Research shows the success of a bacterial community depends on its shape.
When Eve Sullivan decided she wanted to talk with other people about the challenges of parenting, she did more than join a group-she founded a new one, incorporated it and is now taking its message overseas, both in person and on the Internet.
Ms. Sullivan, senior editorial assistant in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, formed Parents Forum, Inc. in 1991 as the result of a struggle one of her children had with alcohol. The new group, as she envisioned it, wouldn't exist just as an aid for families in crisis-it would serve as a resource for parents at any time. The process of dealing with her son's difficulties in a group setting was "so wonderful that I thought there ought to be a way for people not in dire straits to learn some of the things that we learned," she said. "I was trying to break the stereotype of getting together only when there are problems."
After several columns about the aims of the organization appeared in the North Cambridge News the Cambridge Chronicle, Parents Forum held its first workshop series in early 1992, incorporated late that year and was granted status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 1993. This means that donors to the annual United Way campaign may specify that their contribution goes to the group, even though it is not one of those regularly sponsored by the United Way.
At Parents Forum workshops, participants practice communications skills and discuss issues such as their families' values and rules, how they ask for and give help, relationships, and how they deal with major changes like new family members or death in the family. "As a language teacher, I know the importance of communication," said Ms. Sullivan, who has a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Participants, who often learn about the group through notices placed by Ms. Sullivan in weekly newspapers, meet in public areas such as libraries and schools; there is no membership fee.
Another member of the MIT community who has been involved with Parents Forum almost since its inception is Daniel Dangler, a part-time administrator in the Center for Space Research. He, too, came from a family marked by alcoholism, a circumstance that led to his interest in family organization and functioning.
"I saw how the one issue of alcohol can affect the whole family unit," he said. "Communication patterns definitely affect children and how they see themselves."
Others at MIT including Rae Simpson and Kathy Simons of the MIT Family Resource Center, and Institute Professor Emeritus Herman Feshbach, have also been very supportive in shaping the organization, Ms. Sullivan said.
Along with workshops, Parents Forum has been involved in other activities such as a book and toy exchange to benefit Harbor Me (an organization that provides support for battered women and children), and the Cambridge Area 4 Crime Task Force's Drug-Free Fair for the past two years.
Although it is a relatively young organization, Parents Forum has won several awards. It was given an honorable mention as outstanding service program this year by the Massachusetts Volunteer Network, and it was also recognized by the MIT Entrepreneurs Club in the special category of Social Venturing Award in 1993.
Ms. Sullivan hopes to get Parents Forum on a more established footing through increased involvement of businesses. By promoting the program to their employees, companies could reap the benefits of better attendance and performance by their workers, she believes. With his background in organizational development, Mr. Dangler also hopes to organize future workshops, line up guest speakers, and solidify the support-group aspect of Parents Forum as "a safe place to talk about the struggles of being a parent," he said.
Ms. Sullivan's efforts to bring Parents Forum into a larger arena of people and groups with similar concerns have met with some success. She has been invited to speak at a conference of child and adolescent psychiatrists in Coimbra, Portugal in December, and earlier this month she gave a presentation entitled "Key Questions for Family Dialogue" at a conference in Montreal co-sponsored by the United nations in recognition of the International Year of the Family.
At that event, "I got a lot of encouragement for the Parents Forum approach from people in service organizations and government agencies in other countries," she said. "It's very exciting to realize that people all over the planet are involved in similar work."
With the help of Richard Shyduroff of the MIT Entrepreneurs Club and Todd Marinoff of the City of Cambridge Information Services, Ms. Sullivan has created a World Wide Web home page for Parents Forum, accessible from the Cambridge home page under "Profile of Cambridge." The group's e-mail address is
A version of this article appeared in the November 2, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 10).