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Spreading the Minnesota Way

By Harry Boyte, Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

This Martin Luther King Day weekend I’ve been thinking about the “Montgomery Way” and “The Minnesota Way.”

The beginning of the freedom movement, which later shaped me as a college student in the 1960s, was the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on January 10-11, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia. SCLC was created to spread “the Montgomery way” across the south. It communicated lessons of the famous bus boycott, begun when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on December 5, 1955, in Montgomery. The bus boycott was an enormous successful nonviolent movement of black people and their allies to desegregate city buses that stunned the nation and the world. SCLC spread not only organizing lessons about boycotts but also a “Crusade for Citizenship,” launched by Ella Baker, first executive director, in 20 communities across the South. The Crusade for Citizenship communicated democratic hope, the idea that battlers for racial justice, growing in numbers, were not alone but rather part of a rising tide. A freedom movement was about to break on the nation’s consciousness that would change the course of history.

There are lessons that can ground a similar “We the People” movement today. One way to describe it is “Spreading the Minnesota Way.”

On January 24 in partnership with the congressionally mandated National Conference on Citizenship and the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, our Center for Democracy and Citizenship is publishing A Tale of Two Cities. The report compares the “civic health” — levels of civic engagement — in the Twin Cities and Miami Florida. The Twin Cities is the most civically engaged community in the nation, Miami is the least, according to composite of a number of indicators (voting levels, volunteering, charitable giving, involvement in community problem solving, participation in public meetings, campaigns, and also informal measures like talking to neighbors and having dinner with families). Civic health is correlated with social benefits such as economic well-being, income equality, and individual health and happiness.

The report is an opportunity to analyze reasons for the Twin Cities success. I believe that there are three elements, present everywhere but especially developed in the Twin Cities.

  • Civic agency. Most simply, people here believe that change is possible and that they can make it —  that everyday citizens, not superheroes or famous celebrities, can develop the capacities for public work across differences to tackle tough problems and shape the world around us.
  • Civic educators. In the Twin Cities, the detachment from community life of many institutions – families, schools, congregations, businesses, nonprofits – that is widespread visible in America generally has also taken place. But many buck the trend. There is still an unusual degree of institutional engagement with communities in ways which educate for citizenship. In some cases civic dimensions of institutions are being revitalized.
  • We the People government. The Twin Cities also embody many continuing examples of political leadership, government agencies, and civil servants who make government the partner, instrument and meeting ground of citizens – neither savior providing “customer services,” nor the problem.

These elements add up to a “culture of civic empowerment.” And just as in the civil rights movement when a widespread desire for change warred with a deep pessimism about whether segregation could be ended, a culture of civic empowerment can spread. In fact this week’s civic outpouring in Tucson, Arizona where citizens have shown the world that the community is much bigger than the violent shootings can also be seen as stirrings of a new movement of civic empowerment.

In this movement everyday citizens are the foundational agents of making change.  What do these have in common?

Democratic hope.


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