"For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity
but of power and love and self-discipline."
2 Timothy 1:7, New Living Translation
The day of the dead is a day to remember. Let's remember that those who invented the word democracy placed popular power, not voting, at the center. As the classical scholar Josiah Ober shows in his essay "The Original Meaning of Democracy," democracy for the Greeks did not mean voting. It meant, "the empowered demos...not just a matter of control of a public realm but the collective strength and ability to act within that realm and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action."
When the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville travelled America in the 1830s he found this meaning of democracy alive in the vibrant associations which Americans created. In contrast to France, where people petitioned the King to solve problems like alcoholism, in America people organized to solve problems themselves, sometimes with government as a partner. "In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons," he wrote in the classic, Democracy in America. Tocqueville argued that collaboration among citizens "is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one."
I learned this view of democracy in the election of 1964. Too young to vote — change in the voting age came in 1972 — I proclaimed with the zeal of an 18-year-old to Oliver Harvey, the janitor at Duke who was organizing a union, that, "There is no difference" between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater," the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties that year. "Johnson won't desegregate the South!" I said.
Harvey replied, "That's ridiculous. That's what we're doing, desegregating the South." But Harvey also detailed the ways in which a president could make a difference in our work — helping shape the public narrative, supporting legislation, making federal appointments, protecting civil rights workers and more. He was making the point that while government — and politicians — are crucial partners, the driver of change and democracy is the people.
The southern freedom movement was infused with Harvey's insight. Hundreds of citizenship schools across the south sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference developed the civic power of local people. I worked for this program. Its architect was Septima Clark, an African-American educator in South Carolina. She developed a focus on agency over decades of organizing against white supremacy, for black control over schools and for women's power in such struggles.
Katherine Charron brings this history to life in her marvelous book Freedom's Teacher in ways which help us to see empowerment at work. Clark's philosophy linked "practical literacy with political and economy literacy." People gained the vote, and did much more. The process of empowerment, beginning with people's everyday concerns, developed new confidence, self-reliance, skills and citizen identities. Charron's book shows how the process of civic empowerment, or civic agency, was transformative. It developed among marginalized African Americans a largeness of spirit and capacities to negotiate a world full of different interests, views, and conflicts.
In turn they inspired the nation.
Charron's book makes clear that civic agency is different than civic engagement, which means involvement in the civic life of a community. It also differs from activism. Both civic engagement and activism can be important. But empowerment changes lives and changes the world.
All of my subsequent work has been about how civic agency can be developed and what pedagogies and cultures which develop civic agency look like. In the 1970s and 1980s I researched and wrote about such civic learning in many kinds of civic initiative and institutional settings.
One story was about the church based Communities Organized for Public Service in the barrios of San Antonio. Ernesto Cortes, the first organizer, uses the theological term, metanoia, to describe transformation through empowerment. We see similar dynamics among many young people in our youth civic empowerment initiative Public Achievement. Alyssa Blood, who did her thesis on of special education students in Public Achievement, calls the process developing a public persona.
Today America has forgotten this meaning of democracy and its transformations. The vast process of grassroots empowerment in the freedom movement which once inspired the nation is largely invisible in museums and public accounts.
More broadly, the official definition of democracy on the web site of the Agency for International Development is about the election of political leaders — not the power of the people. And this year's election most certainly does not enlarge people's identities or lift their spirits.
In contrast, Obama's 2008 campaign did contain dimensions of the older meanings. Its message was "Yes We Can." In every speech he called for citizenship, far more than voting. The campaign included organizing elements that generated deep changes in participants. Yet the press ignored the citizenship message and these elements. They are not in this election.
At Augsburg we are embarking on a process called Civic Studies that focuses on citizens as co-creators of learning cultures, not consumers of education. We want Augsburg to become an international leader in teaching skills of civic agency (the term is in the Augsburg 2019 goals), We also want Augsburg folks to become adept in seeing civic agency. This involves remembering stories of civic empowerment. The book of Nehemiah can help.
Nehemiah was an advisor to the king of Persia during the diaspora in 446 B.C. A skillful organizer and politician, he got permission to return to Jerusalem in order to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls. "You see the trouble we are in; Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burned down," he told the assembled crowd.
Nehemiah did not deliver the people from bondage, in the manner of Moses. Rather he called people to hard work that proved to be transformative. It lifted the Jewish people's sights and changed their sense of self, individually and collectively. "Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer." The people responded. "Let us start! Let us build." The Bible recounts that "with willing hands they set about the good work" (Nehemiah 2:17-18). Nehemiah held together a motley crew -- 40 different groups are named, including merchants, priests, governors, nobles, members of the perfume and goldsmiths' guilds, and women. Nehemiah worked on the walls himself.
As the walls rose the Jewish people renewed a sense of God's provenance and their own moral agency. A culture of greed and instant gratification had produced fragmentation and a decline in morale. As they rebuilt the walls they became co-creators of the world, not subjects or victims of principalities and powers.
The Nehemiah story holds multiple lessons for us today. We have become afflicted by civic illnesses that recall the Hebrews. We have bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, race, religion and geography. Talents and intelligence of people without money, credentials, and celebrity status are radically devalued. We are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers. In today's America, powerlessness is pervasive.
Powerless people look to great leaders to save them.
We need to find civic leaders in politics and elsewhere who are partners, not saviors. These are like our own Martin Sabo, whom I worked with in the 1990s in a project with the Clinton White House to revitalize citizenship. Such leaders call forth the democratic genius of a productive, generous and future- oriented citizenry. They are also citizen professionals, on tap not on top. They reject the rescuer role. They recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box. Such a way of life transforms the identities of people, as it develops their capacities.
America is rich with stories of such civic empowerment in our history — Michael Lansing's book, Insurgent Democracy, tells one story, the NonPartisan League. It is crucial to remember many others.
And we need all to do the inspiriting work of rebuilding democracy's walls and revitalizing its spirit of power.
Copyright © Harry Boyte
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