Posts Tagged '#CivAg10'

Footage from the Civic Agency Institute: Harry Boyte on We the People

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

“It’s important for us as academics to recognize that our knowledge is less important than the community’s knowledge. As an academic, you are on tap – not on top. It is essential for communities to develop their own power.” – Harry Boyte

For those of you who weren’t able to join us in DC for the third annual Civic Agency Institute, please see below for footage from the event. In this video, Harry Boyte elaborates on We the People and explains how we might describe our work to others. This is an amazing and short (15 minutes long) speech that lays the groundwork for We the People.

The song is “We Are the Ones” by Melissa Etheridge.

We the People Part 3

By Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

“Something is stirring,” Cecilia Orphan wrote on the ADP blog, Thursday night of the Civic Agency meeting held last week, November 11th and 12th, at the state college and university building in Washington DC. More than 60 people discussed their work over the last year and made plans for a “We the People” (WtheP) effort to change customer service government – government which mainly does things for the people — into government of the people and by the people. In  the We the People vision, government is our meeting ground, partner and common instrument in addressing our problems and building a shared life.  Teams from 18 colleges and universities joined with representatives of Rock the Vote, Sojourners, the White House Office of Social Innovation, community colleges,  the American Library Association, National Issues Forums and Strengthening our Nation’s Democracy network, among others.

Among many important steps forward, I want to highlight three:

  • Empowerment gap. A focus on the empowerment gap needs to replace the achievement gap. Rom Coles, Director of the Community, Culture and Environment Center, Miguel Vasquez, professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, and other colleagues described the remarkable organizing work in the area around Flagstaff on issues ranging from weatherization and sustainable environments, to immigrant rights, water, and youth empowerment through Public Achievement. Against a tide of fear-mongering politics, Vasquez won a seat on the Flagstaff board of education on the platform of “the empowerment gap.” His focus on the empowerment gap highlights that the deepest problem in our education is that young people – especially children and teens of low income, minority, and immigrant backgrounds – feel “acted upon,” not agents of their education. A We the People movement will have as a central emphasis closing “the empowerment gap,” empowering young people to take leadership in developing the kind of education they need to be shapers of their lives, agents of change, and co-creators of healthy communities and the democracy.
  • Public knowledge: There were many examples of a deepening in what Nancy Kranich, former president of the American Library Association and head of its new Center for Public Life, called “public knowledge.” Public knowledge involves developing ways to continuously learn from our mistakes, our successes, and our ongoing work. I was struck especially by the innovations in Public Achievement in many settings – Georgia College, Northern Arizona, Central Connecticut, Lincoln, and elsewhere. Many other examples emerged as well — “Tuesday Teas” at Western Kentucky, which offer ways for the campus and community to exchange and discuss experiences every week; debriefings of student weatherization efforts in Flagstaff, which help students learn from their community experience, the efforts of students at Lincoln and Florida A&M University to develop new forms of community service which empower, instead of provide charity. As Gary Paul pointed out in his concluding remarks, learning from the gritty, real, everyday work of making change is the way people develop “political sobriety” and a “prophetic imagination.” These point beyond the givens, allow us to work with people who make us uncomfortable,  and cultivate a long term perspective.
  • A new public narrative: We the People is not something in the future – it is emerging all over the place, as our colleagues, students,  staff, and faculty rework relations with elected officials and other decision making bodies to be partners in public work, not mainly providers of services. The outstanding example is at University of Maryland/Baltimore County, where Yasmin Karimian and her fellow students have fundamentally reworked student government (the SGA) into a center for activating the public work of students and creating a different, more collaborative and respectful relationship between students, faculty, and the administration. One of the highlights of the organizing conference for me was the interconnection between these local examples of public work and large scale change – a connection which Paul Markham at Western Kentucky argues will be the centerpiece of the emerging movement. In the session on “Creating a Citizen Demand for ‘We the People’ Democracy, with Norm Ornstein, one of the nation’s leading political analysts, and Marta Urquilla, senior policy analyst with the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, we pointed to UMBC student government as a model for governments at every level to learn from – a return to government of and by the people.

Overall, many agreed that the challenge of American revitalization depends upon developing a new public narrative in which all participate and help to craft. It will be full of argument and difference on issues ranging from immigrants to the nature and content of education for the 21st century and the meaning of “the good life,” in a culture in which many students feel we’ve gone too far toward consumerism and “the rat race” (as students told me recently about their parents’ generation, at Lone Star community college in Houston Texas). But it will also be full of rich local stories of citizens shifting from complainers, victims,  consumers, and supplicants of government to “owners of the store,” makers of change, agents and architects of the democracy.

The Civic Agency/We the People working meeting in Washington convinced me, yet again, the state colleges and universities will provide crucial leadership.

Reflecting on the Civic Agency Institute and Our Work Ahead

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

We had a wonderful conclusion to our two-day institute in Washington, DC. On the second day, our campuses started mapping the next two years of their work. While being facilitated by two students from Middle Tennessee State University, each of the 18 campuses represented at the Institute presented their early action plans. I am both inspired and impressed by what their plans entail.

This work calls for a lot of community organizing – power mapping, one-to-ones, relationship building, etc. The university leaders that attended our meeting are among the most talented and dedicated people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They are passionate about making government by the people a reality. And they understand the paramount importance of working with students to make this happen. Finally, they believe deeply in the democratic purpose of higher education and see themselves as instrumental to realizing this purpose.

Over the next few months, I’ll feature stories of the early work of our campuses on the blog as they agitate students to solve local problems with elected officials. The theme of our national conference in Orlando, June 2-4, 2011, will be animated by “We the People.” We’ve driven the ideas of “We the People” into the theme of the national meeting which is, “Beyond Voting: Citizenship in the New Era.” During the ADP Meeting we will explore what it means to be a citizen. In the conference programming, we will pay special attention to models for successful community-elected officials partnerships and the progress we’ve made in the first seven months of this new phase of our work.

I recorded Harry’s closing remarks and will share those in the next week or so after editing. Not quite sure what We the People is? Read this blog post. Not sure what Civic Agency is? Visit this website. And if you’d like to get involved in the movement,contact me!

Something is Definitely Stirring: Day 1 of the Civic Agency Institute

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Just a quick word about today before I head to bed. I think it’s clear that there’s something stirring. Our students, faculty members, and national partners were talking about our work as a “movement.” It seems clear that ADP schools will lead this work. In the movement, we’re trying to activate citizens to solve local problems by partnering with elected officials. This movement presents an alternative to the negative, partisan bickering that we’ve been subjected to. Under Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan’s leadership, ADP campuses are offering a new vision of how politics can work.

During the day, the 65 participants in the institute were bombarded with loads of information – ideas about how they might partner with national organizations like Rock the Vote (we had Eric Axelson in the meeting), the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and the National Issues Forum; strategies for infusing civic agency principles throughout the curriculum; tips for working with students, and more.

We had a wonderful set of speakers including Nancy Kranich who talked about how we might use academic libraries as civic spaces. KerryAnn O’Meara described the attributes of faculty members who have a sense of their own civic agency and ability to affect change. KerryAnn also described strategies institutions can use to activate and support their faculty members in becoming civic agents. Marta Urquilla from the White House gave us more insight into how the Obama Administration is working to engage people in governance. Joe Mark, Academic Dean at Castleton State, helped us understand what it means to truly infuse Civic Agency across campus. Joe also helped participants understand the power of working in partnership relationships with students. The folks from Northern Arizona (Rom Coles and Miguel Vasquez) described the work they’ve been doing with Public Achievement and their local school system. And we had a lot of time to think and talk about how we might, as public colleges and universities, fulfill our purpose as being Stewards of Place and Stewards of Democracy. It was a wonderfully energizing day and I look forward to tomorrow’s meeting when we get down to the brass tacks of what we’ll do next.

So…what is next? We’re going to ask participants to answer Melissa Helmbrecht‘s challenge of making their work immediate, measurable and specific. We’ll help participants build action plans and think about next steps, and then they’ll return to their campuses and start organizing. I hope you’ll join the conversation by commenting on this blog post, leaving a comment on the ADP Facebook page, engaging us on Twitter, or giving me a call.

Not quite sure what We the People is? Read this blog post. Not sure what Civic Agency is? Visit this website. And if you’d like to get involved in the movement, contact me!

Follow the Institute on Twitter using #CivAg10.

Question: What are the specific, immediate, and measurable things we can do as ADP campuses to activate our students to solve local problems?

Follow the Civic Agency Institute This Week!

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Use this hash tag to follow the Civic Agency Institute: #CivAg10.


Yasmin Karimian and Harry Boyte at the 2009 Civic Agency Institute


This Thursday, in partnership with Dennis Donovan and Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, we are kicking off the Civic Agency Institute in Washington, DC. We have 65 faculty members, students, and national partners joining us in DC. These 65 people are what we call, “Agents and Architects of Democracy” in higher education. These academic leaders, students, and faculty members are working to fulfill higher education’s legacy of promoting and protecting American democracy. The Institute is the annual event of the Civic Agency initiative. In Civic Agency, we are experimenting with strategies for developing a deep sense of civic agency in undergraduate students.  Civic agency involves the capacities of citizens to work collaboratively across differences like partisan ideology, faith traditions, income, geography and ethnicity to address common challenges, solve problems, and create common ground. Civic agency requires a set of individual skills, knowledge, and predispositions.

During the Civic Agency Institute, we will launch the new We the People phase of our work with Harry Boyte.  In We the People, we are working to “animate ‘citizen voters’ in 2012. While many leaders are needed in such an initiative, we believe that college students in American Democracy Project schools can take key leadership, reminiscent of the roles students played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When the question is the civic health of elections, the government, and the nation itself, and when the electoral process is threatening to spin out of control, we need a broad movement in which the whole citizenry works to redeem American democracy. Civically-oriented politicians are allies and partners, not enemies, in this work.” Taken from Harry Boyte’s blog post.

We have an incredible line-up of co-creators at the Institute who will help us think about how to operationalize We the People. What follows is a sampling of our co-creators: Nancy Kranich, Chair, American Library Association Center for Public Life, Rutgers University New Brunswick, William (Bill) V. Muse, President, National Issues Forum, Norm Ornstein, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy and Research, KerryAnn O’Meara, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Maryland, College Park, and Marta Urquilla, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, White House. We will also have a representative from Rock the Vote join one of our roundtable discussions.

I see this Institute as the launching point for a new tactical way to deepen our work in the American Democracy Project. I’m very excited to see what unfolds!

We will be live blogging and Tweeting from the Institute. Follow along on this blog and by using the Civic Agency Hashtag #CivAg10. See below for the entire agenda.

Question: How are you working with students to develop their civic agency? What are the important next steps you can take to make “We the People” a reality?


Civic Agency Institute

“We the People”


Thursday, November 11

8:30 a.m.          Welcome and Framing Discussion: “We the People,” The Return of the Citizen Voter

Harry C. Boyte, Co-Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

George L. Mehaffy, Vice President, Academic Leadership and Change, AASCU

9:15 a.m.          Campus Highlights and Challenges

Cecilia Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project, AASCU

10:15 a.m.         Break

10:30 a.m.         Roundtable: Creating a Citizen Demand for “We the People” Democracy: Countering Vilification with Public Problem Solving

Norm Ornstein, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy and Research

Marta Urquilla, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, White House

A Rock the Vote representative will also participate in this panel.

11:30 a.m.         Strategizing for the Next Two Years

Yasmin Karimian, Student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Paul Markham, Co-Director, The Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, Western Kentucky University

Dennis Donovan, National Organizer, Public Achievement, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

12:30 p.m.        Break

12:40 p.m.        Lunch and showing of 50-50: The American Divide Film and Nobody Turn Me Around

Followed by a conversation with Charles Euchner, Author and Creator, Nobody Turn Me Around

1:45 p.m.          Making “We the people” a Reality: Strategies for Curricular and Co-Curricular Change

Joe Mark, Academic Dean, Castleton State College

Nancy Kranich, Chair, American Library Association Center for Public Life, American Library Association Center for Public Life

KerryAnn O’Meara, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Maryland, College Park

2:45 p.m.          Break

3 p.m.               Workshop Breakout Sessions (Descriptions on the next page)

Workshop Title Room
1. Agitation 101 

Dennis Donovan, National Organizer, Public Achievement


6th Floor Conference Room
2. Creating Civic Minors in Teacher Education 

Jolanda Westerhof, Director, Teacher Education, AASCU


2nd Floor Conference Room
3. Self Designed/Open Topic 

Harry Boyte, CDC and Cecilia Orphan, ADP


5th Floor Conference Room
4. National Issues Forum (NIF) Information Session  

Bill Muse, President, NIF

Nancy Kranich, American Library Association Center for Public Life

All-Purpose Room

4:30 p.m.          Building the Civic Agency Movement in Northern Arizona

Jason Lowry, Community-Based Research Associate, Northern Arizona University

5:30 p.m.          Reflection

Gary Paul, Associate Professor, Florida A&M University

Friday, November 12, 2010

9:00 a.m. – 2 p.m.

9 a.m.               Public Achievement Roundtable

Abigail Adams, Professor, Anthropology, Central Connecticut State University

Robbin Smith, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Central Connecticut State University

Gregg Kauffman, Instructor, Coordinator of Civic Engagement and ADP Coordinator, Georgia College and State University

Christopher T. Sutton, Coordinator of Student Development, Lincoln University of Missouri

10:45 a.m.         Ideas for Organizing the Cohort – National Initiative

George L. Mehaffy, Vice President of Academic Leadership and Change, AASCU

Cecilia Orphan, National Project Manager, American Democracy Project, AASCU

12:00 p.m.        Working Lunch: Bringing It Home: Review of Campus Plans

Cecilia Orphan, National Project Manager, American Democracy Project, AASCU

1:35 p.m.          Reflection

Harry C. Boyte, Senior Fellow, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

1:45 p.m.          Public Evaluation

Dennis Donovan, National Organizer, Public Achievement, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

2:00 p.m.          Adjourn

We the People Politics

By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

The election results of 2010 are misread by commentators across the spectrum. On the right the Republican victories are described as a conservative backlash. On the left they are seen as the result of the administration’s failure to push aggressively enough in the direction of European-style social democracy in which government is the driver of change. From the center, the problem is too many issues. Writing in the New York Times, former senator Evan Bayh of Indiana argues Wednesday morning that the Democrats’ mistake was not focusing single-mindedly on economic growth. Going forward, in his opinion, “every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?’

A more compelling explanation is that the civic and populist movement which elected Barack Obama in 2008, confounding conventional political labels, is yet to fully emerge.

Populism is caricatured in the media as a politics of grievance and anger. In this view, populism appears in flamboyant protests of the Tea Party or diatribes against government and other enemies on cable television and talk radio. But the genuine politics of populism is based on the view that while politicians and presidents play important roles, it takes ordinary citizens to “build America.”

This populism was central to the cooperatives of black and white small farmers of the late 19th century at the base of the Populist Party, the labor movements of the 1930s and the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. All challenged unaccountable elites while also emphasizing the responsibility of everyone for “promoting the general welfare” and creating “a more perfect union.” These movements included large programs of popular self-education and uplift out of the belief that a thriving democracy requires a public who rises to the occasion of citizenship.

Martin Luther King described to me his identification with such populism on a hot summer day in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, when I was working as a college student for his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I tell the story in my recent book The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference.

Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 reflected such populism. As Marshall Ganz, a key architect of the campaign’s grassroots organizing operation, reminds us this morning in the Los Angeles Times, the effort was animated by “values that had long been eclipsed in our public life: a sense of mutual responsibility, commitment to equality and belief in inclusive diversity.” The campaign activated millions of ordinary citizens, most of whom had never been involved in formal politics, and taught many the basics of grassroots organizing. It also embodied a deep respect for the talents and intelligence of the people, reflected in Obama’s “The America We Love” speech, June 30, 2008: “The greatness of this country, its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and quiet heroism.”

Ganz urges the administration to return to such values and reliance on ordinary people,  and this is a good idea. But genuine populism is not called into being by any leader, no matter how eloquent. Its roots grow from local communities, as people learn to work across differences of race, income and ideology to address challenges of economic development education, the environment and other issues, and develop a larger sense of themselves as builders of the commonwealth in the process.

Next time around ordinary citizens, schooled in such experiences of public work across differences, will need to insist on a “We the People” populist politics. In such a politics government is neither the enemy nor the savior but our meeting ground and collective instrument.

State colleges and universities committed to becoming “stewards of place” and teaching the skills of civic agency can be seedbeds and anchors for a We the People politics, in the process contributing immensely to the revitalization of our democracy.


New Student Politics and We the People

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

“We discovered at Wingspread, however, a common sense that while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged.” – Excerpt from The New Student Politics: The Wingspread Statement on Civic Engagement

Recently, I re-read New Student Politics and was struck by how timely the document still is even though it was published nine years ago. When I started managing ADP, I was told a story about my generation that was very negative. We were apathetic. We were disengaged. We did not “unplug” long enough to pay attention to current issues. And on and on. This prevailing opinion of my generation did not match my experiences. I had just graduated from Portland State University with an undergraduate education that was deeply infused with student engagement. I was extremely involved with my community. And I was not an anomaly. Indeed, my peers and friends were volunteering in their communities, on voter mobilization drives, and in community problem-solving organizations like the Multnomah Youth Commission, an innovative organization that engages youth in solving community problems in Portland, Oregon.

Part of my work with ADP has been to dispel these negative opinions of Millennials. Another large part of my job has been to explore ways of activating the civic impulses that students already feel in ways that move them along the spectrum of engagement to deeper acts of political engagement. I don’t want to downplay the importance of volunteering. We need volunteers to address immediate community problems, but without political and community organizing, these community problems will remain prevailing forces within our society. In ADP, we are constantly experimenting with ways to get students to develop these political engagement skills so that they can create long-lasting change within their communities.

In our partnership with Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, we have been able to share a very successful model for student engagement with the AASCU campuses. The program is called Public Achievement and through this model, people of all ages work with each others to meet challenges and solve problems. Many of our campuses in the Civic Agency initiative have created their own Public Achievement programs and are graduating students with a deep sense of their own abilities to solve community-based problems.

The dysfunction of this current election gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we interact with elected officials. Harry Boyte, in a series of ADP Blog posts here and here, imagines a world in which citizens partner with politicians in meaningful ways to solve community problems. This is exactly the type of politics that my generation in hungry for. In fact, I strongly believe that many students want something different than the polarized and bitter political culture we now have. That’s why I am heartened by the launch of the “We the People: The Return of the Citizen Voter,” project with Harry Boyte. Harry wrote in one of his blog posts that, “we need to rise to the occasion of citizenship. The American Democracy Project can take the lead. In the words of the civil rights song, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’”

I completely agree. Because of their commitment to the stewardship of local democracy and their work with student engagement, I believe ADP schools are in a unique position to create a new politics for our country. A new politics in which politicians act as partners – not dysfunctional parents – and we are able to solve real community problems through meaningful relationships with them.

Next week, we’ll be hosting the Civic Agency Institute and we’ll be exploring the practical strategies for making real this new politics. Public Achievement and MYC offer examples of how this “new politics” might look (follow along using this hashtag: #CivAg10).  Additionally, we made the theme of the ADP National Meeting in Orlando, Florida, June 2-4, 2011, “Beyond Voting: Active Citizenship in the New Era,” so that we can further the work of “We the People.” During the meeting, we will have a series of conversations about what this new politics will look like. Our campus coordinators will also showcase their work in activating students for meaningful engagement. Over the next two years, ADP campuses will help pave the way for this new politics. This is an exciting time for the American Democracy Project. We truly are the ones we have been waiting for.

Question How have you engaged elected officials in a meaningful partnership to solve real community problems?

We the People – The Return of Citizen Voters Part 2

By Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, as follow up to this blog post.

As I argued in the “We the People” post on the American Democracy Project blog on September 22, in an election season dominated by attack ads and hollow campaign rhetoric, voters of every stripe are responding in kind. They express disgust that politicians haven’t fixed our problems, while voicing the certainty that politicians can’t possibly do anything useful.  It is a long way from the animating message of collective action embodied in the winning theme of the 2008 campaign, “Yes we can.”

Despite the challenges, a “We the People” initiative that aims to animate “citizen voters” in 2012 could have significant effect. While many leaders are needed in such an initiative, college students in American Democracy Project schools can take key leadership, reminiscent of the roles students played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

When the question is the civic health of elections, the government, and the nation itself, and when the electoral process is threatening to spin out of control, we need a broad movement in which the whole citizenry works to redeem American democracy. Civically-oriented politicians are allies and partners, not enemies, in this work. Steve Kelley, a friend who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor this last spring on a productive citizenship message, said much the same thing based on his experiences. He had been head of the education committee in the state senate, and came close to winning the nomination. But he said that when your message is civic revitalization, it’s very hard as a candidate to “supply” it unless there is “demand.” This is doubly true for governance – it may be the problem of the Obama administration, which shifted quickly after the election from “yes we can” to “I and my administration will do it.” While Obama’s shift reflects the dominant government-centered approach to governance around the world, it also responds to the never-ending demand from citizens that government “fix things.”  This has to change.

A “We the People” movement should aim to create demand for citizen-centered politics and governance, embodying the spirit of the preamble to the Constitution with its powerful, productive verbs. These convey the point that “we the people” create government as the instrument of our collective work. Below are several elements which suggest that preparation for and enactment of a “We the People” movement could transform the experience of citizenship not only for the students but also for the country.

1)  Public stages in the civil rights movement. The March on Washington is the obvious example, recounted splendidly by Charles Euchner in Nobody Going to Turn Me Around – a People’s History of the March on Washington. The program notes summarized the message, calling people to avoid provocateurs who might incite violence: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government the quality of the action and the dialogue needs to reflect the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” Euchner’s book shows how the March and its long, careful preparation called the nation to citizenship. The new book by Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, could also be a primer for students today. It tells the story of how college students organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee faced down the brutality of racist police and civic organizations to dramatize segregation. At the end of the summer, at the Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer, a tenant farmer and civil rights leader, transfixed the country on television. Such moments, while transforming the lives of those directly involved, also significantly impacted broader public attitudes, laying the ground for civil rights victories and for deep culture change.

2)  Public stages in broad-based organizing. The heart of broad-based organizing (of the kind which shaped Obama) is public stages, “accountability sessions,” where citizens interact with politicians in mature, confident ways. An excellent account is found in Richard Wood’s Faith in Action, a study of the cultural politics of broad-based organizing. He shows how the Catholic priest in an affiliate of the Oakland Community Organization educates his congregation to “act like adults” with politicians, rather than like needy children. There are also limits to this pattern, stemming from organizers’ pessimism about larger change. Interestingly, Obama’s essay in the collection After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois (1990) identified them. Obama observed, “Most community organizing groups practice…a ‘consumer advocacy’ approach, with a focus on wrestling services and resources from the outside powers that be. Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities…that exist in communities.” With millions of citizens now bewailing the failure of the administration to solve our problems, this is the time for a “We the People”/Citizen Voter movement to catalyze a different dialogue, focused on the agency of everyone.

3)   Public stages in Public Achievement. I began Public Achievement, a youth civic education and engagement initiative, in 1990, with lessons of the civil rights movement in mind. In Public Achievement, young people work on public problems and issues they identify, ranging from teen pregnancy and drug use to school curriculum and recreational opportunities. We have seen again and again that when young people feel visible, competent, confident, and taken seriously in public settings they are able to integrate the civic meaning of their work with a new depth and impact. For instance, PA teams from eight schools met with the newly-elected Governor Jesse Ventura in 1999, interacting with him in an “adult way.”  They all said their confidence stemmed from the seriousness of their public work. It had large impact on the young people and a huge impact on Ventura, who recognized one of the team leaders, Joey Lynch, a thirteen year old in the PA playground group at St. Bernard’s, as a “citizen leader prevailing against all odds” at the first State of the State address to the legislature. Ventura gave stories from this encounter for months, contrasting it with the gushy celebrity encounters which young people usually had with him.

4)   Responses to the “We the People” blog. These speak to the need for self-reflection, discussion, and careful preparation if we are to make much dent in elections and people’s views of government. They suggest passion for taking action to change election dynamics and also the larger alienation from government. As Yasmin Karimian, the savvy president of student government at University of Maryland/Baltimore who led a shift from government as a social service and complaint body into an organizing center, put it, “I cannot wait to get to work [on this].” Karimian observed that despite their success in transforming student government, students need to “really change the way we think about government,” since they feel that broader change is “a daunting task.” Tim Shaffer describes how the consumer/infantilizing culture affects us all. Amy Bravo highlights how elections are a rare moment of visible public encounter in our society. Bill Payne’s comments come from the documentary he and a Republican did about the 2004 election, 50 – 50. It showed how voters are much more sophisticated, complex, and insightful than the partisan boxes they’re usually placed in.

5)  The “Millennial Generation.” By 2012 with the election of 2010 as an embarrassing text, young adults, “Millennials,” will be more than ready to help to create a dynamic in which citizens challenge each other and all of us to act like adults, moving from shoppers of government services to owners of the store. Young people are accused of apathy. But as Cecilia Orphan, the young manager of the American Democracy Project, puts it, “While the ‘me first’ is there, it’s not the animating theme for the generation. We’ve had these events in our lives (9/11, the tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s election, etc.) where we got engaged and felt like we were making a difference. But then it tapered off because there were no clear ways forward. There was no one helping us understand that these events were a call to sustained – not episodic – citizenship.” Heather Smith, director of Rock the Vote, made a similar point on the News Hour September 29, explaining why young adults aren’t enthusiastic about the ’10 election. “People got engaged in ’08 [because] they do believe, as a generation, they can change this country and change the world. And [Obama] pointed a path forward to do that. Afterwards, they felt like, where did our leader go? They can be reengaged and re-energized. But someone needs to push that path forward.”

6)  ADP as a base. Many campuses in the American Democracy Project have organized candidate forums over the last several years, and Constitution Day, September 17, is widely celebrated. A “We the People”/Citizen Voter effort in 2012 needs to build on such experiences and other deliberative public work, hosting and organizing multi-layered forums.

We’ll need a careful planning process, fundraising, and an organizing team to make this real. It will need to be a step by step process, but several other possible building blocks are appearing: These include

  • The November 11-12 Civic Agency Initiative meeting in Washington;
  • The civic engagement education minor meetings — making the electoral dysfunction a topic of discussion and constructive work with  the five teacher education programs to integrate Public Achievement into their core curriculum can convey the reality and importance of their work;
  • We the People/Citizen voter training workshop in the Twin Cities spring 2011. The CDC is considering organizing at least one such workshop;
  • The ADP national conference, which may have a citizenship focus;
  • Work with the Kettering Foundation on their issue book for 2012; the foundation has expressed interest in making the NIF book a resource for “We the People”;
  • Work with the American Library Association Center on Public Life, which has a strong relation with campus libraries. According to Nancy Kranich, such libraries and their staff are underutilized civic resources;
  • Constitution Day, September 17, 2011, on ADP campuses, which could be an occasion to talk about and prepare for the election in 2012.

There are many ways to define success in a We the People/Citizen Voter effort, and a spectrum of possibilities. These range from a handful of campuses where students prepare, undertake public work, organize candidate forums, and learn lasting civic lessons, to the generation of a broad movement through ADP and beyond. In the latter case, many other groups and citizens could join in. The potential is very large.

Getting started: We encourage “salons” or “coffee parties” this fall, discussing the election, its problems, and how to begin preparing for a citizen response in 2012. The key, as Bill Payne stresses, is that these should be diverse, with differences especially across partisan divides.

Whatever transpires, the words of the freedom song are to the point: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

“We the People” – the Return of Citizen Voters Part 1

By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

We need to rise to the occasion of citizenship. The American Democracy Project can take the lead. In the words of the civil rights song, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

I thought about this during President Obama’s televised Town Hall meeting Monday night on CNBC, three days after September 17, Constitution Day.

The opening question set the tone. A middle-class mother of two, the chief financial officer of a veterans organization, expressed her disappointment.

“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” she said. “I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet.”

A young graduate of law school followed. ”Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and message that you brought, and that inspiration is dying away,” he said. “It feels like the American dream is not attainable to a lot of us.”

The president dutifully listed all the things that he and the administration had tried to do.  The media mavens said it wasn’t enough. “The president’s challenge is to restore confidence in his own leadership,” as Dan Blatz put it in the Washington Post.

No one mentioned the elephant in the room.

People didn’t vote for a man who said he was going to change things.  The country elected a president whose message was “yes we can.” This is the message of the Preamble to the Constitution.  The Preamble doesn’t say the president – or government — will solve our problems. It reads

We the people…in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

Before 1787, in the great arc of human history, governments were not seen as created by the people as the instrument of the people’s work. Governments were handed down from antiquity. They were established by kings. They were imagined as acts of nature.

It was a breathtaking and bold statement for our nation’s founders to say, “We the people” establish our government as our instrument.

This was precisely the message that Barack Obama ran on for president.

Announcing his campaign in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, Barack Obama said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose.”  As he campaigned in the Iowa caucuses, he described his experiences as a community organizer. “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.”   During the campaign, a continuing message was that “active citizenship… will be a cause of my presidency.”

I kept thinking what a difference it would have made if one or two voters on Monday night had looked at the president, at journalists– and then turned to other voters and reminded the nation, we voted for “yes we can.”

At the Civic Agency Institute of the American Democracy Project on November 11-12 in Washington, I think we should discuss, plan, and strategize about how the students, faculty, and staff of our colleges and universities can join with libraries, community groups, and others to build a movement to reclaim our role as “we the people.”

Or, put differently, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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