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Essays on Civic Renewal

Civic Declaration: Call for a New Citizenship

"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, John Lewis, James Farmer and
other civil rights leaders, in the purpose for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28,1963

We, the signers of this Civic Declaration representing a mosaic of communities, occupations, cultures, and perspectives, call for a New Citizenship in America. We believe that we as citizens must reclaim responsibility for and power over our nation's public affairs.

The New Citizenship to which we commit ourselves is open, diversified, inclusive, and nonpartisan: a civic forum comprising every segment of America. But it is not a stand in for any and every kind of activity. It is the provenance neither of the "state-centered left" which thinks government can solve every problem nor the "market-centered right" which believes in the social power of the "invisible hand." It is skeptical both of the "technocratic center" where faith resides in experts and of talk show democracy, whose politics of grievance and self-righteousness distorts public discussion, confounding democracy with demagoguery.

Rather, the New Citizenship seeks a return to government of and by as well as for the people, a democracy whose politics is our common public work: where citizens are as prudent in deliberation as we expect our representatives to be; where public problem solving takes the place of private complaint; where all give life to liberty and rights are complemented by the responsibilities that make them real. A citizen democracy turns blame of others into self-reliance and mutual aid. It transforms passive clients and consumers into active agents of change in our communities, the nation, and the world. It seeks the return of authority from unaccountable structures to the public and to community and civic associations, and the renewal of government and civic institutions alike as sites for public work.

We speak from the vantage point of a 'third sector'—that vibrant array of voluntary associations, religious congregations, schools and colleges, the free press, professional groups, and community organizations that mediate between government and the market and that span the space between private life and the world of mega-institutions. We encourage the civic dimension of every identity—the renewal of the citizen-politician, truly "civil" civil servant, civic professional, civic-minded businessperson, religious leader, union activist, community organizer, and citizen-soldier. We reassert the authority of civic and community life against the encroachments of government, however well-intended. We also claim the importance of civic and community life against the impact of unfettered markets, however efficient.

We commit ourselves to a common citizenship that honors difference and incorporates diversity. From the myriad races, cultures, and communities of interest that are America, we draw shared values rooted not in sameness but in the common ground of our shared tasks and obligations to future generations. We regard our diversity as a strength and we challenge those who respond to it with a polarizing politics of fear. Citizenship is a bond that holds potential to unite people of radically diverse backgrounds, ages, and viewpoints. It allows us to enter public life with equal dignity, no matter what our social or economic status.

The New Citizenship calls on all Americans to reassert common agency and to repossess democratic institutions. We invite our fellow citizens to grasp the popular sovereignty that is the root of our democracy and to make it real in our everyday lives. We ask America to be America.

The Challenge

"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."

Thomas Jefferson

Americans today are in an anxious and angry mood. Our country is entering unfamiliar terrain. Our institutions seem incapable of adequate response.

Since the New Deal, our national life has been organized around big institutions: big government, big business, big labor. But the twin forces of globalization and decentralization are undermining those institutions and the old social bargains they embody. For example, the integration of our national economy into the global marketplace erodes Washington's ability to mediate between capital and labor and to assure economic stability.

New information technologies put a premium on intellectual rather than mechanical skills. These technologies offer lucrative opportunities to our best-educated workers. But they speed the secession of a conceptual class of workers from the lives, experiences, and neighborhoods of other citizens, while they leave poor citizens farther behind, intensifying class and racial divisions.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of family, neighborhood, and social networks, the erosion of values of hard work, self-reliance, and personal and community responsibility deplete the cultural strengths we need to cope with fundamental economic change. Instead of trying to fashion new approaches to these dramatic developments, elected leaders all too often defend existing programs and policies, even when it is clear they are not working. Politics as usual is a rehash of yesterday's ideological battles. Meanwhile, tomorrow's problems accumulate largely unaddressed.

Little wonder that public confidence in our political system and government has plummeted. Yet it makes little sense to expect government to solve our problems for us or to blame government for everything that goes wrong.

Rather than rail against politics, Americans need to act like citizens. We need a new burst of civic activism and innovation. We need to get down to the business of working together on our common problems.

In America, profound political changes come not from political elites but from an engaged citizenry. Adapting our national institutions, private and public, to the new realities we face is a task well beyond the capacity of government. It is not for technocrats or a professional political class. It is the job of all Americans, exercising our sovereign power as citizens.

The New Citizenship represents a fresh choice for Americans frustrated by a sterile public debate framed in stark polarities: left versus right; public versus private; government versus the market. It speaks from the vantage of America's "third sector"—the myriad civic enterprises, religious, educational, voluntary, press, business, labor, and charitable organizations that mediate between citizens, government and the market.

It was here, in the realm of civil society, that the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville located the genius of American democracy when he traveled the country in the 19th century: our emphasis on voluntary associations, on mutual aid versus dependence on the state; on civic equality; and enterprise. It is here that we must look again today for the moral energy and leadership needed to tackle our problems.

Yet America's civic sector has long been in eclipse. Its purview has been squeezed by the excesses of an overarching government and the market's "invisible hand." Its civic spirit has been drained by the rise of a narrow expertise in which professionals deliver services to clients and people lose the skills and concrete experience of working together on common projects. The steady growth of central government and a narrowly understood professionalism has increasingly concentrated power in the hands of technocratic elites. It has eroded civic virtues of responsibility and self-reliance and has usurped the problem solving roles of community institutions. Meanwhile, it has undermined the confidence and larger purpose of professionals themselves, who find their work increasingly narrow, specialized, and devoid of broad civic meaning. A rebirth of citizenship will require a conscious intentionally among civic institutions, determined to reclaim and revitalize their public missions.

The politics of redistribution has encouraged Americans to demand ever-expanding rights and entitlements from government without assuming corresponding responsibilities to the common weal. By converting citizens into special pleaders for government favors, it has diminished citizenship while threatening to bankrupt the country. The pursuit for justice remains critical, but it must be pursued in the context of rooted communities, public conversation and public work, rather than escalating demands on the state for redistribution and redress.

If the left remains wedded to government action in pursuit of distributive justice, the right seems oblivious to the destructive impact on civil society of rapacious competition. When factories close and move overseas, whole communities are devastated. People lose their jobs and homes. Businesses close. Families come under tremendous s train. The global economy's redistribution of jobs and wealth has devastated many urban and rural areas alike, driving minority employment in inner cities to staggering heights. The absence of jobs that can support a family has contributed to the sharp erosion of family life and marriage in many low income and working class communities. The pervasive impact of an entertainment media peddling sex without responsibility, violence, and materialism often overwhelms parents' attempts to instill sound values in their children. The mass culture today derogates the civic wisdom and diverse traditions of civic responsibility found in America's minority and poor communities, expressed through music, storytelling, practical survival strategies that elders have relied on during hard times, and the ways elders have struggled—and still struggle—to save a nearly lost generation of youth.

In calling for a New Citizenship, we seek to reassert the authority of civil society against both the encroachments of government, however well intended, and the disruptions of unfettered markets, however efficient. We share the public's growing disenchantment with bureaucracy which creates a chasm between a professional governing class and ordinary citizens. Bureaucracy today permits technocrats to control both the definition of public problems and the means chosen to address them—often in public sector monopolies loathe to share decision making or resources with intended beneficiaries. It puts a premium on specialization rather than the wisdom and common sense of citizens.

We share the public's anger and dismay with a press that emphasizes the negative, polarized conflicts and trivial pursuits, rather than the strengths and stories that show ways to solve our common problems.

We believe that it is time for citizens to rebel against the know-it-all "expertocracy" in the name of restoring democracy.

The New Citizenship advocates a basic transfer of power away from central bureaucracies, public and private, to citizens and civic institutions. We believe that decentralizing decisions is more genial to our country's democratic spirit and tradition than the "command and control" hierarchies of big government and big business.

The New Citizenship advocates a new role for government. Instead of mainly providing services and making top-down decisions, government should act as a catalyst for broader civic efforts. It should provide tools for citizens and communities to solve their own problems.

The New Citizenship envisions a larger role for the mediating institutions of civil society—religious congregations, community and voluntary organizations —in tackling America's toughest social problems: poverty, welfare dependence, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and crime. This involves the renewal of civic institutions as sites for public problem solving, and also for skill building and experimentation with new, broader civic roles.

Unlike government programs which are organized around people's deficiencies, such institutions reflect people's individual capacities and communal strengths within frameworks of community norms and standards. Bureaucratic compassion has proven a poor substitute for the nurturance and moral education traditionally provided by families and communities.

The New Citizenship rejects the old politics of entitlement in favor of a new politics of reciprocal responsibility. Citizens who receive public benefits should give something back to their community and country. We believe the AmeriCorps service program embodies such a civic compact, offering educational opportunity in exchange for work of value to communities.

The New Citizenship defines itself not in terms of performing occasional civic duties such as paying taxes or jury duty, but in terms of ongoing public work. Practical contribution through collaborative public problem solving, whether in one's paid profession or job, community effort or volunteer service, is critical to active citizenship.

In order to solve public problems, we must develop certain civic capacities: how to listen, to respect differences, to work with those with whom we disagree and share little in common, to be frank about interests, and to be willing to negotiate and compromise in order to advance larger public goals. The New Citizenship avoids the sanctimonious moralism of "rights talk" and the therapeutic, personalized language used by experts to obscure questions of accountability, power, and values.

Finally, the New Citizenship offers a unifying creed for a nation struggling to build a strong multiethnic and crossgenerational democracy amidst incredible diversity. The New Citizenship invites the youth of America to full partnership as we rebuild America together. We reject the new identity politics that divides Americans along lines of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual practice. Rights and responsibilities inhere in individuals, not in groups; the attributes of citizenship, expressed through diverse traditions, are the common denominator that allows us to work together across our differences. A robust ethos and practice of citizenship is an essential antidote to the growing balkanization of America today.

Civic Stories

"The state is as real as the people who compose it. The duties of citizenship are as definite as the duties of housekeeping. Only as these self-evident facts are fully appreciated will women be able to share in the many and splendid reforms which we can see must come in our life."

Jane Addams, Cary Chapman Catt and other authors of
Women's Citizens Library, 1913

A vision of active, practical citizenship for our time builds directly upon recent decades of experience. America is an immense laboratory of democratic initiative and problem solving by ordinary citizens. Often out of sight, stories of civic action and deliberation when brought to light create a vast mosaic of public possibility. A sampling follows, representing a mix of constituencies and settings:

Civic Journalism

A movement has emerged recently in the media around "civic" or "public" journalism," aimed at bringing citizens into public discussions of politics and policy in a far more active fashion, improving public deliberation, and reconnecting journalists to the communities they serve. For instance: *

  • Wichita People Project
    A"founding parent" of the civic journalism movement, after experiments with in-depth election coverage in 1990 the Wichita Eagle in 1992 began a "People Project" aimed at involving citizens in public problem solving. It joined with a network TV affiliate and a commercial radio station to challenge citizens "to share ideas about how to regain control over the systems that control our lives," exploring the "core values" at the heart of political controversies, creating forums for discussion of practical strategies and ideas for action.
  • We the People
    Beginning in the 1992 elections and now continuing between elections, Wisconsin Public Television joined with the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, and later with WISC, the CBS affiliate, and Wisconsin Public Radio, to develop an approach that stresses in-depth public capacity-building on issues facing the communities, ranging from health to gambling. Public forums broadcast on the air are preceded by coordinated efforts to cover particular issues, and sponsorship of citizen discussion groups, that produce highly knowledgeable questions and conversation, from a lay perspective. The aim is to help produce a deliberative public in Wisconsin.
  • NPR Election Project
    The Election Project at National Public Radio has developed collaborative partnerships between their affiliates and local newspapers (and in some cases television stations) in five large cities, to have citizens "lead in the election coverage" this year. The Project uses a combination of surveys, discussions, forums and other approaches to shape coverage of candidates. John Dinges, project director says the most intriguing issue is about authority: citizens aren't customary "experts," as his skeptical colleagues in the media point out. So with what authority do they speak? He says, citizens speak with the authority of democratic questions, and citizen common sense, not the vantage of expert answers.

Community Action

Community development and action groups have dramatically evolved over the past two decades. National intermediary organizations like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the Enterprise Foundation, and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (NRC) have helped to facilitate powerful stories of low income development around housing, commercial revitalization and human service delivery. Large action networks have developed in ways that create a highly sophisticated base of creative initiative in many of America's poorest communities, for a collaborative, deliberative, problem-solving politics that brings together diverse racial, religious, political, and economic interests.

  • Industrial Areas Foundation
    The oldest coalition of community organizations in the country, the IAF's 41 affiliates also include the nation's largest and many of the most effective community groups, based mainly on religious congregations, sometimes including labor unions, and found in some of the nation's poorest areas. In San Antonio, the COPS organization, now 20 years old, "saved the city" by bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvement into the barrios and allowing the "creation of centrist policies," according to former mayor Henry Cisneros, now Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. East Brooklyn Churches has created over 2,500 single family "Nehemiah Homes," in one of New York's most ravaged areas. Baltimore BUILD brought school administrators, city officials, the business community and churches together to create the "Commonwealth Agreement," guaranteeing every high school graduate economic support for college or a job opportunity. Shelby County Interfaith in Memphis, Tennessee, has brought fifty congregations, half black and half white, together on a variety of job creation, adult education, housing and crime prevention initiatives. In the process the organization has made dramatic gains in healing the public wounds that afflicted Memphis in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. The key to the success of all IAF groups, according to its leaders, is that it develops the civic and public leadership capacities of individuals, institutions, and communities. IAF describes its broadest goal as creating "public spaces," and "educating ordinary people for public life," through the skills of everyday politics.
  • National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise
    Effective community action defies political labels. While IAF—a nonpartisan network—is sometimes described as tilting toward "moderate progressives" in politics, the National Center is seen as connected largely with community-oriented Republican office holders. But like the IAF, the National Center works with any politician, regardless of ideology, who support programs for empowerment of local grassroots and low income communities. It assists organizing efforts like Cochran Gardens in St. Louis, a once decimated housing project that is now a beautiful community run by tenants, with a variety of associated businesses and community-based social services. It gives support and visibility to efforts like the Chad School in Newark, an inner city private school named after a small African Country from which virtually all students (98%) go onto post-high school education . "No student fails!" is the Chad School's motto; it is dedicated to "empowering community folk to show inner city youth they can achieve and succeed."
  • Unlikely Coalitions
    As a part of the emerging civic politics, unlikely coalitions have emerged across the country to address public problems. In this way, they not only come up with innovative approaches to difficult problems but they also build respect and trust across bitter divisions and detoxify public discourse. Common Ground, an initiative which the Advocacy Institute helped initially to catalyze, has brought pro-choice and pro-life sides of the abortion issue together. The two sides agree to disagree about abortion, and focus on issues on which they can agree, that benefit women and children like adoption, foster care, and the securing of adequate prenatal services for women and children. In Los Angeles, BUILDING UP, a service coalition which received one of the initial Summer of Service grants from the Clinton Administration, has created a working partnership among a strikingly diverse group of 40 institutions, ranging from inner city churches to five area colleges and large organizations like the Red Cross, the Watts Health Foundation and the Drew Child Development Corporation. BUILDING Up involves shared governance, strong youth participation, and a focus on combining community service with development of civic skills.

Public Deliberation

New forms of public deliberation have multiplied over the last decade, retrieving older practices of public conversation that allow people with diverse points of view to deepen and broaden their perspectives on public issues (what John Adamas called at the nation's founding, "the ripening of public judgment"). These forums vivid alternatives to radio talk shows where people sound off or yell at each other, or conventional public opinion polls, which usually simply canvass private individual views.

  • The National Issues Forums
    The forums, or "NIF" for short, facilitated by the Kettering Foundation and the Public Agenda Foundation, now include several thousand community-based groups, which each year explore different perspectives on critical public issues. The NIF is explicitly designed as a process that cultivates and deepens "public judgment," rather than simply private opinion; and it involves citizens in many settings learning how to make hard choices from competing goods. NIF groups vary enormously, ranging from churches and literacy programs to community colleges and prison study circles. At Fresno City College, forum discussions have become a regular part of the curriculum for Spanish-speaking students. In Michigan, the Grand Rapids NIF is an alliance of 67 groups including the Catholic Diocese, Cooperative Extension, the Salvation Army, schools and the YWCA. The Forum for Kalamazoo County, with a membership of 500, has adapted deliberative conversation to many local issues facing the community, from health care and economic development to the most helpful design of the Information Infrastructure to assist citizens in solving problems.
  • American Health Decisions
    The Health Decisions network formed initially out of Oregon and now includes tens of thousands of citizens in conversations about choices and priorities and values for health care in 19 states. Georgia Health Decisions has created a conversation stretching from many inner city community to professional and business groups. California Health Decisions Values Project has created a partnership with a number of media outlets to stimulate public discussion of health policy options, with over 500 community meetings held in 1992-93.
  • Central Oklahoma 2020
    Citizens in 20 cities and four counties in the central Oklahoma region participated in a deliberative regional planning process, facilitated by the National Civic League. Discussions brought young people, the elderly, elected officials, business owners, clergy, immigrants, educators and many others together to develop action and strategy plans for their future, identifying priorities such as the creation of neigborhood-based support systems for families and quality day care.

Education and Youth Development

From the burgeoning community service movement to schools which have reclaimed a strong civic mission for educating young people in the skills and values of public life and the demanding jobs of the future, a diverse, growing movement has spread across the country that is premised on belief in the capacities of all young people for positive contribution. Signs appear in the largest networks of a new interest in strong, practical citizenship. The National Council of Social Studies has made the theme "Developing the Citizen Child" central to its 75th convention. Many local examples of creative education have developed:

  • Central Park East
    CPE, a cluster of elementary and secondary schools in inner city New York, was launched in 1974 as an experimental effort to build a heterogeneous educational community that succeeds for all students. Almost all students who complete the sixth grade at CPE schools graduate. Central Park East Schools success rests on three principles: teachers help students to develop individualized "pathways to learning," based on interests that students bring from their home and community environments as well as those discovered in classrooms; students are cared about as complex, multi-dimensional human beings; and parents are strongly involved in school curriculum design and in the educational process.
  • The Ella Baker Academy
    The Academy, part of the New York State Martin Luther King Commission and the Institute for Nonviolence, trains 100 inner city teenagers each year in principles of nonviolence and social change skills, in a project that has become a model for many communities.
  • Minnesota 4-H Extension
    Minnesota Extension Service's 4-H program, involving more than 240,000 children and teenagers across the state, has undertaken an intensive process of citizens hip education over the past four years, applying to a variety of its programs the civic education approach called "citizen politics," created by Project Public Life, a grassroots civic education effort based at the Humphrey Institute. As youth have learned to think of themselves as effective citizens developing public skills through their work, volunteers and staff report a substantial deepening of the sophistication and seriousness of projects like Community Pride, a 4-H youth problem-solving program that has more than 20,000 participants each year.

This array of stories illustrate the process of civic renewal and ferment that has become evident in many other settings as well. Foundations have begun to take on a citizenship theme. Civic minded foundations range from the working group which the Lilly Endowment organized, aimed at bringing a strong citizenship focus to the community service movement, to the executive seminar on "civic investing," organized by the Kettering Foundation, the Council of Foundations, and the Philanthropy Center. Major foundations such as the Surdna Foundation and the Haas Fund have recent developed new program areas on "effective citizenship" and "citizenship and civic education.

A new generation of innovative leadership—what might be called "citizen politicians"—has begun to appear at every level of government, interested in innovative approaches to working with citizens. The National Civic League reports growing interest among elected officials in "citizen democracy"—ways to engage citizens more actively in governance and public policy; its American Renewal Project highlights stories of citizen-government partnership, and has drawn support from a large number of organizations. The Communitarian Network, building on ferment in communities and on academic discussions alike, has recently found wide response to its proposals for a renewed balance between rights and responsibilities in public policy. The Progressive Policy Institute's proposals for decentralization, policy attentive to community networks and public reciprocity, where people are expected to give something back for public benefits, have similarly had appeal across normal political divisions. The League of Citizens' Leadership Training Council reports that over the last two years workshops on citizen involvement and new styles of political leadership were far oversubscribed. Local efforts have appeared like the Ramsey County government Reengaging Citizenship Project, which seeks to develop new ways for continuous involvement of citizens in policy and service delivery. Meanwhile, the International Association of Public Participation Practioners, a network of leaders and staff who design and facilitate citizen involvement in government, has recently expanded rapidly; it aims at "putting the civil back in civil service," in the words of Jerome Delli Priscoli, its president.

Growing networks of community computing groups and civic technologists have also appeared, as manifest in the recent "Ties that Bind" conference in Cupertino, California, and the important work of such groups the Center for Civic Networking, the Morino Institute, and the Free Nets. These are working with community and citizen organizations across the country to design democratic technologies for the information age that will be decentralized, attentive to community needs, and that will help facilitate public deliberation and problem solving. For instance, in the Boston area the Harriet Tubman House, along with literacy, health, and social service programs, has formed a community partnership with WGBH-TV to provide telecommunications services in forms that most help community groups solve real problems.

Finally, citizenship concepts and themes have begun to appear in many other policy arenas and institutional networks. The umbrella group, the Council for the Advancement of Citizenship, has recently grown in membership, and serves as a key communications network among groups in this field. The Independent Sector, bringing together the great range of nonprofit and voluntary groups, has taken a leadership role in promoting citizen involvement. The United Negro College Fund is working with the Whitman Center at Rutgers to develop ways to evaluate the civic development of students involved in service programs. The YMCA, National Easter Seal, and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation are developing civic leadership projects with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

Forms of civic action today are culturally and ideologically diverse, appearing in communities of every racial, religious, cultural, economic and geographic background. Citizenship in this sense and the civic politics it generates has several broad, identifiable characteristic that mark it as an alternative to the politics of complaint, grievance, self-righteousness, and claims to rights detached from responsibility:

From Me to We: Lessons of Civic Stories

Most fundamentally, the strands of a New Citizenship renew public life in a society which has seen the erosion of vital public spaces, public spirit, and a sense of the larger public good. Public life is the environment beyond the normal comfort zone of familiarity and similarity of viewpoint and value. It is an arena of exchange, discourse, conflict, mutual respect, and collaborative work. The point is not personal bonding or complete agreement but rather constructive, creative action on common problems. Many different moral frameworks and perspectives are appropriately at the table, with no one dominating. Public life lifts one's horizons toward the longer range, the interconnections among different problems and issues, and the larger public good that is discovered through common effort, but cannot be assumed or declared before the fact. Public life is often challenging and difficult. But its rewards are part of the human birthright: discovery of the larger world, other kinds of people, and other points of view; freedom and power that comes from impact on the stage of history. These are the elemental ingredients of genuine democracy.

A rich public life in turn rests upon three key features: a commitment to building the capacities of individuals and communities; an emphasis on deliberative public talk; and a focus on practical problem solving that, without requiring consensus on values, allows diverse players to collaborate in getting things done. More, an important lesson of the most effective civic education and leadership development in recent years is that learning to understand and think through such concepts and their applications is itself a key part of developing citizenship capacities. It is important that people learn to deliberate and work together; it is equally important that they reflect on what "deliberation" is and what it means in practice; or what "public work" means and the opportunities it offers to reengage people now on the margins of public life. Effective civic development is based on the belief that ordinary people can think creatively and flexibly about large political ideas and their applications—people can be theorists of their own lives. This is "Jeffersonian democracy" for the information age.

Beyond the quick fix: an orientation toward capacity

In a service society professionals are often taught approaches to problem-solving that assume the deficiencies and inadequacies of individuals and communities. The New Citizenship reverses the equation.

A capacity orientation means a recognition that all communities hold immense civic potentials. Poor people may be plagued by lack of money, but may still have untapped possibilities for civic contribution. In the poorest communities, mediating institutions, preeminately religious congregations, often play an important role in developing and maintaining social networks, cultivating character and values, and generating hopes for change. A robust civic practice needs to recognize the critical role that such mediating institutions play. Civil servants, journalists, health providers and other professionals need to be trained to understand the rich resources, networks, and capacities to build on, especially in areas conventionally labeled as "at risk" or "culturally deprived." Civic renewal needs to reeducate professionals and community residents, alike, to think of their work in more public, collaborative, interactive, and relational terms. Narrow expertise must always be leavened by experience, multiple viewpoints, common sense, and a broader civic perspective. While experts should help to inform policy making, they should not make policy. In civil service, this is captured by the phrase, "putting the civil back in civil service." In community, it means "experts on tap, not on top."

Beyond the sound byte: the value of talking things over

Public life rests upon retrieving and reinvigorating the best practices of deliberation that can produce a genuine, democratic public voice. A public voice is common, deliberative, and provisional, based as much on open-ended questions and the skills of listening as it is on the arts of presentation. It is very different from uncompromising claims to rights or privileged claims to voice based on one group's special oppression. The public voice is a voice very different than the official talk of government, the specialized language of professions, or the narrowly framed talk of special interests. It rests upon a recognition of the many kinds of knowledge—from academic to experiential, moral insight to historical memory—that inform a public judgment. For citizens to develop public voice we must create an array of public forums in many different environments.

Goodbye to the lone ranger: the importance of collaborative problem solving

Finally, public life is grounded in the recognition that to solve the main problems we confront as communities and as a society—whether crime or homelessness, environmental pollution or school reform, teen pregnancy or racial conflict, economic development or deterioration of the physical infrastructure—it will be necessary to engage diverse interests, points of view, and moral frameworks. Few problems lend themselves to the either/or, "good versus evil" style of argument which dominates public discussions today. Very few, indeed, can simply be solved by large systems, experts, or professionals. We need an approach to problem-solving that taps and cultivates the creativity, common sense and civic energy of diverse groups of citizens, if we are to make much progress.

The New Citizenship, building on what has already developed at the grassroots, articulates a vision of politics that belongs to all citizens. The challenge is to move from such rich but separate stories to a new narrative of politics and citizenship.

The American Civic Forum

We envision a loose and open medium called the American Civic Forum to advance the New Citizenship. The American Civic Forum is a potential vehicle for exchanging experiences and enhancing civic work across many environments. It has three broad purposes:

  • Call for a New Citizenship
    Building on this Civic Declaration, the American Civic Forum will advance a call for a New Citizenship: Americans need to stop complaining and reclaim authority and responsibility for public affairs. The Civic Forum draws from many American traditions, including that which informed our nation's founding moment: the Committees of Correspondence, nongovernmental bodies of ordinary women and men who deliberated about the challenges facing the colonies and took action to insure a "new dawn of liberty." Like the Committees of Correspondence, the Civic Forum will help to launch a wide-ranging conversation among citizens about the need for the "powers of the republic" to reside in the people themselves. Moreover, it will help us develop and discover what citizenship means in the information age.
  • Citizen Government Partnership
    The American Civic Forum will work with legislative bodies and government agencies that seek citizen-government partnership in problem solving. It will help create a nonpartisan political voice at every level of policy making that emphasizes civic problem solving and civic capacity building and the idea of government as a catalytic agent. We believe that the major policy arenas of our time—from health care to education—will be fundamentally reconceived in positive ways by putting citizens at the center as deliberators and actors, not mainly in the roles of clients and consumers.
  • Civic Story Telling
    The American Civic Forum will help to build a network of civic educators, in many settings, dedicated to analyzing and disseminating civic stories as an alternative to the mood of discouragement and despair in America. Civic story telling, when undertaken in a thoughtful and nonsentimental way, is critical to articulate publicly different models of "hero" and contributor to the nation's public life than the celebrity focus that now predominates. Civic story telling is also essential to spreading "good news" of civic work and to evaluating best practices. Developing skills of civic story telling will greatly aid community oriented health care, the community service movement, community development, educatal reform and many other areas. Special attention needs to be focused on youth contributions to public life.

Many of these practices and functions have already been initiated by the emerging constituencies of a New Citizenship. The American Civic Forum is conceived as a diverse and pluralist confederation of groups and individuals dedicated to this citizenship. It will support existing efforts, while it seek to give them greater visibility and public profile.

The American Civic Forum includes many diverse points of view and perspective about questions such as the appropriate role of government and the market in our social and public life. Overall, the American Civic Forum is joined together by a common commitment to a politics of greater dignity and productiveness than that which prevails today and threatens the civic life of our republic.

Notes on Authors and Signers

The American Civic Forum includes many diverse points of view about questions such as the appropriate role of government and the market in our social and public life; we, the undersigned, do not all agree with all the elements in the preceding stories or all the nuances of emphasis. Yet we are joined together by a common commitment to an understanding of citizenship, politics, and public life with greater dignity and productiveness than that which now prevails. Signed by civic leaders in Washington, D.C., December 9, 1994.

The Civic Declaration has been coordinated by Harry Boyte, with Benjamin Barber and Will Marshall. It benefits especially from the contributions of Carmen Sirianni, Research Director of the American Civic Forum, and from the comments of Heather Booth, David Cohen, Dorothy Cotton, William Diaz, Walter Enloe, Diane Eisenberg, Amitai Etzioni, Lew Friedland, Jeff Isaac, Nancy Kari, Joyce King, Anthony Massengale, David Mathews, Deborah Meier, Miaisha Mitchell, Bill Moyers, John Parr, Jay Rosen, William Schambra, Nan Skelton, Edward Skloot, Gerald Taylor, and Robert Woodson, Sr. The New Citizenship emerged from Reinventing Citizenship, a project of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in association with the Walt Whitman Center to make recommendations for strengthening citizen-government partnerships, especially at the federal level.

For copies contact either:

Humphrey Institute
301 - 19th Ave. S.,
Minneapolis, MN 55455;

Walt Whitman Center
Hickman Hall
Rutgers University,
New Brunswick, NJ 08903

For a copy of Reinventing Citizenship, the Report to the Ford Foundation on the first six months of this effort, please write the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

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