sacramento late last week. “I think the task force may be appreciated more out of the state than it is in California.”

Just three years ago, the mere mention of self-esteem and government policy in the same sentence brought a nearly universal response: “Huh?”

But as Vasconcellos now sees it, the image of self-esteem as narcissistic fallout from the “me decade” has been “totally” turned around.

“It is really a modern-day miracle,” Vasconcellos told those gathered to celebrate at the Radisson Hotel. "(The self-esteem movement) is the most hopeful enterprise going on in this country . . . a new hope for the future of California and the entire country itself, because it grounds itself in a new vision of our own basic inclinations toward being kindly and gentler and trustworthy and responsible. . . .”

“We who are Californians are the most privileged people on the face of the Earth. We live in the most prosperous, comfortable and leading state, with all the rest always watching and always emulating, for better or for worse. We have here, really, the opportunity to create for the entire world that model for a society which functions with integrity and responsibility, with economic and human social success. I think it’s time to make a large claim about this work and not to be modest.”

Yet not a whole lot has changed in three years, critics have observed. In fact, they say many conditions appear to be worse--and deteriorating at warp speed.

The notion has not been lost on task-force members, who emphasize their mission was not to change anything, but rather to survey conditions and suggest how they might be improved. Thus, Vasconcellos views the present as an “important transition from a remarkable work of theory into the everyday rigors of practice,” and termed the task-force report “a blueprint for the future.”

That outline is remarkably free of “touchy-feely,” New Age overtones and contains 46 relatively conservative recommendations, such as implementing courses on parenting in the schools and imposing appropriate penalties for every crime committed by a juvenile. (“When a youthful offender gets arrested for a relatively minor crime, such as petty theft or vandalism, penalties are almost never imposed,” said the report. “As a result, today’s juvenile justice system inadvertently encourages some youthful offenders to continue criminal behavior.”)

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The recommendations pertain to six major problem-plagued areas that, research (reviewed and summarized by a group of University of California professors) showed, sometimes correlated to low self-esteem but were not necessarily caused by it:

* the family, teen-age pregnancy and child abuse;

* education and academic failure;

* drug and alcohol abuse;

* crime and violence;

* poverty and chronic welfare dependency;

* the workplace

The 144-page report, issued last January, found that there was no generally accepted definition for self-esteem, which may account in part for the ridicule the task force experienced. (Though often confused with vanity and narcissism, self-esteem, as defined by the task force, is: “Appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly towards others.”)

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But despite agreement on definitions and recommendations, there are plenty of critics of the final report. Ironically, one of the most vocal is task-force member David Shannahoff-Khalsa of Del Mar, a Sikh, who is an expert in Kundalini yoga. Shannahoff-Khalsa canceled his plans to attend the so-called summit meeting because, as he said by phone, “there was nothing to celebrate or support. The final report is propaganda. The recommendations are simplistic and misleading. They could have been written by a group of sixth-graders.”

Among other things, he panned the task force for not spelling out how-to techniques or therapies (for reducing, say, anger, fear, stress, addictions) and for not giving enough attention to the mind, especially the subconscious mind, in the development of self-esteem.

However, his chief criticism was directed at the task force’s interpretation of the self-esteem research summaries presented by the University of California professors.

“Self-esteem was never shown to play a causative role in the six social problems the task force studied,” he said. “The report is a massive effort to mislead people. There’s no basis for what is written in it.”

Asked to comment on criticism--from within and without the task force--Vasconcellos replied: “The observation that the research isn’t completely conclusive (on a causal link between low self-esteem and other problems) is valid.

“It’s an accurate criticism, but the conclusion some have made that nothing can be done is inaccurate,” he observed during a break in the conference. “And there was much other evidence, besides the research reviewed by the UC professors, that led the task force to its conclusions.”

Other critics have described the self-esteem movement as anti-intellectual. For example, John Leo, writing in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report, suggests the movement may be becoming “the dominant educational theory” in the country, one that is “on a collision course with the growing movement to revive the schools academically. . . . When the self-esteem movement takes over a school, teachers are under pressure to accept every child as is. To keep children feeling good about themselves, you must avoid all criticism and almost any challenge that could conceivably end in failure.”

Relaxed, in jeans, sport shirt and a velour sweat shirt, Vasconcellos responded: “A child has a right to be intellectually, emotionally and socially competent. To limit any one of those is to limit them all. I’m as intellectually competent as anybody,” said the former valedictorian and attorney. “But these credentials aren’t enough. People who think it’s got to be one or the other, that it can’t be all of these things, are expressing their own fractured personalities and lack of wholeness.” Likewise, Vasconcellos thinks self-esteem and criticism can gracefully coexist: “My closest friends--we are each other’s best critics. We care enough and trust each other enough to comment on a lack of correctness.”

For those who agree with the task force’s premises but find society’s problems overwhelming, best-selling autho Ken Blanchard (“The One-Minute Manager”) offered some consolation. Waiving his customary $20,000 speaking fee to address a breakfast meeting of the conference, Blanchard told the audience: “To me, you all are right on the money in your interest in self-esteem.”

Then he related a story of young boy who happened upon thousands and thousands of starfish washed up on a beach. Knowing they would die if deprived of water, he set out to toss each starfish back into the sea. When told by a man that his efforts couldn’t possibly make a difference, considering the vast number of dying starfish, the boy simply hurled a starfish into the ocean and replied, “I hope I made a difference to that one.”

What of the critics who believe it’s possible to make a difference with some individuals--but who argue it takes a lifetime to gain self-esteem?

Vasconcellos agrees there is no quick fix. “We’re at the very front end of learning about self-esteem,” he said. “The report is modest. There’s some (related) legislation being sponsored, but not a lot. The task force decided this is ultimately a self-help program.”

He is now backing only two pieces of self-esteem-related legislation: one bill to create a state self-esteem “ombudsperson” and another to create funding (about $200,000) for a nonprofit organization to advance the work of the task force.

Already, without state financing, the National Council for Self-Esteem, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit group, is organizing “Self-Esteem Central,” to be based in Sacramento and coordinate the work of California’s county task forces.

“I could disappear tomorrow and this (work) would go on every bit as elegantly and fully,” Vasconcellos reassured the audience. “In fact, it’s become so commonplace, my worry isn’t that people will think we’re weird, but rather they’ll think self-esteem has been trivialized and thought to be a fad.”

Toward a State of Esteem

Here are some key recommendations from the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

The Family, Teen - age Pregnancy and Child Abuse :

* Develop a statewide media campaign to educate Californians regarding the primary role of parents in the development of healthy self-esteem and of personal and social responsibility; and provide appropriate culturally sensitive multilingual training in loving and effective ways to raise children.

* The Legislature should recognize the profound and primary role of parents by funding and directing the state Department of Education to include child-rearing courses in the school curriculum.

Education and Academic Failure :

* Self-esteem and responsibility must be woven into the total education program.

* Educate every educator through pre-service and in-service training in self-esteem and responsibility.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse :

* In every community, create substance abuse prevention councils which simultaneously promote self-esteem and personal and social responsibility.

* Expand and support treatment programs for substance abusers by replicating successful programs.

Crime and Violence :

* Hold juveniles accountable for crime by consistently imposing appropriate sanctions for every criminal act.

* Replicate programs that foster self-esteem and responsibility.

Poverty and Chronic Welfare Dependency :

* Support and implement programs that assist long-term welfare recipients to grow in self-esteem and responsibility and move from the welfare rolls to independence.

* Encourage and aid governmental assistance programs to enable single parents to establish nurturing home environments by providing services such as training for effective parenting, independent living skills, education and vocational counseling and child-care options.

The Workplace :

* Encourage the development of personnel policies and working conditions that promote self-esteem and personal and social responsibility in both the private and public sectors.

* Public and private industry should institute policies to meet the changing needs of the American family in areas such as job site child care, flexible work schedules, job sharing and parental leave.


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