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Citizenship as Public Work
Harry C. Boyte
Harry Boyte is co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and is the co-chair of the Civic Practices Network Advisory Board. This paper was delivered at the PEGS Conference, February 11-12, 1995.
Two models of civic competence predominate in our time. In particular, there has emerged as both complement and challenge to the competencies suggested by the liberal understanding of politics a communitarian approach to politics, focused on deliberation and discussion.
In contrast to a liberal focus on redistributive justice as the end of politics, the deliberative democracy advanced especially by Jurgen Habermas and associated with a "communitarian" critique of liberalism stresses democracy as aimed at shared understandings or values. To "rights" they add "responsibilities." To "private opinion" they add "public judgment." To instrumental politics, they add the concept of a public world of value in itself, an arena for pursuing the "common good." All of these emphases suggest sets of competencies, enriching those of the liberal citizen.
Yet neither a liberal, rights-based view of the citizen nor a communitarian, deliberative view of citizenship and politics is sufficient. We need to bring back a third understanding of citizenship as effective, skilled, public-spirited work in solving our common problems. Questions of rights and responsibilities are important. But public work shifts the focus to a much richer understanding of civic agency: the capacities, powers, and skills that the citizen needs to acquire for she or he to become a serious and accountable actor and creator in public affairs.
The Deliberative Public Sphere
Jurgen Habermas is perhaps the leading theorist of a public world built upon mutual communication. Communicative theory for Habermas holds potential to "locate a gentle, but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason, a claim that must be recognized de facto whenever and wherever there is to be consensual action."
In the 1990s, Jurgen Habermas has many offspring. Calls for "deliberation" have proliferated. Deliberation appeared as a central theme at the 1994 convention of the American Political Science Association. Sheldon Hackney, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has undertaken a "National Conversation" aimed at recreating a public realm for public discussion aimed at common understanding across the sharp and bitter divides that separate Americans. And many creative and practical experiments in public deliberation have multiplied. These range from the American Health Decisions network of citizen forums in 19 states, dedicated to stimulating citizen deliberation about policy and value questions related to health care, to the several thousand National Issues Forums facilitated by the Kettering Foundation and the Public Agenda Foundation, which each year explore different perspectives on critical public issues. A range of media projects called "public" or "civic" journalism seek to bring citizens more directly into the conversation of democracy.
Deliberative citizenship challenges the thinner concepts stressed by conventional liberal theory and the practices of interest group and welfare state politics. For the liberal citizen or the liberal theorist, government and politics are largely concerned with protecting democratic rights (especially of minorities and the relatively powerless), and with distributing them fairly, along with goods and services.
A generation ago, a liberal democratic consensus seemed virtually unchallenged, at least among elite opinion leaders. As Louis Hartz put it in his classic 1955 statement, The Liberal Tradition in America, America "begins and ends" in liberal democratic individualism. "The master assumption of American political thought has [always] been atomistic social freedom." President Dwight Eisenhower's distinguished Commission on American Objectives summed up elite opinion with its "paramount goal of the United States...to guard the rights of the individual and to enlarge his opportunity."
In those years, liberal social critics, while celebrating the "end of ideology," worried that one consequence was a loss of public purpose. "The fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved," wrote Seymour Martin Lipset in 1960. Daniel Bell spoke about the "exhaustion of political ideas." Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., fretted that Americans seemed gripped by "torpor" and "weary and drained."
No longer. The sixties brought a far broader range of groups into politics. "Citizen participation" became a touchstone of many government programs. And a number of training centers, across the political spectrum, developed to spread out what had been the skills of essentially elite groups of lobbyists.
The skills of the liberal state today are regularly taught by grassroots activist organizations to many thousands of civic leadershow to lobby, make one's case, mobilize supporters, target adversaries, build coalitions and the like. Moreover, widespread technologies of mobilization have developed reflecting such an approach to politics. Direct mail fund solicitations and canvasses by door to door or telephone are striking examples.
The problem is that simply expanding the number of players in the political game has done little to change the nature of the game itself. We have an explosion of demands, strategies, and mobilizations aimed at winning resources and rights. We have also seen, simultaneously, the radical splintering of civic culture.
The ideal of a public life of deliberation has emerged in this context as the alternative to the incivility, rancor, and meanness that characterize public talk today. America resembles more a maelstrom of grievance and special claims than either the tranquil post-political world envisioned by liberals a generation ago or the world of participatory democracy, equality, and beloved community envisioned by sixties' visionaries. As Cornel West has put it,
confused citizens now oscillate between tragic resignation and vigorous attempts to hold at bay their feelings of impotence and powerlessness. Public life seems barren and vacuous. Even the very art of public conversationthe precious activity of communicating with fellow citizens in a spirit of mutual respect and civilityappears to fade amid the backdrop of name-calling and finger-pointing in flat sound bites. Calls for deliberation retrieve an understanding of citizenship that has been eclipsed. Deliberative theorists stress processes through which citizens come to understand values like public discussion, civility, and a commitment to the common good, and practice skills of listening, imagining, and judging, as well as presenting. In John Dewey's terms, a deliberative vision rests upon a notion of democracy as a "shared way of life." Here, such theorizing draws heavily from the work of Habermas and others who have traced the rise and fall of a deliberative public.
The strong connection among "deliberation," "opinion" and "politics" was illustrated in the shifts of meaning in late 18th century France. Thus, in 1765 the article on "Opinion" in the Encyclopedie defined the word in terms of the classically rationalist distinction between knowledge, which was based on science ("a full and entire light which reveals things clearly, shedding demonstrable certainty upon them") and opinion, which was seen as shifting and unreliable ("but a feeble and imperfect light which only reveals things by conjecture and leaves them always in uncertainty and doubt.")
By 1789, the "Opinion" entree had disappeared from the Enclyclopedie Methodique. Instead, under politics, "opinion" had become "public opinion." Moreover, its resonances had been radically transformed. "Public opinion," said Jacques Necker, former minister to Louis XVI, was "an invisible power that, without treasury, guard or army, gives its laws to the city, the court, and even the palaces of kings." Or as editor Jacques Peuchet elaborated in the same work, public opinion was the highest form of political knowledge, designating "the sum of all social knowledge...[the] judgments made by a nation on the matters submitted to its tribunal. Its influence is today the most powerful motive for praiseworthy actions."
Opinion in this sense was an integrative process. One's views were understood to become more multidimensional and fuller by engagement with perspectives of others and with insights and knowledge with which one had not previously been acquainted. Immanuel Kant captured this distinction in his contrast between the sensus privatusviews that are only formed through privatized or narrow experienceand the sensus communis, common or public sense. The former he also called "cyclopean thinking," based on the character from Greek mythology who had only one eye.
For Kant, it was entirely possible to be a learned cyclops: "A cyclops of mathematics, history, natural history, philology and languages." But without the "enlarged thought," or public judgment, that comes from engagement with a diversity of other viewpoints and perspectives, the learned person fails to think "philosophically": in Kant's terms, as a member of a living human community. Kant argued that the most severe insanity was that defined by sensus privatus, those cut off from sensus communis, who had radically lost touch with public conversation.
Jurgen Habermas has traced in the emergence of this notion of public opinion the interplay between political aspirations and reformers' demands, on the one hand, and far-reaching transformations in the social and economic relationships of European society, on the other. Trends toward long-distance trade and commercialization undermined the household economy and created pressures toward a commodity market that reworked political relations and also created new "public knowledge" across communal and even national boundaries. A politicized and self-conscious language of public location, public action and public opinion was closely connected, moreover, to the development of a vibrant urban culture that formed a spatial environment for the public sphere: lecture halls, museums, public parks, theaters, meeting houses, opera houses, coffee shops and the like. Associated with such changes was an emergent infrastructure of new social information created through institutions like the press, publishing houses, lending libraries and literary societies.
The explosion of voluntary associations in the 18th and 19th centuries created a social setting in which a sense of a disparate, far-ranging but self-conscious "public" could take shape. Politicized associations of debate and discussion such as the new reading and literary societies and their associated institutional networks like the press, publishing houses, libraries, clubs and coffee houses were especially important. These formed a context in which older hierarchical principles of deference and ascribed social status gave way to public principles of "rational" discourse, and emergent professional and business groups could nourish and assert their claims to a more general social and political leadership. In such public spaces, patterns of communication emerged that were characterized by norms of inclusivity, the give and take of argument, and a relatively horizontal experience of power. Arguments were judged by their fit, by pragmatic considerations of anticipated consequences, by excellence of logic and so forth, not by the social status of the speaker.
By the late 18th century or the beginning of the 19th, depending on nation, a public sphere "was casting itself loose as a forum in which the private people, come together to form a public, readied themselves to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion. The publicum developed into the public, the subjectum into the reasoning subject, the receiver of regulations from above into the ruling authorities' adversary."
American educational and media institutions have their roots in similar processes that generated an understanding of public action as involving deliberation about political issues of the day and public spaces as forums for inclusive, open communicative exchange. Thus, newspapers commonly described their mission as creating informed public discussion of current issues. In the 19th Century, the expansion of public education was justified as essential to a well-informed citizenry. Similarly, public libraries were explained as "arsenals of democracy."
By the last decades of the nineteenth century, Habermas argues, the public sphere had begun to atrophy radically. The replacement of a competitive economy with a monopolized economy dominated by large industrial and financial interests undermined the power and authority of the commercial and professional middle classes. The state itself increasingly took on the role of social regulator of conflicts, and the public began to break apart into a myriad of special interests. Finally, most importantly, a narrowly technical and instrumental rationality replaced more interactive public dialogue. Technical rationality depends upon a prior assumption of what the "ends" entailhow problems are defined and what solutions are desirableand concerns itself with the most efficient means to accomplish the task.
Beyond historical treatments, Habermas has sought to create a normative ideal of procedural radicalism in the service of democratic political critique. After Transformation of the Public Sphere, his first major statement, Habermas's subsequent work has had the goal of sustaining some possibility of public deliberation in a world which undermines itsome enclave of "uncoercive interaction on the basis of communication free from domination" in theory and practice, alike.
His primary strategy has been to distinguish between types of rationality. For Habermas instrumental or practical reasonthinking directed to the solving of problemsis to be sharply differentiated from communicative reason directed to common understanding. Practical, "purposive-rational actions" are the province of the larger "system world" of big, impersonal institutions and bureaucracies. "Communicative actions" survivethough endangered by the colonizing of large institutionsin everyday experience, the "life worlds" of ordinary people and communities. The patterns of each are qualitatively different:
Purposive-rational actions can be regarded under two different aspectsthe empirical efficiency of technical means and the consistency of choice between suitable means. Actions and action systems can be rationalized in both respects. The rationality of means requires technically utilizable, empirical knowledge. The rationality of decisions requires the explication and inner consistency of values systems and decision maxims, as well as the correct derivation of acts of choice. In contrast, the "rationalization of communicative action" for Habermas involves the end of hierarchies of power:
Rationalization here means extirpating those relations of force that are inconspicuously set in the very structure of communication and that prevent conscious settlement of conflicts, and consensual regulation of conflicts by means of interpyschic as well as interpersonal communication. Rationalization means overcoming such systematically distorted communication... Habermas has sought to distill from the later dynamic an account of the preconditions for "ideal speech situations" implied by interactive conversation in order to sustain an aspiration for uncoerced and free communication.
Habermas's approach has generated many creative insights. Moreover, his concerns are echoed, in different accents, in the concerns and practices of those concerned with deliberative democracy in many settings. Yet there are also major limits in this version of the public sphere, often recognized by its advocates. As Cornel West puts it, "gallant efforts to reconstruct public-mindedness in a balkanized society of proliferating identities and constituencies seem far-fetched, if not futile." These flow from the separation of the vision of a deliberative public from questions of power, interest, and practical motive.
Critics of Habermas writing from a left wing perspective such as Nancy Fraser, Mary Ryan, and Geoff Eley focus on problems of power and interest. They argue that Habermas's construction of the public sphere is, simply, too "nice": it embodies a notably middle class bias. Historically, it fails to problematize the highly gendered and class-defined division between bourgeois public (the arena of middle-class males) and private (the household, where women "belong"). In fact, they argue, Habermas's public sphere took shape in part through the explicit exclusion of women and in opposition not only to traditional elites but to popular lower class groups. The understandings of "reason," "rationality," and "public good" associated with the processes Habermas describes were defined through a series of expulsions, as well as norms of inclusive discourse.
Thus, in this view a more dynamic historical understanding of public life comes from looking at it as a series of diverse publics rather than a singular "public sphere," publics created through a turbulent, provisional, and open-ended process of struggle, change, and challenge. Mary Ryan artfully depicts the decentered publics of street corner and outdoor societyfar removed from the reading rooms and clubs of polite society to make the point. Similarly, as she describes, political judgment and citizenship, far from abstract and universalist categories, are always infused with interests, power relationships, and points of view. Public judgment is not the search for "truth" or "consensus" in pursuit of the "public good" which Habermas and other deliberative theorists often advance as the aim of public discussion. In real life, judgments are dependent on context and perspective, and always suffused with power dynamics.
Yet in fact the context-dependent, provisional, open-ended quality of public involvement and public judgments is most especially dramatized by attention to another weakness in Habermas's account which his left wing critics share. All separate the process of public talk from recognition of ways in which citizens act directly to define and solve the problems of society. In making such separation, Habermas and his radical critics posit as a given the exclusion of ordinary citizens from the structures of governance. They also create a fateful division between different sorts of judgment-making, and in so doing still leave the understandings of civic competency needed by citizens sharply circumscribed.
For the Greeks, public judgment was conveyed by the concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. Practical wisdom involved the insight and practical theory accumulated through action around common issues in the space of public life. For Habermas, the public sphere in the modern world is different than that of the Greeks. "The theme of the modern (in contrast to the ancient) public sphere shifted from the properly political tasks of a citizenry acting in common (i.e. administration of law as regards internal affairs and military survival as regards external affairs) to the more properly civic tasks of a society engaged in critical public debate."
A conceptual severance of debate from accountable civic action directly on problems corresponds to the explicit political experience in modern republics, where representatives make formal decisions about public affairs and political authority is delegated, not practiced directly by the citizenry as a whole. Yet Habermas and left wing theorists, taking the formal structures of society too literally, render most citizens as either judicious spectators (in deliberative roles) or as outsider protesters and lobbyists petitioning and pressuring for justice (in liberal and left political terms). Such arguments rest upon a static theory of power, ignoring the interplay between large systems and everyday life, collapsing the lumpy, interactive quality of power dynamics even in situations of sharp inequality into granite-like relationships. In the real world, power relationships resemble more an ever changing dance than an already printed map.
A severance of formal systems from life worlds and communicative action purifies civic activity. It also collapses the "official" world of public policy into a realm of elites, officeholders, and technocrats who engage in only thin and narrowly instrumental action. In actual practice, political ideals of understanding and equality, when effectively pursued, are always combined with other objectives. "Purposive" and "communicative" aims exist in complex combinations.
The very division between life world and system world, purposive and communicative action, as obvious and natural as it first appears, obscures the actual living agency of ordinary people along the borders between the everyday and the systemic. Power never operates simply in a monochromatic, uni-directional fashion but always is an ensemble of relationships.
Moreover, what gets lost in either a narrowly distributive politics or a politics of deliberation aimed at understanding and consensus is the moral ambiguity and open-ended, provisional quality involved in the pragmatic tasks of the public world. In most political settings the search is not for "truth" or final vindication; rather, there are many truths, reflecting the multiplicity of experiences and stories that bring diverse groups into politics. The challenge is finding appropriateness, fit, agreement, adjudication and provisional resolution of pressing concerns. In a problem-solving public, there are few saints or sinners but rather an interplay among a variety of interests, values, and ways of looking at experience. Knowledge is not simply divided between technical rationality on the one side or the search for understanding on the other. In a public sphere of actors as well as talkers or protesters, no one is simply a victim nor an innocent. Power is not simply one-directional. Questions of justice are always present, but however they appear, everyone bears some responsibility for the solutions to the problems pragmatically identified.
Thus deliberative democracy, welcome as it is, is not enough. Alone, it all too easily takes on a hortatory, idealized quality that separates out an abstract "public sphere" of communicative consensus from real world politics built upon negotiation, bargaining, messy compromise and also creative work to what was once termed, in American history, the commonwealth. To bring back a fuller account of public life it is useful to recall a third version of citizenship, aimed at developing the capacities of citizens for public work.
The History of Practical Citizenship An understanding of public life as common work was the peculiar genius of America's political culture that emerged from the revolutionary period. As new scholarship has begun to emphasize, the distinctive feature of the American Revolution was neither a Lockean focus on rights nor a classical republican concern with civic virtue. Rather, America's revolution produced a political culture that was practical, down-to-earth, work- centered, and energetic. As Gordon Wood put it in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, "when [classical ideals of disinterested civic virtue] proved too idealistic and visionary, [Americans] found new democratic adhesives in the actual behavior of plain ordinary people."
For America's founders, education was aimed at practical citizenship, focused on the development of people's capacities for work together through civic problem-solving. Such education was seen as the foundation for democracy. Thomas Jefferson expressed this understanding of the importance of practical, civic capacity- building clearly when he argued:
I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. Education for citizenship entailed especially practical, generalist training. Thus, Benjamin Franklin argued that any man might have to do anything in an open, fluid society; the point of his model school, the Philadelphia Academy, was to train male children to deal with unanticipated situations. It was to be a school out of which boys "will come...fitted for learning any Business, Calling, or Profession."
For Jefferson and even the "utilitarian" Franklin, practical motives and problem-solving activities always combined with larger civic concerns. Such a combination of practical and civic aims infused the explosion of voluntary associations which characterized American public life in the 19th century, and it reflected the language and experience of many immigrant groups, concerned simultaneously about gritty, immediate concerns and a longer term care for the "commons," or commonwealth.
It is a commonplace of recent historical scholarship to observe that citizen-centered ideas of politics and public affairs came under assault in the world of large institutions and transcontinental communications of the 20th century, perhaps most poignantly at the hands of Progressives who sought to displace local civic problem-solving with the "Great Community" of government. Yet historians who take such rhetoric at face value have also neglected a more complex side to 20th century history.
Much thicker, more active understandings of politics continued to flourish even until a generation or so ago in what might be best called mediating political institutions: political parties, ethnic groups, local business organizations, active unions, neighborhood schools, settlement houses, publicly minded churches or synagogues, and local press. Though he neglects the theoretical implications of his historical argument, Michael Kazin in his recent work, The Populist Persuasion, vividly demonstrates that broad democratic movements in America strongly drew on what might be called "civic producerist" themes through the 1940s. Notions of citizen as a productive, creative actor give a robust, public flavor to a variety of New Deal programs and more broadly to New Deal politics.
Mediating institutions had local, community dimensions. They also connected people's everyday lives to larger arenas of public action and policy.
None of this should be romanticized; it often had strong personal and parochial dimensions. Civic organizations were frequently freighted with racial, cultural, ethnic and other exclusions. Yet for all their limitations, voluntary groups and political institutions like the urban party machines created an everyday public scaffolding for politics, a kind of civic capital, that the nation could draw upon in times of challenge and crisis. Citizens learned practical arts of public life like negotiation, accountability, granting of public recognition, exercise of power and authority from a continuing practice of community action in voluntary and informal community institutions. The public world, either formally construed as politics or informally experienced as the civic sphere, was not seen as radically separated from everyday life.
Recent historiography has been strikingly inattentive to the civic dimensions of voluntary and public institutions in the 20th centuryitself an important symptom of the impoverished state of current academic theorizing about power and politics. In fact, until at least the Second World War, even seemingly "apolitical" civic groups like the YMCA had vibrant public activities. For instance, in the 1930s the Y had a major division of public affairs, sponsored both a magazine and newsletter on civic education, and conducted hundreds of public forums and public projects across the country aimed at cultivating civic skills and values. "Should the YMCA place citizenship education as the center of all its work?," asked the 47th Conference of the Association of Secretaries of the YMCA of North America, held in 1939. The answer of the delegates was, in the main, a resounding "yes."
The mobilizations of the war and the suburbanization of America in the 1950s created a different ideal, far more consumerist and privatized. Citizenship became rendered as the oxymoron, "private citizen." Yet even in the midst of the 1950s a richer practical civic sense returned with the civil rights movement of the deep south. The civil rights movement's "freedom" language conveyed both a liberal, rights-focused approach and also for a time retrieved the richer understanding of practical citizenship. Freedom suggested the freedom to participate as full, independent and powerful citizens in public affairs on an ongoing basis. Precisely this public participationin the movement's rallies, sit-ins, demonstrations, voter registration drives, Citizenship schools, and practical, day-to-day practices of community problem-solvinggenerated the movement spirit, despite violent opposition and situations of great danger. Freedom language entailed a new sense of "citizenship," through which people came to experience themselves as participators in governance.
Despite the technocratic, therapeutic, moralized temper of our age, a sense of citizenship that combines the practical work of problem solving with a larger civic vision, an understanding of the citizen as producer of our larger commonwealth, has renewed relevance.
Today the inability of a narrowly specialized expert approach to solve virtually any serious public problem has increasingly become apparent. Moreover, the richest accounts of professional practice in the "system world" which Habermas writes off as irredeemable suggest a much more complex reality than simply means-focused technical rationality. For example, Donald Shon's studies of creative professional craft indicate that professionals who do their work well learn an attentiveness to context, learn to interact with others, and learn a open-ended fluidity about how to define what problems are and how to address them. As Shon puts it technical rationality leaves out "problem setting"; it mistakenly "leads us to think of intelligent practice as an application of knowledge to instrumental decisions." Creative practice is in most instances a highly contextual art: "the know-how is in the action." The practitioner "does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation." What these forms of work lack is a larger public and civic vocabularyand understanding that a singular vocabulary of technical rationality not only constricts creativity of work; it also neglects the broader purposes, meaning, and value of work, paid or unpaid, through which we collectively determine the shape of our world.
Citizenship As Public Work The language of deliberation and community is not sufficient to move beyond fragmented purposes and rights-based political activism. Differences in moral perspectives cannot be understood simply in terms of the success or failure of communal institutions in inculcating virtue. Often dramatic power dynamics are involved: "moral conversation" or a "search for understanding" is usually neither appropriate nor effective for relationship- building between an inner city youth and a suburban businessman. Moreover, cultural traditions and particular histories often generate crucially different perspectives on issues like affirmative action, gay rights, prayer or sex education in schools or abortion, even among groups with roughly similar status and power.
Whichever dynamic produces different views, citizenship understood as public work among groups with widely differing interests and values offers different resources for democratizing power and for integrating public relations. Simone Weil captured this well in her work, Oppression and Liberty. "A...free life would be one wherein all real difficulties presented themselves as kinds of problems, wherein all successes were as solutions carried into action," wrote Weil. She argued that problem-solving, involving both reflective thought and action, entailed practical work relationships that could disrupt hierarchies of power and status which otherwise operate largely unquestioned:
[In a 'free' society] social relations would be directly modeled upon the organization of labour; men would group themselves in small working collectivities...it is a fine sight to see a handful of workmen in the building trade, checked by some difficulty, [who] ponder the problem each for himself, make various suggestions for dealing with it, and then apply unanimously the method conceived by one, who may or may not have any official authority...at such moments, the image of a free community appears..." Public work in this vein is crucial today. The problem in America is often not so much the lack of moral speech or deliberation as it is contending moralities. Blacks in South Chicago and white ethnics in Cicero, for instance, likely have different views of racial justice, based on different experiences. Seeking moral consensus is liable to deepen the divide, without any way to bridge it.
The politics of work on common problems always has a normative dimension: it raises the question of "what should we do?" Moreover, at moments issues can become occasions for moral crusades around a singular moral ideal that reshapes the social and political landscape. This was the case with the movement for black civil rights in the 1960s, for instance, and with modern feminism's assertion of women's entitlement to equal public roles.
Yet politics does not simply revolve around questions of justice or understanding. And few causes lend themselves to the dramatic, wide agreement about moral clarity that civil rights or women's participation in public life were once able to achieve.
Politics is different than ethics. For good reason, Aristotle wrote different books on the topics. Public life has strong pragmatic, problem-solving dimensions that bring together people with very different conceptions of what is just and right. On most pressing issues public values are not given apriori, nor can they be called up from invocation of widely shared normative ideals. Rather, meaning and value are constantly reworked and recreated, or created new, in the process of the work itself. Such a dynamic is as common in public affairs broadly as it is in the particular workplace site or organization. In our immensely diverse, variegated culture, only through the ongoing, multi- dimensional work of people with different interests and perspectives who address common problems can we rebuild a sense of "commonwealth" practice and vision that has a broad and deep appeal and resonance.
Resources for practical citizenship have appeared in recent years on a wide scale especially in community organizations. Thus, for instance, the lesson of much community organizing over the last two decades is that when groups with different views on issues like affirmative action, gay rights, or abortion find ways to work together on problems like housing or teen pregnancy, the experience improves relationships and lessens moral polarization.
Since the 1970s the most effective community organizing networks have enriched practical citizenship through an expanded repertoire of civic concepts. Most important is the concept of the public world, that carries resonances of positive freedom and civic work. The public world is a diverse, heterogeneous, challenging arena in which citizens learn to engage and work with others whom they may not like at all like and with whom they may have sharp disagreements. In the process, citizens also develop the skills and knowledge seriously to address public issues, to become "co-creators of history."
Central to public work is the development of civic capacity. The best community groups call themselves "universities for public life, where people learn the arts of public discourse and public action," in the language of Ernesto Cortes, one of the chief architects of this approach. Ed Chambers, director of Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network describes the shift toward political education as the major development in the network's fifty year history. "We began to see every action as an opportunity for education and training," said Maribeth Larkin, an organizer with the IAF group, United Neighborhoods Organization, in Los Angeles.
The challenge in renewing public life is to translate experiences and political language of community groups to the larger "system worlds" which have become largely denuded of civic language and practices. This means the conceptual articulation and adaptation of a practical citizen-centered politics and public work into a general framework.
Such a framework entails cultivating the political skills and capacities that allow peopleboth "professionals" and "clients"to work productively with others, whether or not they like or agree with each other in a fluid ways, where roles often change and identities are broad and multidimensional. It also means framing problem solving in a language of citizenship that draws attention to the larger significance of local and community efforts.
Since 1989, the field work of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, based at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, has experimented with such translation in a variety of service environments, ranging from Cooperative Extension to hospitals, schools, a large nursing home, a Catholic woman's college, and local governments. In 1993 and 1994, working with the Whitman Center at Rutgers and others, the Center undertook a "New Citizenship" effort, aimed at analyzing best practices of civic renewal in America and launching a larger conversation about citizenship.
There are many experiences of citizen politics on which to build. The challenge is to move from rich but separated stories into compelling common narrative of citizenship understood as public work. We need a renewal of civic confidence tied to the cultivation of civic competencies for action on our common problems. Only through work togethernot simply deliberationwill we be able to rebuild our common world.
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