The Work of Democratic Renewal

Back to Spring 2019: Volume 108, Number 1

By Albert W. Dzur 

Awakening Democracy is an introduction to Harry Boyte’s thinking on citizen action, social change, and civic education, with particular focus on the Public Achievement program he and his co-authors have developed into an international network. Boyte is at the forefront of a new field of “civic studies” that embraces a problem-focused, interdisciplinary, and action-oriented approach to issues of political participation, trust, citizenship, and public life. Few authors writing on these topics today have Boyte’s depth and range of practical experience—from serving as field secretary for Martin Luther King, to major community organizing efforts, to presidential advisory committees.

This book is therefore both a scholarly and a personal account of a kind of citizen agency he discovered as a college student working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and has promoted for decades in the interstices of American political culture. Outside the glare of elections, this agency, what Boyte calls “public work,” is “sustained, uncoerced effort by a mix of people who create things of lasting civic or public significance;” it is “an approach to citizenship in which citizens are co-creators, builders of the common world, not simply voters and volunteers who fit into that world or protestors who oppose it.”1

Too often, schools follow a narrow path of informing students about political history and basic facts about democratic institutions and the Constitution. Even when practice is included in curricula, it tends to be cabined into short-term engagement or service projects that do little to convey the importance of citizen action to the functioning of healthy communities and institutions. A different model emerged in the citizenship schools pioneered in the segregated South by Septima Clark, Myles Horton, and others, which became an anchor of the civil rights movement. Focused primarily on literacy and voter education in order to surmount Jim Crow strictures blocking black voters, these schools were developmental in other respects as well. They drew from the underutilized talents of regular citizens like Bernice Robinson, a cousin of Clark’s. Robinson had no formal training as a teacher, but as a beautician with strong social skills she was able to connect with people who did not think of themselves as activists.

Beauty parlors were spaces of freedom, too, where whites held little sway and people from different backgrounds could experience a common purpose. In making education public in these ways, the citizenship schools echoed the nineteenth century settlement house movement of Jane Addams and the Danish folk school tradition launched by N.F.S. Grundtvig, which envisioned an ongoing civic endeavor taking place both inside and outside school walls, drawing together long-time residents, immigrants, youth, adults, people with and without steady employment, all in the spirit of collective, practical, problem-solving.

Boyte’s Public Achievement program for K-12 youth draws on this rich heritage of democratic education. In it, “teams of young people—generally ranging from elementary through high school students…work over the school year on issues they choose. Their issues must be legal, tackled nonviolently, and make a public contribution.”2 At the beginning of the year, students hold an “issues convention” to discuss and prioritize the problems people most want to address during the year; then they form teams to work on them.

Though the youth are coached by college students affiliated with Public Achievement, the priorities, strategies, and work are their own. The level of freedom to fail, hold responsibility, become accountable, make changes to an established institution or environment, is therefore significantly higher than service-learning programs offering students ready-made volunteer roles. As Boyte puts it, “In Public Achievement, young people are conceived as co-creators, citizens today, not simply citizens-in-waiting. They help to build democracy in their schools, neighborhoods, and society.”3

My favorite example of Public Achievement in action comes from the Andersen public schools in Minneapolis. A team of eight boys, naming themselves the “Bathroom Busters” decided to take on the dilapidated condition of their school’s bathroom, with its missing stall doors, insufficient toilet paper, lackluster cleaning, and walls covered with obscene graffiti.4

In taking on this problem, the team had to learn how to deal with school bureaucracy, wrangle funding from district offices, gain the assent of union representatives, in short, do politics. But they also had to learn how to work with students who hadn’t bought into Public Achievement. Though the bathrooms were fixed by the end of the year, the problems returned the next year as graffiti started showing up again on the walls. So, the team started meeting with other kids in the school to develop a plan. What emerged was a mural created by the students for the bathroom walls, which remained graffiti free.

What I like so much about the Bathroom Busters story is not that it was a success but that it reveals what even young kids can contribute to the everyday functioning of a highly institutionalized domain like an urban public school. One could say without being far wrong that in an ideal world these kids would be studying math or literature rather than fixing bathrooms, but this is to miss the point. There are always scarcities, differences of opinion, hierarchies of power and authority, even in the best funded and most well-run human organization, and to be able to learn how to deal with these, together, in a constructive way is the essence of democratic education. Notice, too, that a problem that could have easily become professionalized and labeled as a “disciplinary” or even “criminal justice” issue and handled by the principal or school security or police, was taken up by the students themselves not as vigilantes but as well-organized teams. This is a self-taught lesson in how to create social order; the opportunities available to learn such lessons are rarer than most adults realize.

Helen Beattie, a democratic education reformer, talks about her work in terms of the “tools” she provides that others can choose to pick up, experiment with, tweak, discard, or make a part of their routine environment.5 The tools offered by Public Achievement developed over time, especially through the work of Dennis Donovan, principal of Saint Bernard’s Grade School in a low-income area of Saint Paul and one of the program’s early architects. A primary tool is the one-on-one meeting between someone already part of a group or team and another who might wish to join. The one-on-one seeks to find out what really motivates the other person, to discover fundamental interests held in common, and to link these, where possible, to the collective project. Another tool learned by students is power mapping, where an issue is discussed by the group to determine who has an interest in it, who else might be brought in, and what can be done. Like one-on-ones, power mapping is a “relational practice,” notes Boyte, which “radically changes young people’s perception of ‘power.’ Rather than seeing power only as an abstract category (‘others have power; we are powerless’), participants discover many kinds of power, many different interests around any question, and many potential ways to go about tackling a problem.”6

Another tool is public evaluation, in which students debrief at the end of a team meeting to talk about what worked and what didn’t and whether people are accomplishing tasks they have set out for themselves—a process of learning how to be accountable to others. In addition to these basic tools, Public Achievement is marked by a fundamental commitment to self-direction: “Teams usually begin their work by setting their own rules… They give their teams names…They develop mission statements. They designate and rotate roles—moderator, timekeeper, notetaker, evaluation leader, and others.”7 In the institutional environment of the school that can often, very subtly, discourage autonomy, equality, and voice, Public Achievement thrives on them. 

Awakening Democracy’s co-authors Marie-Louise Ström, Isak Tranvik, Tami L. Moore, Susan O’Connor, and Donna R. Patterson, are members of an expanding network of public work scholars and practitioners. Public Achievement, or some improvisational form of the program, has been used in public, private, urban, and rural school systems across the United States, but it has also found proponents in other countries, including Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Turkey, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and a number of post-Soviet societies through the School Plus Network. Reflecting on the connections between economic and democratic development, Boyte writes, “The public work framework makes explicit themes and concepts that are often implicit but largely unnamed: citizens as co-creators, democracy as a way of life, and citizen politics. Such politics involves work that builds common resources (‘the commonwealth’) across lines of difference in income, institutional contexts, ethnicity, religion, and party, creating new strategies and ways to also address questions of distributive justice and exclusion.”8

We occupy a stressed and anxious moment, of course, marked by great nervousness about the stability and level of support for basic democratic institutions and fundamental norms.9 While offering an optimistic view of democracy’s prospects, Boyte is also bracingly critical of managerial and technocratic trends inside government at all levels that devalue citizen contributions and weaken public linkages to democratic institutions. “Technocracy, control by experts, is accelerated by the efficiency principle and the digital revolution,” writes Boyte. “It reifies settings that once served as sources of civic learning, turning not only schools but also congregations, local businesses, unions, nonprofits, and government agencies into service delivery operations. This dynamic renders civic life an off-hours activity in civil society, usually through volunteering or community service, which are experienced as oases of civic idealism and decency in a degraded world. A great challenge of our time is to develop a politics to enlist the broad energies of all citizen to address our multiplying challenges.”10 If, as some suggest, it is distrust of elites and the feeling of being overlooked and excluded that provide the greatest fuel for anti-establishment and autocratic political candidates and movements, then the public work strategy of re-engagement and collective empowerment–beginning as early as possible with the youngest citizens—may be the single best remedy available.

The heart of technocracy, of course, is the university. It is hard to imagine expertise gaining authority in complex institutional fields without the cultural capital accumulated via higher education. Boyte makes clear that colleges and universities thus have a critical role in awakening democracy. Public work thinking is a deep challenge to academic business as usual, however. It calls on those of us on campuses to examine the ways – in pre-professional training, certification programs, and professional schools – citizen contributions are routinely devalued and repelled. This is so in nearly every professionalized domain—from medicine, to law, to education, to public administration and government. Colleges and universities can do much more to eschew such professionalized distance and begin to prepare “their students to be citizens through their everyday work—citizen teachers, citizen business owners, citizen lawyers, citizen nurses, citizen politicians.”11 This is a form of power-sharing on the part of professionals, to be sure, but it is also a way of recognizing and dignifying the many contributions lay citizens already make to solving social problems.   

Awakening Democracy thus raises important issues that will serve to constructively orient civic studies research and education reform in both K-12 and higher education institutions in the coming years. Public work is essential to facing up to the overarching challenge: the pervasive sense of dispossession among citizens across the ideological spectrum.

Albert W. Dzur is a professor of Political Science (with a joint appointment in Philosophy) at Bowling Green State University.

Harry Boyte, Awakening Democracy Through Public Work (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2018), pp. 7-8.
2 Ibid, p. 14.
3 Ibid, p. 15.
4 Ibid, pp. 58-9.
5 See Albert W. Dzur, Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Awakening Democracy, pp. 47-8.
Ibid, p. 48.
8 Ibid, p. 99.
9 See, e.g. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27 (3) (2016): 5-17.
10 Ibid, p. 104.
11 Ibid, p. 142.

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