Public Work Around the World
The following adapts for the American Democracy Project higher education audience the presentation Boyte made at the annual retreat (“bosberaad”) of Idasa, the African democracy institute, on 2 August, 2010.
By Harry Boyte, Co-Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship
Public work is the signature concept of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, developed with partners over many years. Public work involves sustained collective effort by a mix of diverse people that produces public things of lasting value to communities. Whether in the Public Achievement youth initiative, in which young people work as teams on issues they choose, coached by adults, or new patterns of citizen professional practice in which professionals work with people, not “on” them, public work teaches what might be called “political sobriety,” political realism and attention to the long range health of communities. People learn skills of work across differences, a sense of the citizen as a co-creator of the common world we share, and respect for the talents of diverse people, whether formally credentialed or not.
Over the last year I’ve been doing more research on traditions and practices of public work around the world and discovered a submerged but extremely rich history of communal labor practices. All convey the idea of cooperative effort across divisions and ranks to strengthen communities, based on a sense of practical collective self-interests and reciprocal obligations. Here are a few examples: ga-du-gi (Cherokee); dugnad (Norwegian); minga (Otavalo Ecuadorian Indians); huan gong (Chinese); letsema (Sesotho); ilimo (isiZulu); saambou (Afrikaans) ; dibanisani (isiXhosa); naffir (Sudanese Arabic); meitheal (Irish); talkoot (Finnish); ture (Korean); umuganda (Kinyarwanda). Wikipedia includes a short collection that can be accessed through dugnad, though its description of these as “voluntary” labor is a modern invention, not used in the past. Public work traditions are especially rich in agricultural societies like those in Africa, but public work concepts appear in urban societies as well, like “poldering” in Holland and “dugnad” in Norway.
Public Work Defined
This research has made clear that public work can be defined as a normative ideal of citizenship, generalized from diverse communal labor traditions. Public work is a large class of civic practices, parallel to the classification in biology which includes diverse species, genus, and orders. It also likely is the root of the older concept of “politics” itself, which has come back to life in broad-based organizing and in groups like Idasa, which used it to bring together blacks and whites during the era of apartheid. As Victor Hanson has described in The Other Greeks, democracies emerged not from democratization of aristocratic leisure, as is conventionally imagined, but from practical cooperative labors of family farmers, after the breakup of great estates in ancient Greece.
Public Work in the US
In the United States, terms like “community service” and “voluntarism” are echoes of public work, but often sentimentalized in ways that mask other agendas. Thus “voluntarism” first appears as a general term with Nixon budget cutbacks. In actual communal labor traditions, public work is a robust and gritty concept, full of politics. It develops collective power – civic agency – in the face of forces which oppose such labors, ranging from centralized authorities to concepts that devalue the capacities of ordinary people, like “expert knows best.”
In the US, the public work of Americans in building public goods in communities – libraries, schools, roads, dams, soil conservation districts, community arts festivals and a variety of other commons – gave a down-to-earth, practical, everyday quality to the meaning of democracy. It generated a respect for diverse talents and contributions. Public work practices influenced land grant colleges up until the Second World War, as Scott Peters has discovered. Faculty, staff and students in land grant colleges, working in sustained, egalitarian, practical partnerships with communities, helped to create the identity of “democracy colleges” (Peters, Democracy and Higher Education, Michigan State University Press, 2010).
Public work can provide vital resources for groups excluded from public life to draw upon in fights for full recognition and inclusion. An example was the 2006 immigrant demonstrations, which claimed rights of recognition and citizenship for their work in “building America.”
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To hear Harry talk about public work, please visit this website.