“Students just like you are taking action to fix America’s future. Young agents of change are transforming their campuses into places where they can organize, engage, and inspire fellow students and citizens to build a stronger democracy. They’re creating the lasting change we need by bridging differences of partisanship, culture, faith and income to solve real problems in their communities.”- Democracy U
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There are many reasons why After School Matters…. this issue share some very interesting articles on supporting English Learners afterschool and promoting youth spaces through community mapping.
This editorial by Harry Boyte originally published in the Star Tribune on November 15, 2007 has received some attention on the old blog we had at that time, so we thought we’d re-post it here.
Working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the civil-rights movement as a young man, I saw again and again leaders like Martin Luther King and Andrew Young use stories from the Bible to animate and inform the larger public conversation. I’ve been reminded of this history as the presidential election unfolds.
“It’s a lot better to be with David than Goliath,” Mike Huckabee told the Values Voters Forum on Oct. 18, to illustrate his identification with the little guy. Barack Obama, in a March 4 speech at Selma, Ala., commemorating the famous 1965 civil-rights march, described himself as part of the “Joshua generation,” picking up where the “Moses” generation left off.
But for our time Nehemiah is more helpful than either David or Joshua.
Remembering Nehemiah could put active citizenship at the center of an election campaign that so far has treated it as a secondary question.
Nehemiah, a skillful politician, gained permission from the king of Persia in 446 B.C. to return to Jerusalem in order to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls. “You see the trouble we are in; Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burned down,” he told the assembled crowd.
But Nehemiah did not present himself as a Moses-like rescuer. Rather, he called people to hard work. “Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer.” The people responded. “Let us start! Let us build.” The Bible recounts that “with willing hands they set about the good work” (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
Physical parallels with the first “Nehemiah generation” are not hard to see from Minneapolis, after the Interstate 35W bridge disaster last summer. The 2005 Infrastructure Report Card of the American Society of Civil Engineers, evaluating the condition of the nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works, gave a grade of D. For practical purposes it was no improvement since the D+ of 2001.
Citizen participation on issues like road design and water usage is a good idea, and New Deal-style public-works programs, which built much of the nation’s park system and public infrastructure, are worth considering. But the cultural aspects of Nehemiah hold the most important lessons.
During the Babylonian captivity, enemies of the Jews had multiplied. Jews persevered in the face of ridicule and posted guards against plots.
More subtly, rebuilding the walls required civic restoration. A culture of greed and instant gratification had produced fragmentation and a decline in morale in the community. Nehemiah held together a motley crew — 40 different groups are named, including merchants, priests, governors, nobles, members of the perfume and goldsmiths’ guilds, and women. At one point he organized a great assembly to call to account nobles making excessive profit from the poor. As the Jewish people rebuilt their walls, they regained a sense of their purpose and identity.
In today’s America, as we have come to look to others — experts, great leaders, celebrities — to save us from our problems, we have similarly become afflicted by civic illness. Our bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers.
We need new Nehemiahs who call forth America’s democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry, leaders who tackle tough issues in a collaborative way and reject the rescuer role. Such leaders would tap the talents of citizens to address public problems on which government is necessary but not sufficient, from climate change to school reform. They would challenge us to create healthy communities, not simply provide access to health care. They would recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box.
The great leaders in our history — from Abraham Lincoln to Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. — have always called upon citizens to address common challenges, and in the process helped the nation remember its democratic soul. Things are likely to get worse until we have such leaders again, leaders who call us all to the ongoing work of citizenship.
Sarah Salipa, Public Achievement Coach in Gaza’s 7th PA Cycle
“And in the end it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years,” said Abraham Lincoln.
In 2005, I had the chance to start a new life with new thoughts, beliefs, and achievements. This was when I participated in the Public Achievement program. I was a member of the “Best Group” and learned many things through my first experience in the program. PA made me believe in the ability of youth to make change in their societies and taught me how to be a good citizen: caring about society issues, serving my community, and building good relationships with others.
I will never forget my experience as a participant in the program because it was my first step towards creating a better future for me and for my community as well. So 2005 is one of the years that count in my life.
My belief in the program ideas and objectives pushed me toward joining it again, so in 2010 I decided to continue what I have started in 2005 and applied for the program again and was accepted, this time as a coach.
Being a coach has taught me how to be responsible and how to think about others. The PA program has given me great experiences in life and my character has changed to a better one, my thoughts have developed and now I have a broader view of life. The program is also proving that youth are citizens of today and they are able to make change and create strategies to improve their society. It is also giving them the chance to let their voices be heard. In addition, the program makes me realize how holy the human truly is. To make someone happy is a thing to be proud of – to help a family, to leave a mark!
I believe that generations learn from each other and PA made that obvious by teaching me about society and its issues. Now I convey what I have learned to my group to make them creative, smart, and strong speakers.
We have to stop talking about changing and start this in action. PA is giving us the way to be the change which society needs. And that will be our mission from now on. Because we care, we can.
Laney Barhaugh, Graduate student at the Humphrey Institute
After my first year as a planning student at the Humphrey, I was unsure if my interests had led me to the right degree. As one of the few students in my cohort focusing on Housing and Community Development, I felt that my interests— though still within the planning field — fell on the perimeter, teetering between being non-traditional planning and just non-planning. The meat of what I struggled with was how a planner serves a community in a way that not only uses the expertise that a planning degree brings, but also is guided by and responsive to community needs in a real, substantive way.
Of course, my planning classes did brush upon this topic every once and a while, talking about different participation methods and the trade-offs they bring. But what I was more concerned about was my individual behavior, my responsibility and connection to the people I may one day serve. To me, all the methods felt a little too objective. Which, to be fair, is sometimes necessary. However, both Dennis Donovan’s Community Organizing and Public Policy class and one of my planning classes in the fall of 2010 made me more confident in my program choice.
The Community Organizing Skills Workshop, which is by no means taught in a planning context, got me thinking about what public relationships are truly built on. It also gave me some very intuitive, practical tools for both initiating and cultivating those relationships. One of these skills was the relational meeting. The bread and butter of community organizing, a relational meeting is a public meeting with the goal of uncovering what a person’s passions are. What motivates them? What and who are they most likely to engage with? Where do they come from and how has that affected their interests and ideas?
This relational meeting, combined with a section on community organizing and social movements in my class on Neighborhood Revitalization, gave me a much firmer grasp of where organizing fits in a planning context and vice versa. The knowledge that community organizing is not this nebulous thing that people just fall into, but is actually a set of skills that anyone can learn, was the missing piece in the puzzle of my career interests. These skills can be used to engage citizens on any number of issues—planning problems included, as opposed to simply mobilizing them. People become engaged around their self interest. They will also, I suspect, serve me in good stead in a continually diversifying U.S. population.
This class has also changed the way I think about being not just a citizen, but a good citizen, in a democratic country. Though I have heard people talk about being an engaged citizen before, I never really thought about what that phrase means in terms of behavior beyond being a conscientious voter. What it boils down to, I think, is a different kind of awareness. Most of the time, our minds are filled with our day-to-day personal lives, our awareness is filled up with the details of living. This class opened up my awareness to my potential public life and public persona. To do democracy correctly—to be an engaged citizen—requires a clear understanding of one’s public and private life –having that public self to put on when you go out into the world.
Community organizing is about relating to people, learning where your similarities and differences lie, and learning how you can work together to affect change. This type of activity demands knowledge of the difference between private and public. Planning theory, though useful, leaves that piece out. The skills you gain in this class are extremely applicable to the messy problems of planning, and will help you wherever you go in life. I would highly recommend this class to anyone in the Humphrey Institute interested in Community Development, organizing, or just learning some practical life skills.
“It’s important for us as academics to recognize that our knowledge is less important than the community’s knowledge. As an academic, you are on tap – not on top. It is essential for communities to develop their own power.” – Harry Boyte
For those of you who weren’t able to join us in DC for the third annual Civic Agency Institute, please see here for footage from the event. In this video, Harry Boyte elaborates on We the People and explains how we might describe our work to others. This is an amazing and short (15 minutes long) speech that lays the groundwork for We the People.