Power and Hope
 —  Harry C. Boyte

Sabo Symposium on Awakening Democracy through Public Work
Augsburg University, November 12, 2018

The poster for this symposium invites us to "explore the potential of a nonviolent civic philosophy of co-creation to transform a culture of division and domination." That's my topic, adding "politics" to "power" and "hope." I begin with a crucial lesson from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, largely forgotten today: The philosophy of nonviolence is a different kind of power and politics. The book, Awakening Democracy, also shows how nonviolent power and politics can be spread through public work.

In the movement, I learned nonviolence wasn't "speaking truth to power." It was transforming power with a different kind of politics. This is needed more than ever.


Then and now

My formative experience was the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s. People often ask, what is its relevance now? In fact, the parallels are powerful.

The South of my childhood was full of fear, fatalism, and fury. My teachers and friends in the white community were afraid to talk openly about segregation. My parents were among a handful of European Americans in Atlanta who were outspoken critics of Jim Crow. None of their friends believed segregation would end in their lives. The level of angry rhetoric in those years was even greater than the rhetoric of today.

In 1959 my dad's name, Harry George Boyte, was in the Atlanta newspaper. He had helped to organize a group dedicated to keeping public schools open. The politicians were declaring their intention to close the schools rather than allow desegregation and demonizing any who objected. We had 150 abusive phone calls in a week. Many threatened to kill us. My younger sister Anne was bullied throughout her school years because of my parents' involvements. My father was stripped naked and almost castrated in 1962 by the American Nazi Party in Virginia when he was working on school desegregation. Nonviolence saved our family.

There are many parallels with today. People are sometimes afraid to have Thanksgiving dinner with family members of a different political persuasion. According to the Better Angels movement, 90 % of Republicans have a very unfavorable view of Democrats and 89% of Democrats reciprocate. More than 40% do not want their child to marry a person from another political party.

Another parallel is striking. In the 1960s, a second civil war was brewing in the South over desegregation. Today, the social fabric is again fraying. People trust each other less. Friendship circles have narrowed. Places like the local drug store of Hubert Humphrey's father in the little town of Doland, South Dakota, where people of different views learned to work across differences, have closed. In their place are chain stores and online communities of like-minded people. Internet bullying is growing.

Robert Putnam described the decline of social capital in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Dhruv Khullar, a Massachusetts physician, reports that since then the number of adults reporting loneliness has skyrocketed. Young people under 35, the most prolific social media users, are those who feel most alone. What can be done?


Wellsprings of nonviolence

In the civil rights movement I learned that nonviolence can transform rage and domination into productive public relationships. Nonviolence in the movement was not simply civil disobedience, nor was it pacifism. It was a philosophy of action that cultivated spiritual, moral, and psychological disciplines not to demonize opponents. I was taught this by people like Dorothy Cotton, director of the Citizenship Education Program for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King's organization; Oliver Harvey, a janitor at Duke University who was organizing maids and janitors into a union; and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

I stress the political nature of nonviolence. My teachers conveyed a profound lesson of politics which has largely disappeared: the most effective way to make change is to understand opponents, not humiliate or defeat them. This is second in King's list of principles of nonviolence. The movement illustrated this political point again and again. Dorothy Cotton invited a group of angry poor whites from Appalachia — who might have included members of the KKK — to the Dorchester Center in Georgia where people were learning how to create organizing schools in their communities. The poor whites came away deeply changed. Oliver Harvey framed the organizing campaign at Duke as the way to advance the Duke educational mission. He said that maids and janitors would be much better contributors to the educational mission if they were accorded respect and had better wages and working conditions. He regularly told me to calm down faculty and students who were angrily protesting. Bayard Rustin framed the March on Washington as a way to "win over the middle" to support for the movement. His strategy is essential to understanding Martin Luther King's, "I Have a Dream."

The politics of understanding one's opponents animated what the historian Charles Payne calls "developmental politics," in his book, I've Got the Light of Freedom. Such politics was taught in the grassroots organizing schools across the south. As Payne describes, in such politics "the most important thing [is] the development of efficacy in those most affected by a problem." Such politics contrasts radically with today's typical politics, which demonizes those on the other side. Nonviolent politics of this kind also impacts oneself. As Martin Luther King put it, "The nonviolent approach first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had."

Such nonviolent politics transforms victimhood into empowerment. As Dorothy Cotton wrote, "People who had lived for generations with a sense of impotence, with a consciousness of anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them."


Discovering the importance of public work

When Harlan Cleveland, dean of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, asked me to create a democracy project in 1987, we brought in Dorothy Cotton to teach the philosophy of nonviolent change making through empowerment. She also taught a song: "We are the ones we've been waiting for," a phrase from the South African anti-apartheid movement later used in the 2008 Obama campaign.

We called the movement's nonviolent politics citizen politics. It was enriched by skills drawn from community organizing like power mapping, relational meetings to understand another's motivations, and collective evaluation. Our mission was to spread citizen politics everywhere.

We realized a large obstacle when we began to work with institutions like the College of St. Catherine, schools, Augustana Nursing Home and the Cooperative Extension Service which wanted to deepen their civic purposes: Nonviolent citizen politics requires "free spaces" where people have the ability to self-organize and develop civic muscle. In today's efficiency-minded culture, where the drive is to achieve a narrow end as quickly and efficiently as possible — teaching to the test, winning the election, making curing the sick, making a profit — large, multi-dimensional public purposes are marginalized. Over time, working with partners through Humphrey and later Augsburg University, we found that nonviolent citizen politics requires "making work more public," or public work. We define public work as work by a diverse mix of people, a public, which creates something of lasting public significance and value.

This meant returning to the civil rights movement's emphasis on uplifting work. The bookends of King's career were domestic workers walking to work rather than ride segregated buses in Montgomery in 1956 and garbage workers on strike in Memphis in 1968, with signs, "I am a Man." King eloquently voiced this emphasis: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as a Michelangelo painted," he told Cleveland high school students in 1967. "All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance." I began using a story of two bricklayers who were asked what they were doing. One said building a wall. The other said building a cathedral.

The first dynamic of public work is to push back against the enormous forces in an efficiency culture which silence discussion of the purposes of work, whether in government or teaching or business or health or sports or in anything else. Public work affirms the importance of sustained reflection on "why?" and "so what?" Here are three other principles of public work:

Political skills of work across differences: The first is learning the skills of working across even great differences in a nonviolent way. From the beginning, we realized these can be learned by children. Awakening Democracy is full of such stories. Young people in a public work framework are co- creators, citizens today, not citizens in waiting to vote.

In Public Achievement, teams of people — usually ranging from elementary through high school students — work over the year on issues they choose. Their issues must be tackled nonviolently and make a public contribution. Saint Bernard's, Dennis's school, set the pattern often used for choosing issues. They began at the start of the school year with an "issues convention." Students discussed problems in the school, the neighborhood, and the larger world, then voted to determine their priorities. Coaches came from Jim Farr's political science class at the University of Minnesota, "Citizen Education." In 1993 one team chose to work on creating a neighborhood playground.

Parents had tried to build a playground a couple of years earlier but backed down when neighbors voiced opposition, fearing it would be a magnet for gangs. The children took on the work themselves. "By the second year I knew it would happen," Joey Lynch, a leader, remembered.

How it happened is the most important part of the story, illustrating the different kind of politics involved. Years later, Joey's younger sister Alaina, who also worked on the playground, remembered the lesson. "It was a 'no-brainer' to have a playground for kids instead of an old lot, but that didn't mean that making it happen was straightforward," Alaina explained. She learned about city politics. "Public Achievement opened my eyes to the processes of government — petitions, connecting with the city council, commenting, obtaining permits." She also learned neighborhood politics. "There are multiple sides to every idea. Even something that seemed straightforward to me could have negative ramifications from another point of view." They demonstrated they had a plan for mitigating risk — a fence and the playground closed after hours.

The teams got the parish council on their side. They negotiated zoning changes with city officials. They raised more than $60,000 from local businesses in the North End Business Association and other groups. To accomplish these tasks, the children learned how to interview people, write letters, give speeches, and call people they didn't know. They understood the views of adults they thought were their enemies on the issue. They mapped power, did research, negotiated and learned to compromise.

In 1999, Angela Matthews, a young adult leader of Public Achievement from Northern Ireland, spoke to a Twin Cities Public Achievement conference that included young people from third grade through college. She asked, "How many of you like politics?" Most raised their hands. Then she made her point: "It's because we're doing politics; it's not simply something politicians do."

New habits of mind: The second way that public work adds to nonviolent power and politics is through deepening King's principle of self-change. When the Center for Democracy and Citizenship moved from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute to Augsburg College in 2009, Dennis Donovan began working with the special education preservice program. Faculty saw public work politics as an answer to the critique from within their own field that special education stigmatized children and tries to "fix" them with a medical model.

Dennis and two faculty members, Susan O'Connor and Donna Patterson, partnered with Michael Ricci and Alissa Blood, graduates of the special education program at Augsburg who were teaching at Fridley Middle School. They designed an alternative class in the school using the Public Achievement approach. Over three years, it produced dramatic results. So-called "problem" students, most of whom were students of color and low-income, strictly confined to their special education class, became public leaders on issues such as school bullying. They built relationships and received recognition in the school and in the larger Fridley community. Their Public Achievement work brought them into contact with school administrators, community leaders, elected officials, and media outlets. Minnesota Public Radio did a feature story.

For her master's thesis on the impact of Public Achievement, Blood conducted face-to-face conversations with five participants and made detailed observations of their behavior. She found substantial effects on students' self-image, sense of empowerment, and behavior. "They believed that they were more capable than they had ever thought they were in the past," Blood writes. "The students believed that they could be positive citizens and that the people who believed differently about them were wrong. This is a very powerful belief for any student in middle school."

Many expressed new pride and confidence. "I feel more mature and happy," said one. Another commented, "I feel like we can change a lot of things in the world." Involvement in Public Achievement had notable effects on behavior. "It is a good way to learn to be more respectful," said a third. "It was nice to learn you have to take in what other people want and you can't just insist on doing everything yourself."

This transformation in habits of mind is seen across the world, with adults as much as with children who do public work. Marie Strvm, director of the democracy education efforts for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, adapted public work in Africa. In Burundi, where public-work education was taken to villages, the adult educators with whom she worked spoke about the dramatic impact. One commented, "I was afraid that people at village level might get lost in the training, but even if it was a little challenging for them at the beginning, their minds were awakened and they very quickly came up to speed. Democracy started to become concrete for them — the power to take action on issues right where they live." Another described a relocation of "politics" to include everyday citizens: "At the beginning, some were uneasy about conducting interviews. 'This is politics,' they said. Later a participant said proudly, 'I can do politics myself now!'" Trainers reported remarkable changes in themselves, as well. As one put it, "I had done research and training on democracy before this, but I had not lived it. Now I have seen that a skilled citizen has more power than one can imagine." Another described shifts in the meanings of democracy and citizenship: "This course changes one's understanding of democracy itself. Our language has changed. Citizens are at the center."

New patterns of professionalism: The third way public work deepens nonviolent power and politics is through new patterns of professional identity and practice, a shift from a controlling view of their role to a catalytic role. Bill Doherty, a leading family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, is an example. He pioneered in the concept and practice of "citizen professional" by translating his private skills of marriage counseling and group work into public skills that help lay citizens take initiative on their own. In the process they often repair relationships in their communities. A case is the depolarization movement earlier noted, Better Angels. Bill crafted the processes through which people learn to hear and understand each other across the Red — Blue divide. It is a movement with the enormous aim of repairing a huge conflict tearing America apart.

A community-wide example is Clear Vision in Eau Claire Wisconsin, catalyzed by a city manager who changed the normal approach.

In the early 21st century, cutbacks in state contributions and increases in fuel, energy, and health-care costs in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resulted in larger school classes and less revenue for the museum, the senior center, low-income housing, and social services. Mike Huggins, the city manager, saw an opportunity. He had learned the concept of public work in the mid-1990s while participating in a project on underage drinking with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota. He liked the way public work includes the idea of "citizen professionals" who work with lay citizens in empowering ways that draw out their talents and capacities. He also saw obstacles. "The idea of citizen-centered problem-solving requires managers letting go of control, which is hard," Huggins reflected. Yet he was convinced that local government needed a paradigm shift: "a twenty-first- century vision for local democracy centered on citizens." The question was how to do that.

In 2007 in the setting of budget cuts, Huggins organized an informal meeting of government and nonprofit leaders to discuss how to deal with the challenges of social services and infrastructure. He proposed they enlist the broader community. What followed was a planning process with a strong action orientation, involving government, businesses, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, United Way and a diverse cross section of the community, none of which dominated. The initiating committee made special efforts to recruit from low-income and minority ethnic groups, including the Hmong community, African-Americans, and local trade unions.

The visioning and planning process respected the knowledge of lay citizens in highly unusual ways. Huggins wrote in a report to the Ford Foundation that in contrast to most community planning efforts, in Eau Claire, "citizens are actively involved in designing and conducting the process, determining the format and substance of recommendations, writing the final report, and determining the implementation strategies." The goal was to "blend citizen passion with technical knowledge and expertise." These elements came to define the citizen group that emerged, called Clear Vision. It seeks "to convene, nurture and support diverse groups of community members for civic work that addresses the immediate and future needs of Eau Claire." Harvard University's Innovations in American Government awarded Clear Vision $10,000 for its work, highlighting the key role played by concepts of public work, power, politics, and diversity. Harvard noted that Clear Vision also was rare in its intense and sustained skill-building processes.

Over more than a decade, Clear Vision has sparked many projects including a Sojourner House homeless shelter, community gardens, and public art throughout the city. It has been the driving force behind the Confluence Project, a $45 million performing arts center connected to a $35 million commercial and residential development project in downtown Eau Claire. As significant as visible results are changes in civic culture which create a welcoming, open, connected community. In the view of Vicki Hoehn, vice president of the Royal Credit Union, Clear Vision created a shift in mindset. "At the time we began, our community blamed government. People said nothing happened because the government was too slow." She believes that Clear Vision "opened a lot of eyes." She continued, "It's not about relying on or blaming government. It's about taking responsibility and ownership ourselves as citizens." The collaborative approach also impacts the credit union. "Everything I do I say, 'How will this affect others?" she explains. "I listen more. I ask questions, I probe on collaboration, I ask my staff, 'How do you work with other people?'"

Ten years of work in Clear Vision have shown that it is possible to reweave the social fabric through public work. Eau Claire illustrates the ancient biblical lesson from the book of Nehemiah: People repair their identity as they work together to "rebuild the walls" of their city. To sum up, here are four principles of public work that deepen and spread nonviolent power and politics: public work emphasizes work's public purposes; it teaches skills of work across even profound differences; it recognizes that social change involves self-change; it encourages professional practices that step back from "control" and catalyze self-organizing processes. These often result in civic repair.

Such principles weave through the stories from around the world in Awakening Democracy. They are relevant everywhere.

Copyright © Harry Boyte


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