Kristine Kosek, Student at Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and Associate Manager of Community Relations at Best Buy
Public Achievement is for doers. Activists. Organizers. It is a model for social change that creates a dynamic shift in behavior and engagement that can lead to a shift in policy. In the University of Minnesota course Community Organizing for Effective Public Policy, my instructor and Public Achievement guru, Dennis Donovan, is putting us to work in the public arena on projects that align with our self-interest and meet a community need. After studying the history of social change and the principles of community organizing, we are let loose to learn by doing and engage in public work for the common good. The process is individually empowering and can lead to transformational personal development and a new sense of place in the community.
One of my roles in the community, as a citizen and neighbor, is in Northeast Minneapolis. Currently a public debate is brewing around a controversial proposal for a hazardous waste facility. I have the duty and privilege of being in the thick of a citizen’s movement around the issue in which citizens and government have the opportunity to work together toward a sustainable solution.
City officials recently signed a purchase agreement to buy land for a household hazardous waste facility on University Avenue and 27th Street Northeast. The facility is a joint city-county facility that will replace an outdated and undersized location in South Minneapolis. Advocates argue that the City of Minneapolis needs an urban site to properly dispose of waste materials so that paints and flammable liquids do not end up in landfills. Opponents argue that the location is too close to homes, is improperly zoned, and will result in noise and air pollution in the neighborhood. Neighborhood associations are organizing around either side of the issue and citizens are becoming more vocal and engaged.
While the advocates and opponents have different views on the facility, there is no doubt that we all want a sustainable solution with minimal environmental impact. This is where we have the greatest opportunity to work together, neighbors and government, toward a solution. The community asked for a public hearing on the facility, yet the city council declined the invitation, stating that they will speak to the community later. Applying the principles of community organizing and Public Achievement, opponents of the facility are leveraging their power through formal neighborhood associations and one-to-one meetings with decision makers. An attorney has been consulted to lend expertise to the question of proper zoning. Although the city remains silent, Hennepin County employees are willing to have a conversation at an upcoming board meeting. It is a small victory that feels progressive. It is also an example of the effectiveness of positioning average citizens as powerful, collaborative problem solvers who can take a leadership role in the public arena to pursue the common good.
To get involved in your community, talk to your neighbors, attend a neighborhood council meeting or see http://forums.e-democracy.org/. To get involved in the debate about the hazardous waste facility, see Healthy Legacy and Don’t Dump on Northeast.
“Castleton College has all the ingredients to become a higher education ‘democracy demonstration’ site and a leader in Public Achievement and the We the People movement,” said Dennis Donovan after his visit to the American Democracy Project Civic Agency Initiative school in Vermont.
Over the course of three days in October, Donovan conducted trainings and workshops for Castleton students, faculty, administrators, and community members. In the campus-wide event, titled Institutionalizing Civic Engagement through Organizing, participants learned to “understand and distinguish between three ways of conceptualizing democracy and what it means to be a student, faculty, or community leader, and also began to practice community organizing skills.”
Castleton College first became involved in civic engagement through the leadership of its Academic Dean Joe Mark in the 1990s and eventually began sending a core group to the American Democracy Project’s annual conferences on “educating citizens” from 2003 onward. In 2008, Castleton was invited to join the American Democracy Project’s Civic Agency Initiative, which “seeks to further develop and operationalize the concept of civic agency” by “producing a series of national models for developing civic agency among undergraduates.”
The concept of civic agency involves developing the capacity of citizens to collaboratively solve problems. It entails a marked change in culture to adopt “practices, habits, norms, symbols, and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.” Castleton is unique in that as opposed to having one center or project designed to spread concepts of civic agency, its focus is infusing ideas into the whole campus.
“The institution is designed with so many opportunities and experiences that students will naturally bump into things,” says Academic Dean Joe Mark. “The college will never demand outright that people do civic agency, as this approach doesn’t work. Civic agency is not a graduation requirement — we want it ubiquitous, but not mandated.”
And ubiquitous it is. Concepts of civic agency have been incorporated into Castleton’s orientation practices, RA program in campus dorms, student government and other student groups, curriculum on service learning, education department curriculum, and interactions between faculty members, as well as Castleton projects with the broader community.
“Castleton has made a conscious effort to ‘graft’ civic agency concepts onto a lot of different programs to create culture change and a tipping point,” says Dean of Students Dennis Proulx. “The goal of Dennis’s training was to unite all of the grafts and expose bigger themes and it worked.”
Changes are already afoot in Castleton’s work with the Slate Valley Teen Center and partnership between the athletics department and a local elementary school. There has been a greater shift in thinking to considering the teens and elementary students as “co-creators” within these two initiatives, and allowing them to have a greater participatory effort through use of the Public Achievement model. People are getting excited.
Academic Dean Joe Mark also noted the progress of the student government after Dennis’s visit. Ryan Badinelli, the treasurer in Castleton’s student government, was first exposed to civic agency from attending an American Democracy Project conference and did not know what to expect. He describe civic agency as changing both Castleton and himself.
“The college has grown in prestige, academics, diversity — growth from community engagement and the idea that everyone has the ability to succeed,” says Baldinelli. “In the push for civic agency, students are beginning to realize that Castleton is there for them. Dennis Donovan was able to bring more understanding to people about what is going on in this movement. People need to meet Harry and Dennis, who have powerful ideas.”
National Arizona University’s InsideNAU has profiled the exciting changes underway for young people active in Public Achievement in Flagstaff, Arizona via video.
“I think that our children are our future, but I think that that is the now. I think we can’t say that this is for our grand children because it is imperative now that we empower our children to make a big difference in their communities, ” says Lauren Berutich, Graduate Student Public Achievement Facilitator.
The universal sense of cross-partisan anxiety lingering after the recent midterm elections seems ironic. Voting served as much a referendum on the increasingly evident dialectic between voter apathy and political reactivity as anything else.
A good example is Minnesota’s gubernatorial election results, which remain in flux for the foreseeable future. State GOP leaders are calling for recount lawsuits on behalf of Tom Emmer. DFL leaders are scrambling to defend Mark Dayton’s near 9,000-vote lead — and salving the sting of statewide losses of incumbent seats.
All this public perseverating heightens citizens’ perception that both their public and personal values are being violated by big-time power games that determine their fate, but in which they can’t possibly compete.
Two construction workers surveying a road in Burnsville gave voice to the sense of futility. One resides in a rural area, the other in a suburb. Neither mentioned which candidate they preferred. Both qualify as so-called populists yet lack trust in either party. Neither identified with citizen movements.
They noted today’s populist movements seem co-opted by often hidden heavy hitters. Or, conversely, are undermined by widespread fears people of marginalization, if not more serious consequences of guilt-by-association. Pondering solutions to their and others’ civic inertia, the men considered the possibilities of a very different kind of social movement.
Commitment to a cooperative government
This movement would not demand members identify with a specific political perspective. Its only demand would be a common sense of commitment to a cooperative, cross-partisan, co-productive government. Implied would be the demand that politicians themselves, not their PR handlers or party proxies, clearly demonstrate their democratic leadership abilities.
This would call for a “show, not tell” attitude that audaciously contrasts the creative iterations recent campaigns used in winning with rage-rhetoric or losing with touchy-feely talk strategies. And would require, instead, measurable evidence of leaders’ very specific and sustained involvement in and impacts on expedient and respectful solutions.
The carrot — or more aptly stick, incentive behind the movement’s message would be: “If you can’t play nice politics, don’t plan on surviving the next election.” Which, as evidence and history suggests, would otherwise likely engage partisan passions just enough to swing the populist pendulum back to reset again. This and other troubling evidence increasingly shows that short-term change is unlikely at best.
Get in the game — and support all citizens
The underlying point for liberals is if you don’t get into the game, you’ll be out. For conservatives, if you don’t support all citizens, get ready for an uprising.
Both parties need to remember relevancy requires relationships that embrace what Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” And “The People” are not only organized institutions and polarizing populist groups. The People, whether politicians like it or not, translates as “You and your political foe, too.”
This Team of Rivals strategy, embodied by Abraham Lincoln, remains the only viable solution to political paralysis. This is not to say leaders, civic or citizen groups must “feel the love.” Only that they must have authentic “let’s get real” talks that lead to “let’s get ‘er done together” work.
Were the United States a fledgling democracy such as Pakistan or Indonesia, one could expect a big political learning curve. But one of the few things bipartisan Americans want to believe is that we are the leaders of the free world — the early adapters of what by now we’d like to brag of as a mature democracy.
In truth, though, what few Americans argue is that our bipartisan behaviors call our developmental abilities into quite serious question.
If the measure of a mature democracy is founded, as ours was, on the ideal that “We the People,” are responsible for the posterity of our country, all citizens should be called to see and engage their personal power. All politicians should be called to engage their humility and service to act as co-leaders of mature and co-mutual progress. They should not act as caricatures displaying regressive dramas.
‘Art of the possible’
In the words of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey, this attitude would embody a very American-style “art of the possible.”
The good news is, despite so many citizens’ current sense of impotence, the undercurrents of our collective potential for equity and common cause have not been fully scrubbed from our society.
Each day real citizens overcome deep differences in critically important ways in support of each other and shared communities. It can seem impossible to conceive such cooperation in a cacophonous culture that so insidiously steals our attention away from each other, and, indeed, threatens our values and potential to do good.
And yet, it happens every day. But they won’t and can’t be publicized by media or political campaigns until we as citizens see it, name it and loudly tell it.
We can witness our abilities in action in the seemingly innocuous acts of cooperation we engage in conjunction people whose ideologies might differ from ours, but whose deeper intents are not. When we see the dignity of our own and others’ differences, and engage them in co-productive solutions in our communities, we are achieving civic progress.
This is not to say that when and if we do, we should self-righteously brag of better abilities than politicians.
A needed transition
It is to say that we, as real people — whether we are road surveyors or elected officials — can help lead our country in critical ways, by clearly and persistently proving through our cooperative actions the larger point of our country. To do so, we need to do as the two road surveyors did recently. Our conversations, as theirs, must transition from obsessions about our problems to a clear and shared focus on our potentials.
Though it might seem counterintuitive to both common knowledge and campaign strategies, imagine the possibilities: An authentically all-American spontaneous social movement that demands sustained, measurable evidence of politicians’ abilities to act up to their human potential to be real and act in ways that best represent a mature democracy.
We had a wonderful conclusion to our two-day institute in Washington, DC. On the second day, our campuses started mapping the next two years of their work. While being facilitated by two students from Middle Tennessee State University, each of the 18 campuses represented at the Institute presented their early action plans. I am both inspired and impressed by what their plans entail.
This work calls for a lot of community organizing – power mapping, one-to-ones, relationship building, etc. The university leaders that attended our meeting are among the most talented and dedicated people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They are passionate about making government by the people a reality. And they understand the paramount importance of working with students to make this happen. Finally, they believe deeply in the democratic purpose of higher education and see themselves as instrumental to realizing this purpose.
Over the next few months, I’ll feature stories of the early work of our campuses on the ADP blog as they agitate students to solve local problems with elected officials. The theme of our national conference in Orlando, June 2-4, 2011, will be animated by “We the People.” We’ve driven the ideas of “We the People” into the theme of the national meeting which is, “Beyond Voting: Citizenship in the New Era.” During the ADP Meeting we will explore what it means to be a citizen. In the conference programming, we will pay special attention to models for successful community-elected officials partnerships and the progress we’ve made in the first seven months of this new phase of our work.
I recorded Harry’s closing remarks and will share those in the next week or so after editing. Not quite sure what We the People is? Read this blog post. Not sure what Civic Agency is? Visit this website. And if you’d like to get involved in the movement,contact me!
Harry C. Boyte
Also published on the American Democracy Project blog
“Something is stirring,” Cecilia Orphan wrote on the ADP blog, Thursday night of the Civic Agency meeting held last week, November 11th and 12th, at the state college and university building in Washington DC. More than 60 people discussed their work over the last year and made plans for a “We the People” (WtheP) effort to change customer service government – government which mainly does things for the people — into government of the people and by the people. In the We the People vision, government is our meeting ground, partner and common instrument in addressing our problems and building a shared life. Teams from 18 colleges and universities joined with representatives of Rock the Vote, Sojourners, the White House Office of Social Innovation, community colleges, the American Library Association, National Issues Forums and Strengthening our Nation’s Democracy network, among others.
Among many important steps forward, I want to highlight three:
- Empowerment gap. A focus on the empowerment gap needs to replace the achievement gap. Rom Coles, Director of the Community, Culture and Environment Center, Miguel Vasquez, professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, and other colleagues described the remarkable organizing work in the area around Flagstaff on issues ranging from weatherization and sustainable environments, to immigrant rights, water, and youth empowerment through Public Achievement. Against a tide of fear-mongering politics, Vasquez won a seat on the Flagstaff board of education on the platform of “the empowerment gap.” His focus on the empowerment gap highlights that the deepest problem in our education is that young people – especially children and teens of low income, minority, and immigrant backgrounds – feel “acted upon,” not agents of their education. A We the People movement will have as a central emphasis closing “the empowerment gap,” empowering young people to take leadership in developing the kind of education they need to be shapers of their lives, agents of change, and co-creators of healthy communities and the democracy.
- Public knowledge: There were many examples of a deepening in what Nancy Kranich, former president of the American Library Association and head of its new Center for Public Life, called “public knowledge.” Public knowledge involves developing ways to continuously learn from our mistakes, our successes, and our ongoing work. I was struck especially by the innovations in Public Achievement in many settings – Georgia College, Northern Arizona, Central Connecticut, Lincoln, and elsewhere. Many other examples emerged as well — “Tuesday Teas” at Western Kentucky, which offer ways for the campus and community to exchange and discuss experiences every week; debriefings of student weatherization efforts in Flagstaff, which help students learn from their community experience, the efforts of students at Lincoln and Florida A&M University to develop new forms of community service which empower, instead of provide charity. As Gary Paul pointed out in his concluding remarks, learning from the gritty, real, everyday work of making change is the way people develop “political sobriety” and a “prophetic imagination.” These point beyond the givens, allow us to work with people who make us uncomfortable, and cultivate a long term perspective.
- A new public narrative: We the People is not something in the future – it is emerging all over the place, as our colleagues, students, staff, and faculty rework relations with elected officials and other decision making bodies to be partners in public work, not mainly providers of services. The outstanding example is at University of Maryland/Baltimore County, where Yasmin Karimian and her fellow students have fundamentally reworked student government (the SGA) into a center for activating the public work of students and creating a different, more collaborative and respectful relationship between students, faculty, and the administration. One of the highlights of the organizing conference for me was the interconnection between these local examples of public work and large scale change – a connection which Paul Markham at Western Kentucky argues will be the centerpiece of the emerging movement. In the session on “Creating a Citizen Demand for ‘We the People’ Democracy, with Norm Ornstein, one of the nation’s leading political analysts, and Marta Urquilla, senior policy analyst with the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, we pointed to UMBC student government as a model for governments at every level to learn from – a return to government of and by the people.
Overall, many agreed that the challenge of American revitalization depends upon developing a new public narrative in which all participate and help to craft. It will be full of argument and difference on issues ranging from immigrants to the nature and content of education for the 21st century and the meaning of “the good life,” in a culture in which many students feel we’ve gone too far toward consumerism and “the rat race” (as students told me recently about their parents’ generation, at Lone Star community college in Houston Texas). But it will also be full of rich local stories of citizens shifting from complainers, victims, consumers, and supplicants of government to “owners of the store,” makers of change, agents and architects of the democracy.
The Civic Agency/We the People working meeting in Washington convinced me, yet again, the state colleges and universities will provide crucial leadership.
Harry C. Boyte
Also published on the American Democracy Project blog.
The election results of 2010 are misread by commentators across the spectrum. On the right the Republican victories are described as a conservative backlash. On the left they are seen as the result of the administration’s failure to push aggressively enough in the direction of European-style social democracy in which government is the driver of
change. From the center, the problem is too many issues. Writing in the New York Times, former senator Evan Bayh of Indiana argues the Wednesday morning after the election that the Democrats’ mistake was not focusing single-mindedly on economic growth. Going forward, in his opinion, “every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?’
A more compelling explanation is that the civic and populist movement which elected Barack Obama in 2008, confounding conventional political labels, is yet to fully emerge.
Populism is caricatured in the media as a politics of grievance and anger. In this view, populism appears in flamboyant protests of the Tea Party or diatribes against government and other enemies on cable television and talk radio. But the genuine politics of populism is based on the view that while politicians and presidents play important roles, it takes ordinary citizens to “build America.”
This populism was central to the cooperatives of black and white small farmers of the late 19th century at the base of the Populist Party, the labor movements of the 1930s and the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. All challenged unaccountable elites while also emphasizing the responsibility of everyone for “promoting the general welfare” and creating “a more perfect union.” These movements included large programs of popular self-education and uplift out of the belief that a thriving democracy requires a public who rises to the occasion of citizenship.
Martin Luther King described to me his identification with such populism on a hot summer day in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, when I was working as a college student for his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I tell the story in my recent book The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference.
Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 reflected such populism. As Marshall Ganz, a key architect of the campaign’s grassroots organizing operation, reminds us this morning in the Los Angeles Times, the effort was animated by “values that had long been eclipsed in our public life: a sense of mutual responsibility, commitment to equality and belief in
inclusive diversity.” The campaign activated millions of ordinary citizens, most of whom had never been involved in formal politics, and taught many the basics of grassroots organizing. It also embodied a deep respect for the talents and intelligence of the people, reflected in Obama’s “The America We Love” speech, June 30, 2008: “The greatness
of this country, its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and
Ganz urges the administration to return to such values and reliance on ordinary people, and this is a good idea. But genuine populism is not called into being by any leader, no matter how eloquent. Its roots grow from local communities, as people learn to work across differences of race, income and ideology to address challenges of economic development education, the environment and other issues, and develop a larger sense of themselves as builders of the commonwealth in the process.
Next time around ordinary citizens, schooled in such experiences of public work across differences, will need to insist on a “We the People” populist politics. In such a politics government is neither the enemy nor the savior but our meeting ground and collective instrument.
State colleges and universities committed to becoming “stewards of place” and teaching the skills of civic agency can be seedbeds and anchors for a We the People politics, in the process contributing immensely to the revitalization of our democracy.