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Imagine a New Kind of Movement: Toward a Truly Mature Democracy

November 15, 2010
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom, founder and co-leader of Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue
As seen on the MinnPost

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.

It will only be realized, however, when we transcend our apathy — and when, in no uncertain terms, we compel our leaders to prove how they play nice, for posterity’s sake.


Greeting from Khartoum

October 19, 2010

Mohamed Bakri, a leading journalist in the Sudan from a highly respected
family in the Horn of Africa, has been a colleague and associate of the
Center for Democracy and Citizenship since taking Harry Boyte’s graduate
seminar on civic engagement in 2007. He is now in the Sudan, exploring
possibilities for translating concepts of civic agency and public work as
well as the youth civic education initiative Public Achievement to Sudanese
society and higher education. This is his report on meetings last week:

I had my first meeting with Professor Karrar Elabaddadi, the president of
Omdurman Ahlia University on the outskirts of Khartoum. The meeting was
also attended by Prof. Faisal Awad Ahmed, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the
university, Prof Sara Nugd Alla, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and the Director
of Mohamed Omer Bashier Center.

The university’s president and his staff are very keen in introducing a
civic agency/empowerment approach to civic engagement, such as that used by
the CDC and also the African democracy institute Idasa.

There may be possibilities to begin a Sudanese civic project as a program
under Mohamed Omer Bashier Center (the center named after the late Mohamed
Omer Bashier the university founder and one of the most respected Sudanese

In addition, as background to our discussions, colleagues at Ahlia
University have completed a survey of local neighborhood interests and
concerns in Elmorada. I met with Elmorada neighborhood’s citizens. It was
a lovely round circle about the neighborhood problems and needs as citizens
see it. They talked about the deterioration of the school system, and they
want to fix it.

Innovations in Public Achievement

October 8, 2010

“Public Achievement is a way to make our dreams come true,” says D., a 7th grader at Fridley Middle School in suburban Minneapolis.

That’s lofty praise from someone who only learned about Public Achievement a few weeks ago. But it’s an early success of Fridley’s program that someone like D.—a survivor of the juvenile justice system and multiple school changes—believes that he not only has the right to dream but that school is a place where he can work to achieve his dreams.

Dennis Donovan, national organizer for Public Achievement, and coaches at Fridley Middle School.

Last month, with support from the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Fridley began a year-long pilot of Public Achievement in Project STAR, which serves kids facing challenges that have limited their academic and social development.  The 10 students in the program will be joined by 6 peer counselors—7th graders with special training and a commitment to improving the school’s social climate.

Over the next week or two, these fifth through eighth graders will be guided through a process in which they form small teams to work on two or three issues. Some of the issues they’re talking about include animal abuse, gang membership, bullying, and installation of solar panels on the school. Seventh-grader D. wants to create an alternative to the current juvenile justice system that will focus more on real strategies to help young people succeed.

The Fridley teams are being coached by students in Augsburg College’s special education and teacher licensure program.

“These students are just blossoming,” says faculty advisor Sue O’Connor. “I can see it in the kinds of questions they ask [when we debrief], their leadership and skill in working collaboratively to plan meetings, and the insights they bring to the classroom.”

Future special education teachers

O’Connor and her colleagues in the special education program learned Public Achievement concepts firsthand when they formed a group last spring to explore bringing Public Achievement into their curriculum. This year, half of the faculty group is working directly with the student coaches while the others are developing observation tools to evaluate the effects of Public Achievement on students in a special education population. They will also be evaluating the impact of Public Achievement on future teachers.

“[Public Achievement] is having an impact on us, too,” says O’Connor, citing examples of how she and other teaching faculty have become more intentional about stepping back and letting their students solve problems and make decisions.

Fridley special education teachers Michael Ricci and Alissa Blood are working closely with Augsburg faculty and students, and are providing support and continuity for their students between Public Achievement meetings.

“This project has a service-learning approach that will provide our students with the opportunity to explore their unique gifts and talents and to make meaningful contributions to our community,” says Ricci.  “They will learn what it takes to navigate the process behind such things as finding shelter for the homeless or installing solar panels to save money and to minimize negative effects on the environment. It’s a real-world testing ground for them.”

Work-(community)life balance

October 6, 2010

Polls say Americans want it all:  rewarding, well-paying jobs, healthy, stable and secure lives, modest material comforts, and adequate time for friends, family and community. But for many, the reality is quite different. At the upcoming symposium “Balanced Lives: Best Policies for the New Economy” Oct. 20-22 at the University of Iowa, experts from government, academia, business, and the community will explore ways to make life more rewarding in a sustainable way as we move forward in a changing economy.

At the Friday morning plenary session, Center for Democracy and Citizenship co-director Harry Boyte will give a presentation he’s calling Sobering Up: The New Citizen Politics and the Transformation of American Democracy.

Needed: democracy movement on scale with American civil rights movement

October 1, 2010

“When the question is the civic health of elections, the government, and the nation itself, and when the electoral process is threatening to spin out of control,” writes Harry Boyte in a follow-up to his earlier post, “we need a broad movement in which the whole citizenry works to redeem American democracy.”

Acknowledging the challenges, Boyte suggests that “college students in American Democracy Project schools can take key leadership, reminiscent of the roles students played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” What young people need in particular are clear pathways to engage in a sustained–rather than episodic–way.

Read Boyte’s full post on the American Democracy Project blog.