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Public work around the world

August 11, 2010

The following is adapted from a presentation Harry Boyte made at the annual “bosberaad” (retreat) of Idasa,  the African Democracy Institute, on August 2. Boyte is founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.

Public work is the signature concept of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, developed with partners over many years.

Public work involves sustained collective effort by a mix of diverse people that produces public things of lasting value to communities. Whether through Public Achievement, in which people work as teams guided by a coach on issues they choose, or through new methods of practice where professionals work with people not on them, public work teaches what might be called political sobriety, a political realism and attention to the long range health of communities. Through public work, people develop an identity as a co-creator of the common world we share, and respect for the talents of diverse people, whether formally credentialed or not.

Over the last year, I’ve been doing more research on traditions and practices of public work around the world and discovered a submerged but extremely rich history of communal labor practices:  ga-du-gi (Cherokee); dugnad (Norwegian); minga (Otavalo Ecuadorian Indians); huan gong (Chinese); letsema (Sesotho); ilimo (isiZulu); saambou (Afrikaans); dibanisani (isiXhosa); naffir (Sudanese Arabic); meitheal (Irish); talkoot (Finnish); ture (Korean); and umuganda (Kinyarwanda).

All of these examples convey the idea of cooperative effort across divisions and ranks to strengthen communities, based on a sense of practical collective self-interest and reciprocal obligation. Wikipedia includes a short entry, though its description of these as “voluntary” labor is a modern characterization not used in the past. Pubic work traditions are especially rich in agricultural societies like those in Africa, but public work concepts appear in urban societies as well such as “poldering” in Holland and “dugnad” in Norway.

My research has made clear that public work can be defined as a normative ideal of citizenship, generalized from diverse communal labor traditions. Public work is a large class of civic practices, and is likely at the root of the older concept of “politics” itself, which has come back to life in broad-based organizing and in groups like Idasa, which used public work to bring together blacks and whites during the era of apartheid. As Victor Hanson has described in The Other Greeks, democracies emerged not from democratization of aristocratic leisure, as is conventionally imagined, but from practical cooperative labors of family farmers after the breakup of great estates in ancient Greece.

Public work practices influenced land grant colleges up until World War II, as Cornell University professor Scott Peters has described in his new book Democracy and Higher Education. Faculty, staff and students in land grant colleges, working in sustained, egalitarian, practical partnerships with communities, helped to create the identity of “democracy colleges.”

Public work can also provide vital resources for groups excluded from public life to draw upon in fights for full recognition and inclusion. An example was the 2006 immigrant demonstrations, which claimed rights of recognition and citizenship for their work in building America.

In the United States, terms like “community service” and “voluntarism” are echoes of public work, but often sentimentalized in ways that mask other agendas. “Voluntarism” first appears as a general term with Nixon budget cutbacks. In actual communal labor traditions, public work develops collective power–civic agency–in the face of forces that oppose such labors, ranging from centralized authorities to concepts that devalue the capacities of ordinary people such as “expert knows best.”

Americans built many public goods in communities–libraries, schools, roads, dams, soil conservation districts, community arts festivals and a variety of other commons–and in so doing generated a respect for diverse talents and contributions and gave a practical, everyday quality to the meaning of democracy.

Through a partnership with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Harry Boyte in gathering public work stories and will share them with colleges nationwide participating in the American Democracy Project. Please use this on-line form to submit a public work story from your community.

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