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Contemporary Theory

Meanings of Citizenship
Building America:The Democratic Process

Harry C. Boyte & Nancy N. Kari

Excerpt from Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by Temple University Press.

"In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government."

Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, explaining the nonviolent purpose of the March on Washington, 1963 [1]


Americans in the mid-199Os are angry and disgusted at politicians. People also give abundant evidence of deep worry about the country's basic directions.

Yet simple anger at politicians lets us off the hook. As a pundit once put it, we get the government we deserve. In our time, politics and public affairs are seen as the work of politicians. Citizens' roles in public life are secondary: consumers, complaining clients, special interest advocates, or volunteers who "help out" but make few serious decisions. Unless we take citizenship seriously, few things are likely to change.

The irony of democracy is that its decline at home is paralleled by its emulation around the world. We face a mountain of challenges as a nation that politics is not adequately addressing. We have a crisis on our hands. But the proposed solutions address symptoms, not the root problem.

Conservatives argue for term limits on the grounds that politicians have forgotten their status as ordinary people. Groups like Common Cause propose campaign reform as a way to limit the role of large sums of money in politics. Others argue for change in the media coverage of elections, in order to address the dilemma that public relations gimmicks have replaced conversation among citizens in campaigns.

Each of these are efforts to fix the governmental machinery and make important suggestions. But our real crisis is the disengagement of ordinary people from productive involvement in public affairs.

The role of ordinary citizens in public life has been debated from the beginning of the Republic. For example, James Madison believed that public affairs ought to be the domain of politicians and government officials. In his Federalist Paper #10, Madison argued that deliberations of representatives,"a chosen body of citizens," are "more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves." He gave title to officeholders. This continues to be the standard, formal definition of public life.

Thomas Jefferson had a far different understanding of public life—one that was reflected in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, reserving all powers not specifically assigned to officials to the citizens themselves:

Where every man is . . . participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year but every day . . . he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonapart. [2]

Whatever Madison's hopes for an enlightened and virtuous political class that would wisely and independently represent the varying interests on behalf of the whole country, in fact Americans interacted constantly with government. Ordinary people worked vigorously on public problems in farms, workplaces, and local communities, in schools, religious congregations, voluntary organizations, and other settings not formally part of the political system. Through common work they gained a sense of their stake in government and their roles in public life. Such broad patterns of civic action contributed to the self-definition of government employees and officials themselves as citizens. These dynamics are reflected in Abraham Lincoln's famous formulation at Gettysburg: government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The loss of the idea that public affairs originates from the people means that we lose our stake in the nation. We become outsiders and tourists of the age. Further, a corruption of our deepest ideals occurs. At Gettysburg, Lincoln described democratic government as conceived in and dedicated to liberty. He saw, "the great and good work" of saving the Union as ushering in a new birth of freedom. [3]

Freedom for Lincoln was inextricably tied to work. It meant the right to be in control of one's own labor. Hence his abhorrence of slavery. Freedom also was the experience that citizens gained as they set about the work of self-governance. Thus, free labor, understood both individually and collectively, was the way people became citizens—accountable participants in building the country.

In place of government of the people and by the people, today we focus on government for the people whose primary responsibility is to provide services. From a nation of free citizens, we have become a nation of individualists and consumers for whom liberty means the right to be left alone and the right to choose among brands of toothpaste.

Many dynamics contribute to the erosion of public work by citizens, from mass communications and the emergence of the corporate economy to changing patterns of work. Our reliance on others to solve problems is directly related to the rise of scientific knowledge and credentialed expertise. Experts themselves have found their scope of initiative severely constricting. Our pervasive consumer culture is a potent force in shaping our identities as Americans. But perhaps least noted and most central is this: We have few visible examples of citizens engaged in serious public work that is named as such. We have even less discussion of what the lessons and implications of such efforts are for a complex, modern, technological society.

"Public work" is work by ordinary people that builds and sustains our basic public goods and resources—what used to be called "our commonwealth." It solves common problems and creates common things. It may be paid or voluntary. It may be done in communities. It may be done as part of one's regular job. In fact, adding public dimensions to work—recognizing the larger potential meaning and impact of what one does as a teacher or nurse, as a county extension agent or a computer programmer or a machinist or a college professor or anything else—often can turn an unsatisfying "job" into much more significant "work" The story of the two bricklayers who were asked what they were doing conveys this sense: One said, "building a wall" The other said, "building a cathedral."

In the fullest sense of the term, public work takes place not only with an eye to public consequences, it also is work "in public"—work that is visible, open to inspection, whose significance is widely recognized. And it is cooperative civic work of "a public—a mix of people whose interests, backgrounds, and resources may be quite different.

Public work focuses attention on a point that we have largely lost in our age of high technology: We help to build the world through our common effort. What we have built and created we can also recreate. Thus, public work suggests new possibilities for democracy.

Rebuilding the Walls

You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burned down. Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer. . .'Let us start!' they exclaimed. 'Let us build'; and with willing hands they set about the good work.

Nehemiah 2:17-18

The Old Testament Book of Nehemiah, a political and social reformer who led his people during exile, tells a story of public leadership and the work of a people. In late-twentieth-century America, Nehemiah has become a symbol for inner-city community efforts to rebuild neighborhoods once thought lost to urban decay.

East Brooklyn Churches (EBC) is a community organization affiliated with a national network of community groups called the Industrial Areas Foundation. The Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF, includes the largest community groups in the country, most often based in low income communities and organized around churches.

EBC had successes in the impoverished neighborhoods of the East Brooklyn area of New York. EBC members forced clean-ups in local food stores, pressured the city to install hundreds of street signs, renovated local parks, and worked to clean up vacant lots. Slowly through common work they forged a sense of solidarity and potency.

In the early 1980s, they took on a project to build houses on a scale that dwarfed any other low-income development effort in the country. EBC envisioned construction of 5,000 single-family, owner-occupied housing units designed for lower- to middle income buyers, to rise in the midst of the decimated and mostly black neighborhoods of East Brooklyn. The obstacles were tremendous. Drug dealers ruled the streets. Block after block had been bulldozed into rubble, like a vast war zone. Middle-income families had fled. Prior efforts at revitalization had failed. But they had confidence from earlier successes. "We are not a grassroots organization," thundered the Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood, a key leader in the organization."Grass roots are shallow roots. Grass roots are fragile roots. Our roots are deep roots. Our roots have fought for existence in the shattered glass of East New York." EBC turned to housing out of the conviction that only widespread home ownership could create the kind of "roots" essential for renewed community pride and freedom from fear. Teaming up with a well-known Daily News columnist and former developer, I. D. Robbins, they adopted his controversial argument that for half the cost of high-density, high-rise apartments, it would be possible to build large numbers of single family homes that could create stable neighborhoods.

They named their undertaking the "Nehemiah Homes," recalling the Old Testament leader who gained permission from the King of Persia in 446 B.C. to go back to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the walls of the city which had lain in ruins for one hundred years. "The story connected our work to something real, not something bogus," explained Mike Gecan, organizer for the East Brooklyn Churches. "It got it out of the "housing," field and the idea that you have to have a bureaucracy with 35 consultants to do anything. It made it a 'non-program': something more than housing." Or as one EBC leader, Celina Jamieson, emphasized, "We are more than a Nehemiah Plan. We are about the central development of dignity and self-respect." [4]

East Brooklyn community residents found in Nehemiah powerful parallels to their own situation. Rich with passion and politics, the story makes the point that even a divinely inspired leader has trouble in such work. Large-scale projects are messy, complex undertakings. In the biblical narrative, workers faced divisions, doubts, and jealousies. At the same time, however, their efforts generated pride and accomplishment partly through their very visibility. The people recovered their dignity in view of often envious neighbors:

When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the walls, he flew into a rage, beside himself with anger . . ."What are these pathetic Jews trying to do?. . . Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?" Tobiah the Ammonite was standing beside him. "Let them build," he said. "A jackal jumping on the wall will soon knock the stones down again." . . . [Yet the people] worked with all their hearts.

Nehemiah 3:33-38

The story illustrates the motivating power of a public arena which holds various groups accountable. Divisive factions were called to answer for their actions in front of the whole people. Thus, when Nehemiah heard complaints about unjust practices among the nobles who were making excessive profit from the poor, he called for a public assembly:

When I heard [the peoples'] complaints . . . I was very angry. . . . Summoning a great assembly to deal with them, I said to them "to the best of our power we have redeemed our brother Jews . . . and now you in turn are selling our brothers." . . . . They were silent and could find nothing to say. . . ."What you are doing . . . is wrong." They replied, "We will make restitution."

Nehemiah 5:6-12

The narrative combines a story of remarkable democratic leadership by Nehemiah himself, who rolled up his sleeves and got to work, with a covenant made by the people to work together to restore what had been lost. Many participated. Forty groups are named including merchants, priests, governors, nobles, members of the perfume and goldsmiths' guilds, and women. Builders faced discouragement, ridicule, even threats to their lives. They posted guards when warned of conspiracy. They prayed. The walls rose.

Like its biblical predecessors, East Brooklyn Churches involved many different tasks. People in the churches stuffed envelopes, organized community meetings on the building plans, negotiated with city officials and did many other things. What distinguished Nehemiah from "voluntarism" or"helping out" was not the specific tasks but the character of the effort as a whole: Nehemiah was about changing a whole community. To accomplish this required that people developed power and authority in new ways.

East Brooklyn Churches' Nehemiah Project faced many parallel obstacles. Although the group had commitments from an impressive array of churches and other financial backers, the project's success depended on city funding for a loan pool. When then-Mayor Edward Koch refused to meet with them, project leaders held a press conference that made public the mayor's indecision.

The community's efforts so far had been visible mainly to itself. But this press conference marked a significant transition in which the importance of larger recognition and a sense of public importance became vivid: The work of East Brooklyn Churches moved to a larger public stage that impacted the whole city of New York. That evening the local CBS affiliate showed film clips of the desolate area, while an announcer read from the Book of Nehemiah: "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace."

Viewers were outraged. The following day Mayor Koch, declaring himself the new Nehemiah, pledged his full support for the effort. He gave Nehemiah speeches for several months thereafter. At the groundbreaking of the first Nehemiah homes, thousands of Poles and Italians and other ethnics from Catholic parishes in Queens turned out to join an interfaith religious celebration demonstrating widespread support of the extraordinary community effort. Nearly 3,000 homes have been built to date.

Ultimately, the success of the Nehemiah Plan led to the only major national federal housing legislation during the Reagan years, which provides financial aid for inner-city owner-occupied homes.

Nehemiah seems at first glance the kind of inspiring story of voluntary community effort that we hear of now and then in the news—like those featured in a Newsweek cover story on"Everyday Heroes" at the end of May, 1995. "Individual efforts to reverse the tide often feel like a thousand points of light in a million pools of darkness," the story read. But it sought to convey hope through multiple examples of renewed civic spirit."People still care about each other more than we give them credit for," it continued."Charitable giving is down slightly, but the communal spirit is still strong. . . . Intergenerational volunteerism is growing rapidly. Businesses are pitching in as never before." The magazine cites examples of businesses that close for a day so that their employees can volunteer. Journalistic features like Newsweek's describe remarkable stories of voluntary effort. [5] But the problem is that they neglect the tie between citizenship and work.

Specifically, in the Nehemiah Project the success came not only from community volunteers who saw their work in public terms but also from professionals who worked differently than normal professional patterns, in broader, more interactive ways. The developer I. D. Robbins, housing experts, ministers, church officials, and, most dramatically, television journalists—all did public work.

Across the course of American history, citizenship as public work has changed people's sense of themselves and the larger political culture, alike.

Citizenship as Public Work

American citizenship in its most expansive sense is understood as public work: visible effort on common tasks of importance to the community or nation, involving many different people. This older view of citizenship is grounded in people's everyday work places and living environments. Public work is always subject to argument and interpretation. Public work makes things. It builds things. It creates social as well as material culture.

Our most common associations with the idea of public work are public "works," in which the focus is on the products themselves. Public works include water mains and roads, sewer systems and bridges, and other parts of the infrastructure. Cities have departments of public works. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal organized a Public Works Administration.

Public works also extend beyond function and usefulness. Public works can express the grandeur, the beauty, even the highest aspirations of a civilization. In the United States, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is a public work, as are the majestic figures carved from Mount Rushmore. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials grace the capital, conveying our democratic traditions. Though public works of cultural and social nature may seem more difficult to identify than roads and public buildings, they are nonetheless a vital part of our environment. Music, dance, and art, like other cultural practices, can be public works.

When the emphasis is simply on the product, then regardless how grand the creation or how noble the aspiration, democracy is not part of the equation. The work activity itself—those who do it and how it is done—remain hidden and in the background.

In fact, public work understood simply as products may convey the opposite of democracy. Public works can conjure up the image of oppressed and brutalized masses, like the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, or "coolie labor"—the abused Chinese workers who built the American railroads. The invisibility of work in those grand public creations highlights a painful contrast: Although the importance of the thing itself may be recognized on the largest public stage, those who create the thing may be rendered insignificant in comparison. "It's the not-recognition by other people," Mike Lefevre told Studs Terkel for his book, Working. "To say a woman is just a housewife is degrading. It's also degrading to say just a laborer. Somebody built the pyramids. Pyramids. Empire State Building—these things don't just happen. There's hard work behind it. [6]

When "public work" as a term first appeared in America, it had a broader range of associations than it does today. Public work was understood to create public goods, even if by private businesses and corporations, that were thus subject to public deliberation. Farmers, artisans, merchants, and others often saw their work in more public terms than is now common.

The rulings by Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1830 to 1860, were particularly important in this regard. Shaw, known for his "commonwealth" legal theory, which held that government was the agent of the people to be used for the good of the country as a whole, expanded the concept of"eminent domain" on the basis of public work. Eminent domain justified government action to appropriate private property or control aspects of its use (like environmental impact today) for the sake of a larger public good. In 1836 he argued that even though railroads were constructed at private expense, acts of the legislature intended to promote public improvements for the railroads were legitimate."The work is not less a public work; and the public accommodation is the ultimate object" Shaw's concept of public work led him to affirm rights of legislatures to regulate certain businesses. This became the foundation of twentieth-century business regulations. [7]

Today it takes conscious effort to make visible one's labor. Economic, social, and technological changes of the last half century account for the difficulty in understanding the public dimensions of work. Workplaces divide roles into smaller and smaller areas of responsibility. Narrow job descriptions separate work from larger purpose. Work isolates workers from each other. The growing trend of subcontracting work to people not associated directly with the institution threatens further isolation. As the nature of the economy has shifted from manufacturing to service and information systems, the visible, "public" nature of the products that workers create becomes more difficult to identify. Finally, the important work today in our society is considered to be the work of professionals, experts, and technicians, whose own work is generally cut off from a sense of larger purpose. Manual labor is devalued, and its attention to craft has been largely forgotten.

Work done by a mix of people around recognized public tasks of significance has dropped out of sight. Yet Mike Lefevre's anger at the devaluation of manual labor is a reminder that public work has been a vibrant theme in American history.

Public work is work for the public. It is also work of the public and by the public. It brings to the fore questions of responsibility, reciprocity, civic dignity, and accountability. The problem is that this understanding of citizenship has largely disappeared.

The Crisis of Citizenship

America faces problems on many fronts—from homelessness to deteriorating schools, from violence to teen pregnancy—problems that cannot be adequately addressed without substantial engagement by the general citizenry.

As recently as the 1960s, a deeper sense of citizenship was widespread. People could be challenged to think of the larger, long-range consequences of their efforts. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial captured this sense. In the program notes for that day, King and other leaders urged marchers to resist the efforts of those who promoted violence, in the language of the frontispiece of this chapter.

This kind of civic dignity has eroded. In our fieldwork in the past nine years at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, we have seen many examples of people who have learned to act on problems that they were initially unable to imagine addressing.

For people to come to a view of themselves as active, effective citizens means most importantly realizing that civic action is, simply, hard work that can produce results. It is unpredictable. It means dealing with people who make us uncomfortable. It involves learning to think strategically, taking into account dynamics of power, interest, and the long-range consequences of one's action. Civic action on public questions rarely comes out entirely as we imagine, nor does it produce all the results that we might hope for. At the same time, it can have a catalytic effect, generating new sources of energy that are unanticipated.

It is possible to evaluate the impact of civic action. At the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, for instance, we use four categories to assess the impact of public work. First, public work builds tangible things of general usefulness, whose value can be measured. Second, public work can build capacities among individuals of all ages, and it also can strengthen institutional capacities for collaborative effort, both of which can be assessed. Thus in the Nehemiah story, churches strengthened their civic capacities because they learned to cooperate across denominational lines, and to work with many government agencies, businesses, and banks.

Third, public work can bring to the forefront new resources for problem solving. A public-work frame shifts thinking from a scarcity mindset, which assumes a relatively static understanding of resources, to a much more dynamic and multidimensional view of power sources. When addressing questions of crime and violence prevention, for example, resources are enormously multiplied when the question shifts from "How do we provide more police?" or"How can we create a stronger sense of community?" to "What can many different kinds of people and institutions contribute to creating a safe environment?"

Finally, attention to creating a larger culture of public work highlights the importance of assessing how well lessons from the work itself are integrated into the collective memory of a community. What has been the impact on ongoing education, media, arts and culture, and other ways a community has of passing on its public knowledge?

Effective citizenship thus depends on people thinking of themselves as productive people who can build things and do things; people who come up with ideas and resources; people who are bold; people who are accountable. The problem is that today there are few places where people can develop these capacities. Instead, people have learned to expect to get things from the government and to demand that experts fix things.

In our youth and citizenship efforts, we regularly ask groups of young people and adults what to do about critical issues that they care about. They have ideas, but regularly they look to professionals and the government to solve their problems.

In one session, a group of deaf youngsters listed dozens of problems, from discrimination to phones that were unusable and teachers who did not know sign language. Afterwards, the two social workers with the group told our workshop leader that in more than twenty years of combined work with the deaf, they had never heard anyone ask hearing-impaired teenagers what they themselves could do about the problems that they experience.

Deaf youngsters dramatically illustrate "clienthood": Most disability programs view those whom they serve as people at risk, in need of help. The idea that people with disabilities might be capable of creative problem solving—and accountability for their actions—is not normally part of the training that professionals receive.

Civic Identity

The way people imagine what they can and ought to do power fully shapes how they act. Think for a moment about the multiple functions of professional identities—whether as an occupational therapist or college professor of English, engineer or chemist. Professional identities define actions and behaviors. They develop through a long socialization process including formal credentialing, continuing education, and a system of rewards. Identities carry a set of ethical expectations. They pattern relationships with coworkers, other professions, and with clients. Professional identities structure ways of naming problems and planning strategies for action. Particular patterns of power, usually unnamed, operate in all of this.

In the 1990s the civic dimension of one's identity (that is, how work is tied to the rest of society) as a professional, or as a young person, parent, community member, factory worker, or almost anything else, is given little thought at all. This does not mean that people are apathetic about public affairs. It simply means that people see themselves largely as outsiders and observers in this arena, and they see their work as isolated from larger problems and purposes.

Currently, there are two dominant definitions of citizenship, neither of which has much to do with acting on demanding public problems. [8]

The first view of citizenship is what we learn in civics. The center of attention is on formal government: how a bill becomes law; how to vote; how to make one's views known to legislators. This perspective structures programs like the Youth in Government efforts of the YMCA or the civic education programs of the League of Women Voters. It also is the basis for grassroots lobbying which, over the years, has brought a broad range of groups into politics. During the sixties, "citizen participation" became the touchstone of many government programs. A number of training centers, across the political spectrum, developed to teach what had been the skills of elite groups of lobbyists.

Grassroots organizations continue to teach political skills to thousands of civic leaders. 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 and strategies aimed at winning resources and rights. Essentially, in these roles people are cast as client-consumers asking the government for benefits. We have also seen, simultaneously, the fracturing of civic culture. A mood of rancor is widespread in America as a result. This has led to another version of citizenship that calls for renewed civility and community spirit.

In contrast to the government-centered approach, the second view of citizenship emphasizes a democracy of shared values and understandings achieved through a deliberative process. Those who promote this perspective stress a balance between responsibilities and individual rights. Above all, in this view, the purpose of politics should be to pursue the "common good" Responsibility, mutual regard, and understanding of difference are key outcomes.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues articulate this version in their best-selling 1986 book, Habits of the Heart. The book struck a nerve with many Americans because it vividly describes the loss of human connection and community that many experience. Its solutions are based on a proposition about people's moral interconnectedness.

Generosity of spirit is thus the ability to acknowledge an interconnectedness—one's debts to society—that binds one to others whether one wants to accept it or not. It is also the ability to engage in the caring that nurtures that interconnectedness. It is a virtue that everyone should strive for . . . a conception of citizenship that is still alive in America. [9]

New strategies for civic education have evolved reflecting this perspective, like the community service movement in K-12 education. Following Bellah's themes, community service projects in grade schools and high schools justify outcomes like "teaching skills of caring, "improving self-esteem,""heightening personal sensitivity," and "developing personal belief in the ability to make a difference."

A myriad of other practical initiatives have developed that reflect a similar meaning of citizenship. White House conferences on character building, national initiatives for parental responsibility, a veritable industry of "multicultural" programs on college campuses that teach prejudice reduction; proposals for more civil public discourse; and a seemingly endless number of conflict resolution consultants—all convey this outlook. Voluntarism itself (which has become virtually synonymous with this definition of"active citizen") embodies this spirit when it emphasizes voluntary action as mainly helping others. Voluntarism is today symbolized by a heart.

The idea of a more caring, morally interconnected society is important. Values of personal responsibility and concern for others are elementary ingredients of any functioning civic culture. The problem is that the call for community comes without much sense of how to achieve it other than exhortation to act on behalf of the"common good."

Public work highlights the reality of the conflict-filled nature of public affairs. Public life, even in the most harmonious of cases, is filled with diverse interests, antagonisms, disagreements, and unbalanced power relationships. Calls to care for each other easily purify citizenship. They substitute mutual care and individual responsibility for practical work on common tasks.

Citizenship in these terms can become a mile wide and an inch deep. When the tie between work and civic effort is severed, there is a dramatic loss of accountability and the idea of sustained commitment. The City Cares network, begun in 1986, reflecting the ironies of our age, provides a case in point. "From Atlanta and Miami to San Diego and Seattle, a new brand of youthful volunteerism is flourishing," reported The New York Times. "[It is] devoted to providing varied, flexible and guilt-free opportunities for young professionals to serve their communities."The Times describes how the network creates opportunities for volunteerism made easy. "If someone wakes up on Saturday morning in a mood to paint an elementary school, all she or he has to do is show up. If he had to head into the office or chooses to play tennis instead, no one calls to harangue him." One young woman, while sorting cans of corn for a food bank remarked, "If I don't show up for a month, no one's going to think I let them down" [10]

When citizenship lacks acknowledgment of the hard work required to impact the world, citizens inevitably become distanced from serious engagement in public affairs. Citizenship communicates an understanding of public identity, how people see their roles and range of action, and what they imagine themselves doing and as capable of doing. Today, the dominant approaches to citizenship lack substantial content for action.

Beyond Civics and Community

The idea of public work offers a different strategy for overcoming divisions among diverse groups of Americans than what is conventionally used by those who call for harmony and renewal of community spirit. Public work allows groups to put aside divisions for the sake of combined effort toward common ends. We can recognize the need to work with others whom we do not like, whom we do not agree with, and whom we see as far different than those in our own community when there are larger public.

Citizenship of this kind is crucial today. The problem in America is often not so much the lack of morality as it is contending versions of morality. Blacks in South Chicago and white ethnics in Cicero, for instance, likely have different views of racial justice, based on different experiences. Seeking consensus may deepen the divide, not bridge it

Work on common problems certainly raises value questions. Public life has pragmatic, problem-solving dimensions that bring together people with very different conceptions of what is just and right. It is more about taking action than it is about achieving consensus. Few causes lend themselves to the dramatic, wide moral agreement that civil rights or women's participation in public life achieved in the 1960s and 1970s.

On most pressing issues, values—what people care about most strongly—cannot be assumed before the fact. Rather, meaning and value are constantly reworked or created anew in the process of the work itself. In America's immensely diverse culture, it is only through the ongoing work of people with different perspectives that we can bring back traditions of the "commonwealth," a conception of shared life based on the things we make, which requires continual creation.

Public work teaches a different, richer, more complex view of "truth." At its best, it produces a collective wisdom and judgment, rather than individual opinion. It acknowledges that there are many different points of view and ways of thinking about things in public life. Rarely can a single viewpoint profess answers for the whole.

Public work generate new sources of energy. It brings together people, resources, and groups who may never have imagined working together. By crating new working relationships, it also changes the dynamics of power, often in significant ways.

The value of common work is evident throughout American history. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the New Deal, for example, taught young men how to work together in spite of their diversity. The Corps was seen not simply as a jobs program. Rather it represented a national response to urgent public needs through the mobilization of the amateur labor of ordinary citizens. The CCC enrolled almost 3 million young men, mostly from poor, rural backgrounds, in an array of public projects that built a remarkable legacy for the nation. As important as anything was the experience of the public dimension that connected people beyond their immediate backgrounds and neighborhoods. Al Hammer of Minnesota recalls,"The CCC got people like me out into the public. I hadn't gotten out much and this gave me a chance to meet and work with people different than me from all over the country—farm boys, city boys, mountain boys, all worked together. I was a farm kid. I didn't know how other people lived or what other people thought about the world. In the CCC we didn't have a choice, we had to work together and get to know each other."[11]

Here and there, examples of public work in recent years have created bridges across bitter divisions. In several cities, a movement called Common Ground has brought together activists on both sides of the abortion controversy. It poses an alternative to the win-lose quality of conventional approaches.

The Common Ground Association in St. Louis began after an intense public controversy, following a challenge to a court decision which upheld a Missouri abortion law that restricted access to abortion. Activists from respective sides began working on issues of mutual concern: adoption, foster care, and the securing of adequate services and counseling for women and children. David Cohen of the Advocacy Institute, a citizen training center, served as an advisor throughout. Such public work relationships only can develop, in Cohen's view, if people have sufficient confidence to enable them to tackle public problems through a problem-solving, win-win approach. "It requires skills of actively listening to others with different views, the ability to take advantage of opportunities to address issues, and respect for confidentiality as the discussions and negotiations develop." [12]

Finally, public work in our time suggests fundamentally different understandings of work itself, in which professional and other work roles are basically recast. Expertise becomes some thing that is part of a larger citizen effort, not the solution to problems. In Tomah, Wisconsin, a public health project dealing with underage drinking found that the concept of public space where public work can take place was useful in generating productive relationships. In the process, the effort reshaped the ways a number of professionals thought about their work.

Jeanne Carls, the organizer of the project in Tomah, created a strategy team that involved a wide range of groups and interests that had never worked together before—police, merchants, bar owners, church leaders, parents, teenagers, as well as professionals in public health and treatment fields."You tell people, there are going to be many different people coming together who you may have thought would never be at the same table, but can see the need to work on the same issue," Carls recounted. "It was like bringing two lions to the table in some cases. People would sit across the table and never say anything to each other directly. But they all had a strong interest in youth, and youth issues. As meetings progressed, you could see that each was beginning to look at what others could contribute in a new way."

Health care workers, city officials, and other citizens came to see themselves in a cooperative public process, not as professionals who alone were responsible for solutions. Dave Berner, the city manager, said that typically in his job, "people will come up to me—perhaps with a petition—and say, 'we want you to fix this issue. Could you bring this up at the city council?' " But the project on teenage drinking entailed a different approach in which he was one player among many. "I bring some specific skills and knowledge, like how things are really decided in city politics. But many others make contributions as well. In the last couple of years I have changed the way I think about my job." [13]

Public work in all of these cases generates a larger sense of significance and visibility. As Gerald Taylor, an organizer on the national staff of the Industrial Areas Foundation puts it, "Public work gives people the understanding that they are rewriting the history of their cities." [14]

Renewing democracy will mean that examples such as these are multiplied many times over, in many different settings. This will require that a variety of institutions create spaces for public work from the federal government to local schools, from YMCAs and YWCAs to 4-H clubs to professional associations, colleges, and the media. It will also require careful attention to lessons learned.

Public work is not an ideology or a blueprint, but it does provide a framework rich with resources for democratic action. Public work highlights the elemental fact that we all constantly participate in sustaining and creating our environments—our local institutions, our jobs, and workplaces, and on the larger scale, our government and politics.

Despite fragmentation and discouragement in America today, there are also openings for a renewal of public work. As traditional bureaucratic ways of addressing our public problems obviously do not work, people search for approaches that do. The very proliferation of information, facts, data, and knowledge that is part and parcel of the new "information society" demands something more. People are coming to recognize the need for public judgment in decision making, for a different kind of professionalism, for changes in institutions. [15]

The powerful meaning of citizenship conveyed by the idea of public work is the promise for democracy. It calls forth forgotten but rich and durable American identities of the citizen as producer. These have always existed in different forms—even in the midst of the most consumer-driven decades, like the 1950s, as we will see. It also recalls the legacy of a varied tradition of education for public life—from farmers institutes and labor education programs to urban settlements, from land-grant colleges to grassroots citizenship schools in the civil rights movement. These are what we have to build on, if we are to bring democracy to life again.

Notes1. Program Notes, in Boyte possession, written by Martin Luther King, John Lewis, James Farmer, and other civil rights leaders to describe the purpose of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28,1963.

2. Paul Leichester Ford, ed., Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1903), p.278.

3. For discussion of Lincoln's views on freedom and self-governance see, Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

4. Interviews with Mike Gecan, Brooklyn, N.Y., November 14,1984, Harry Boyte; Interview with Ed Chambers, New York, February 22, 1983, Harry Boyte; Youngblood and Jamieson quoted from Jim Sleeper, "East Brooklyn's Second Rising," City Limits, December,1982, p.13.

5. "What Works," Newsweek, May 29,1995.

6. "Who Built the Pyramids" Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Avon, 1972), p.2.

7. Leonard W. Levy, The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp.120-21.

8. For a discussion of the ways these versions of citizenship are discussed in contemporary political and social theory—what is called the "liberal-communitarian" debate—and the way in which public work offers an alternative, see Appendix 1: Beyond Deliberation: Citizenship as Public Work.

9. Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individual and Commitment in
American Life
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p.121.

10. Kevin Sack, "Volunteering Made Easier for Busy Young Workers, The New York Times, November 25,1995, p. l.

11. Interview with Al Hammer, Minneapolis, May 27, 1995, Nancy Kari.

12. Interview with David Cohen (phone), November 15,1994, Harry Boyte.

13. Interviews with Jean Carls, March 14, 1995, Minneapolis, Harry Boyte; Dave Berner, April 21, 1995, Tomah, Nancy Kari and Harry Boyte.

14. Interview with Gerald Taylor (phone), January 18, 1995, Nancy Kari and Harry Boyte.

15. The trends of bureaucracy and expert-dominated decision making have reflected not only the rise of large economic enterprise, the modern state, and communications systems, but also the practical dilemmas of political decision making in technological, large-scale, and complex societies. Scientific language gains its power through the fact that a marked process of abstraction is inevitable, given such complexity. See Kenneth Boulding, Economics as a Science (NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 1970), p.2.

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