| || Civic Dictionary |
Prepared by Melissa Bass,
Managing Editor of the Civic Practices Network.
Citizen politics is an approach to governance that stresses the role of ordinary people in making public decisions and solving public problems. Citizen politics starts with broad definitions of citizen and politics. Both concepts have multiple, contested meanings; the definitions used here are not "right" in an objective sense, but have proven theoretically sound and useful in practice.
Citizens & Citizenship
Often, people define citizenship in narrow, legal terms. For example, citizens are people born or naturalized in the United States and who have certain rights based on this status. Others believe that to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship one must believe in a certain set of "American" values.
For Native Americans, citizenship can be seen as a status imposed on them by force. For Hispanic- and Asian-Americans, it can raise questions of legal documentation. For African-Americans, meaningful citizenship became possible only through the movements for freedom, civil rights, and Black power which began in the 1950s and '60s. Gaining first class citizenship involved a decades long struggle to be able to participate fully in public life.
Citizen politics draws much from the civil rights movement and its understanding of citizenship. From the citizen politics perspective, citizenship means full participation in the governance of institutions, communities, and the country. Citizens are public actors who not only have rights, but also the responsibility and opportunity to contribute to, and create, public life.
Politics is generally understood as the partisan activities of elected officials or as the shady deal-making that takes places in offices of all kinds (i.e. "university politics"). In either case, politics is seen as thwarting the proper functioning of government and organizations.
However, politics has not always been viewed so negatively. The word "polis," from which politics derives, means activity "of the citizen." Politics used to be seen as how ordinary people went about making decisions that affected them in common. Therefore, politics was found in many settingsin communities, offices, schools, religious institutions, and voluntary groupsin addition to the halls of formal government. People understood that politics was something that they needed to do, for their benefit and others': It gave people the chance to make a difference.
Politics was also something that people needed to learn. Understood as the way people made decisions about their common lives, politics required the skills of communication, recognition of diverse perspectives, problem definition, cooperation and conflict management, organization, action taking, and evaluation. Through learning and practicing these skills people became capable and contributing citizens.
Reclaiming these forgotten definitions of citizenship and politics can help create and sustain our democracy. In settings across the country, people are putting these ideas into action with dramatic results.
- Through Public Achievement, K-12 and university students use the citizen politics model to solve public problems in their schools and neighborhoods, and learn skills for a lifetime.
- The Lazarus Project empowers residents and staff in the Augustana Nursing Home by using the citizen politics model to address feelings of powerlessness, dependency, and overwhelming responsibility.
- In what was one of the last remaining African-American hospitals in the country, St. Louis's Central Medical Center became a site for citizen poltics-based public problem solving in partnership with other community groups.
The citizen politics model was developed by the partners of Project Public Life at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Contributors include:
Melissa Bass, Harry C. Boyte, Rebecca Breuer, Steven Clift, David Cohen, Dorothy Cotton, Walter Enloe, Sara M. Evans, James Farr, Pamela Hayle, Kathryn Stoff Hogg, Juan Jackson, Carol Johnson, John Kari, Nan Kari, Paul Martinez, Anthony Massengale, Peg Michels, Miaisha Mitchell, Scott Peters, Tim Sheldon, Nan Skelton, Carol Shields, and Carmen Sirianni.
This page draws directly from: By the People: An AmeriCorps Citizenship and Service Training Guide and Reinventing Citizenship: The Practice of Public Work (prepared by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and published by Minnesota Extension Services, 1995).
For additional perspectives, see:
Relationship and Power, an interview with Ernesto Cortes, Jr. by Nicole McAfee for the Kettering Review, Summer 1993.
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