By Harry C. Boyte
In a culture of polarized politics, quick fixes, and success defined as making money, how might citizenship become an ethos across the aisle, not an exception?
We need “a different kind of citizenship education,” more about creating civic identities as agents and architects of democracy than about knowing the branches of government or volunteering now and then. To spread such education, we need colleges and universities to rejoin our shared civic life, to become “part of” communities, not “partners with” communities.
In recent years, a chorus of political and civic leaders has called for strengthened citizenship education. But their view is limited. In most efforts, reflected in new legislation strengthening high school “civics” in Florida and elsewhere, the main citizen role is voting, with a nod to voluntarism. Democracy is largely the work of government.
A different view of citizenship education for today’s polarized society emerges from Dorothy Cotton’s new book, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The role of the citizenship education program in the civil rights movement (Atria Books, 2012). In the book, Cotton tells “the unknown story of the civil rights movement.”
Dorothy Cotton directed the Citizenship Education Program for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which I worked for as a college student. An African American battling the terrible legacy of slavery, Cotton made the view of citizens as the foundational agents of a democratic society voiced by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, come alive. As Jefferson put it,
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.
But Jefferson’s practice was far more limited than his vision.
In a compelling mix of personal narrative, little known stories of the civil rights movement, and political philosophy, Cotton gives living testimony to the idea of everyday citizens as transformative agents of change. She tells how more than 8,000 people from the South, by and large African Americans with a handful of poor Whites, were trained, mainly at SCLC’s “Dorchester Center” in McIntosh, Georgia, from 1960 to 1968. Participants came to think of themselves as active citizens, not victims.
They returned home to their communities and trained tens of thousands more, who in turn transformed southern communities, impacting the nation and the world.
The curriculum mixed skills of community organizing and consciousness-raising.
“Once people accepted that they did not have to live as victims—the goal of CEP training— they changed how they saw and felt about themselves,” writes Cotton.
She quotes Mrs. Topsy Eubanks, who described the transformation with vernacular eloquence: “The cobwebs commenced a-moving from my brain.”
People developed a view of government as “ours,” not “theirs.” And they developed a sense of new collective efficacy.
We moved away from thinking of ourselves as isolated and alone, and instead went out into the wider community with our work. Ultimately we were able to envision ‘community’ as including people very different from ourselves.
The communities which sustained this spirit became sustaining local cultures of empowerment. We need such cultures today on a large scale.
Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.