Awakening Democracy through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment

Awakening Democracy through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment

by Harry C. Boyte

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In the face of authoritarian, divisive trends and multiplying crises, when politics-as-usual is stymied, Awakening Democracy through Public Work shows it is possible to build foundations for a democratic awakening grounded in deep American traditions of a citizen-centered commonwealth.

Awakening Democracy through Public Work begins with the story of Public Achievement, a youth civic education and empowerment initiative with roots in the civil rights movement. It describes Public Achievement's first home in St. Bernard's, a low-income Catholic elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota, and how the program spread across the country and then abroad, giving birth to the larger concept of public work.

In Public Achievement, young people practice "citizen politics" as they tackle issues ranging from bullying, racism, and sexual harassment to playground improvements, curriculum changes, and better school lunches. They develop everyday political skills for working across differences and making constructive change. Such citizen politics, more like jazz than a set piece of music, involves the interplay and negotiation of diverse interests and views, sometimes contentious, sometimes harmonious. Public Achievement highlights young people's roles as co-creators—builders of schools, communities, and democratic society. They are not citizens in waiting, but active citizens who do public work.

Awakening Democracy through Public Work also describes how public work can find expression in many kinds of work, from education and health to business and government. It is relevant across the sweep of society. People have experimented with the idea of public work in hundreds of settings in thirty countries, from Northern Ireland and Poland to Ghana and Japan. In Burundi it birthed a national initiative to rework relations between villagers and police. In South Africa it helped people in poor communities to see themselves as problem solvers rather than simply consumers of government services.

In the US, at Denison University, public work is being integrated into dorm life. At Maxfield School in St. Paul, it is transforming special education. In rural Missouri, it led to the "emPowerU" initiative of the Heartland Foundation, encouraging thousands of young people to stay in the region. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, it generated "Clear Vision," a program providing government support for citizen-led community improvements. Public work has expanded into the idea of "citizen professionals" working with other citizens, not on them or for them. It has also generated the idea of "civic science," in which scientists see themselves as citizens and science as a resource for civic empowerment.

Awakening Democracy through Public Work shows that we can free the productive powers of people to work across lines and differences to build a better society and create grounded hope for the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826522184
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Harry C. Boyte is Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg University and author of ten previous books. As a young man he worked as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King's organization, in the civil rights movement.

Read an Excerpt


Reinventing Citizen Politics

Harry C. Boyte

Public Achievement and Dr. King are alike because we both made a difference in the world peacefully. We both look at the problems and solve them instead of blaming people.

— Matt Anderson, fourth-grade student at Saint Bernard's

A Tale of Two Playgrounds

A Playground Built

The iconic story of Public Achievement is the tale of how teams of children at Saint Bernard's Grade School in Saint Paul worked for five years to build a playground, turning around neighborhood sentiment about the project and gathering support from city officials. The playground story contrasts with the frustrated aspirations of teenagers who wanted to build a playground in Brooklyn, New York. The differences illustrate how citizen politics contrasts with most citizen activism.

In the late fall of 1998, just as snow began to fall, the lot donated by Saint Bernard's Catholic Parish to children to build a playground filled early one morning. Children, teachers, and neighbors joined with college students and a few faculty from the University of Minnesota to assemble a playground. Some adults helped children put together swing sets. Others dug sand pits. Church women served refreshments. At the end of the day, all dedicated the playground with a plaque etched with drawings of cat feet: "PAWS: Public Achievement Works."

The incoming governor, Jesse Ventura, visited the new playground on February 26 and in his State of the State address the next week recognized five team members with the Governor's Award for a Better Minnesota for "reforming Minnesota every day through their good works." Joe Lynch, an eighth grader at Saint Bernard's who accepted the award for the group, was portrayed in Ventura's flamboyant style as a "citizen hero prevailing against all odds."

In Public Achievement, teams of young people — generally ranging from elementary through high school students, sometimes in recent years including college students — work over the school year on issues they choose. Their issues must be legal, tackled nonviolently, and make a public contribution. Saint Bernard's set the pattern often used for choosing issues. They began at the start of the school year with an "issues convention." Students discussed problems in the school, the neighborhood, and the larger world, then voted to determine their priorities and arrive at a workable number of groups. Coaches came from Jim Farr's political science class, "Citizen Education," at the University of Minnesota. Earlier teams at Saint Bernard's had chosen issues such as reviving a parish carnival called Springfest, developing a curriculum to address and prevent sexual harassment, changing school uniform policy, and responding to the problem of gangs and violence in the neighborhood. In 1993 one team chose to work on the playground issue.

Children and adults alike had long been concerned about the lack of a playground. Students at Saint Bernard's spent recesses in a parking lot. "I saw a lot of kids get hurt," Lynch explained to a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I saw a girl get a concussion. It was pretty boring too. We played kick ball but usually the ball went into the neighbor's yard."

Parents had tried to build a playground a couple of years earlier but backed down when neighbors voiced opposition, fearing it would be a magnet for vandalism and gangs. The children took on the work themselves. "By the second year I knew it would happen," Lynch remembered.

How it happened is the most important part of the story, about empowering civic skills and habits learned through practice. Years later, Joey's younger sister Alaina, who also worked on the playground, remembered the overall lesson. "It was a 'no-brainer' to have a playground for kids instead of an old lot, but that didn't mean that making it happen was straightforward," Alaina explained. She learned about city politics. "Public Achievement opened my eyes to the processes of government — petitions, connecting with the city council, commenting, obtaining permits. [These were] not things I would have thought about as a ten- or eleven-year-old otherwise." She also learned about neighborhood politics. "I learned there are multiple sides to every idea. Even something that seemed straightforward to me could have negative ramifications from another point of view." For her, the gang issue was "not a huge concern. The neighborhood gangs would hang out in the empty lot." But others saw it differently. "We had to demonstrate that we had a plan for mitigating any risk — a fence, with the playground closed after certain hours." She learned about different perspectives and also "about compromise."

The teams got the parish council on their side. They negotiated zoning changes with city officials. They raised more than $60,000 from local businesses in the North End Business Association and other groups. To accomplish these tasks, the children learned how to interview people, write letters, give speeches, and call people they didn't know on the phone. They worked to understand the views of adults they originally thought were opponents. They mapped power, did research, and negotiated. Throughout, they had a sense that their efforts were public work, suggested in the name young people chose for the park: Public Achievement Works. They also learned political concepts — power, interests, and politics itself. "For most of my life, I've wanted to get involved with politics," said Jeremy Carr, a pioneer of Public Achievement. "When [Public Achievement] came around and I found I could do the stuff I wanted to change — and got adults to treat me seriously — I got excited." This also was the opportunity the principal, Dennis Donovan, was looking for. "We wanted kids doing citizenship-type things," he said. "More than just reading to other little kids."

The framework in Public Achievement stresses a different kind of politics, co-creative politics that revolves around diverse citizens' needs, interests, and capacities, and that teaches the skills and habits of working with people who differ from one another. Issues chosen in Public Achievement sometimes have to do with injustices, such as landmines, child labor, or the rights of LGBT young people. Sometimes they address concrete problems such as broken toilet stalls in bathrooms. Many issues concern changing school and community culture, such as bullying and cyberbullying, disrespect for people with disabilities, sexual harassment, vandalism, racial prejudice, or the image of young people in the mass media. Sometimes young people create public goods and artifacts such as a song, a play, a school curriculum — or a playground. In Public Achievement, young people are conceived as co-creators, citizens today, not simply citizens-in-waiting. They help to build democracy in their schools, neighborhoods, and society.

A number of evaluations have found that young people, college coaches, and sometimes teachers and community members develop political skills and civic identity in Public Achievement: chairing meetings, interviewing, deliberating, negotiating interests, speaking publicly, writing, holding each other accountable, doing research on issues, and evaluating their own efforts, to mention a few. Jim Farr, the political scientist who began bringing his UMN class to Saint Bernard's to coach each week, saw significant learning opportunities for his own college students. "The only way to really think about citizen education is to practice it," he explained. "If you have a civic and pedagogical mission at the University, as I do, you want to get your students out of the classroom into the broader classroom of public life, to let them engage in public work, and to help educate younger citizens [in] identifying and solving their own problems." He could see his own students learning civic and political skills and habits as they served as coaches.

In 1999, Angela Matthews, a young adult leader of Public Achievement from Northern Ireland, spoke to a Twin Cities Public Achievement conference that included young people from third grade through college. She asked, "How many of you like politics?" Most raised their hands. Then she made her point: "It's because we're doing politics; it's not simply something politicians do."

Students in Public Achievement also learn that citizenship is active. "Citizenship means taking action, not sitting back and watching," said Chou Vang, a six grader. They learn it is about power, not dominating "power over" but "power to," what we call agency, the capacity to act intentionally to shape the world around oneself. "Civic" agency adds a cooperative, collective dimension. "I got a lot of empowerment from Public Achievement," said Tamisha Anderson twenty years later. Tamisha, an African American student at Saint Bernard's, worked on the playground and on a team trying to change clothing rules in the school. "We didn't get white shoes, but we got the uniforms changed. It was empowering to know that your voice matters regardless of what color or size or age you are." The lessons stayed with her. "I use [the example of ] 'the little train that could' to this day with kids I talk to. I push them to stay involved even though they get knocked down."

Zach Baumann, who is of German American background, worked for several years on the playground. "We had neighborhood meetings. We worked with the city to get the zoning changed and interacted with local business leaders to try to get some money. We met with the county commissioners." Zach said he learned to be accountable, which he saw as "a huge deal for people that age. You were letting down your team if you dropped the ball. We knew we had to rely on each other to get things done." He also learned to work across differences. "Civic involvement has a stereotypically liberal quality in a lot of the media, but it's about conservative values, taking responsibility for what's going on, contributing how you can to improve your world, not about asking somebody to do something for you." He worked with both liberal and conservative kids. "I didn't care what someone else's thoughts on immigration were. We were trying to get the playground. That's one of the biggest things Public Achievement can bring, the ability to put aside your differences for a common goal. In fact, you don't have to like the person to work with them. Standing up and walking out of the room isn't going to accomplish anything."

Both Tamisha and Zach recall how Public Achievement filled the school with energy. "It was so great to see all these kids want to learn something, want to change something, want to add something, want to remove something," Tamisha remembered. "We would race to Public Achievement and get down to business." Zach said, "We felt we were doing something important that had a lot of support." The importance of the work animated their lives. "It led to a lot more engagement with the school because we felt we could say if we thought something was wrong or should be different. I don't think there is any section of my life it didn't reach one way or another."

Speaking today as an adult, Zach believes that what he learned in Public Achievement is crucial for the country. "The principles of Public Achievement, the abilities that it teaches and the agency that it gives, are the last vestige of the foundation of America. So much of our political environment is so divisive. People have lost a sense that they have a voice, that what they say matters."

Alaina Lynch brought the skills and habits she learned in Public Achievement to her work on the staff of Congresswoman Betty McCollum from Saint Paul. "I saw the lessons repeated over and over again — doing your homework, building your case, connecting with like-minded people, considering others' perspectives, and making compromises, from local projects to national legislation. The people who get things done, whose ideas move forward, are the ones willing to put in the time and effort to collaborate with people at all levels, rather than considering them to be an obstacle." She, like Zach, feels such knowledge and skills are largely absent today. "These are very basic concepts, but I was surprised as a Congressional staffer how many people hurt their own causes by not checking these simple boxes — not having local support, or data to back up an idea, not considering multiple perspectives, not being willing to compromise. I was lucky to have exposure to these concepts at a young age through Public Achievement."

The loss of political skills, habits, and civic concepts is a problem not only for individuals but also for society. It has been exacerbated by the loss of institutional and community settings where people develop such capacities and learn to respect others who are different from themselves. This loss of civic muscle has been accompanied by the narrowing of government's role to government "for the people," delivering services and benefits, not "of the people, by the people." Government is rarely seen as civic partner.

A Playground Lost

Young people's typical experiences with citizen activism differ markedly from the story of Saint Bernard's. A second playground story illustrates this.

Daniel May worked for the New York affiliate of ACORN, a nationwide activist citizen organization, after graduating from college. Growing up in Minneapolis, the son of friends of mine, and committed to Jewish ideals of social justice, he heard many of my stories about the Saint Bernard's youth organizing. When a group of teens in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was working told him they wanted to get a playground, it was natural that he propose the project to the regional director of ACORN. She was skeptical. "What does a playground have to do with power?" she asked. She believed energy should go into mobilizing citizens for progressive causes and raising consciousness about corporate and right-wing enemies. Her conclusion was that Daniel could work with the teenagers on the issue only under certain conditions. He had to be able to "cut" the issue in a progressive way, which is organizing language for identifying a clear enemy. He had to figure out how it could be used to organize a protest.

This approach did not make much sense to Daniel. It wasn't likely to get a playground, even if they could figure out who the enemy was. Through the summer ACORN became active in the mayor's election. The playground issue was dropped. Daniel felt relief as "organizing" came to mean voter mobilization. "Our organizing clay suddenly makes sense when poured into this mold," he said. "Some camaraderie is really beginning to creep into walls that seemed to house folks who talked about quitting over cigarettes nearly every day. Campaigning is all about numbers, mobilizing the base and turning out the regulars. We don't even pretend to develop leaders or build anything sustainable."

This episode is a case study of young people's common experiences with what is called "politics." Over the last generation, many activist citizen groups have emerged that purport to be educating citizens generally and young people specifically for political life, increasing citizen participation and empowerment, and creating responsive government. But their approach is like ACORN's. They often use the language of organizing. But what they mean is "mobilizing."

Today's mobilizing developed in stages and has accelerated with the digital revolution. In 1974 Citizens for a Better Environment invented the modern canvass powered by a formula. The canvass involves paid staff going door-to-door on an issue, raising money and collecting signatures. The formula that makes it work identifies the enemy and defines the issue in radically reductionist, good-versus-evil terms, a Manichean politics. Manichean approaches make mass activation efficient because hatred and its close cousin anger are relatively uncomplicated emotions to manipulate. "We've discovered how to sell progressive politics door-to-door, like selling encyclopedias," was the boast of the canvass creators. Canvassers are generally barred from having discussions with those at the door that might complicate the issue at hand.

For years I defended the canvass, coauthoring Citizen Action and the New American Populism with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training center that was the hub for spreading the method. I remember well the urgency we felt in the 1970s faced with massive mobilization by large corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax, and other legislation from the 1960s. We saw ourselves as political realists in contrast to what we saw as the romanticism and hyperbolic rhetoric of the student movements of the late 1960s. My first book, The Backyard Revolution: Understanding the New Citizen Movement, began as a description of the corporate mobilization and what could be done about it. We saw the canvass as a way to fight back through large-scale citizen activation. The canvass produced successes on environmental, consumer, and other issues even during the Reagan presidency. We estimated that the canvass reached twelve million households a year in the mid-1980s.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction: A Movement for Civic Repair, 1,
1 Reinventing Citizen Politics, 13,
2 Education as a Civic Question with Isak Tranvik, 27,
3 Public Work in Context, 38,
4 Building Worlds, Transforming Lives, Making History, 53,
5 Public Work Abroad with Tami L. Moore and Marie-Louise Ström, 79,
6 The Power of Big Ideas with Marie-Louise Ström, 105,
7 Tackling the Empowerment Gap with Susan O'Connor and Donna R. Patterson, 122,
8 Artisans of the Common Good, 139,
9 A Democratic Awakening, 157,
Notes, 181,
Index, 201,

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