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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.

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