Citizen Professional: the term and a story

By William J. Doherty

We need a new crop of citizen professionals coming out of our colleges and universities.  The term citizen professional emphasizes the role of professionals in rebuilding the civic life of communities in addition to their traditional role in providing specialized services to individuals.  It moves beyond the late 20th century notion of the professional as a detached expert who informs other citizens but is not informed by them, who critiques social systems but does act to change these systems, and who sees patients, clients and communities in terms of their needs and not their capacities for individual and collective action.

Citizen professionalism is mainly an identity: seeing oneself first as a citizen with special expertise working alongside other citizens with their own special expertise in order to solve community problems that require everyone’s effort.  This not just an idealistic self-image but comes from a grounded realization that the really big problems in health care, education, and social welfare—sometimes known as “wicked problems”– cannot be solved by professionals working alone, nor by government action alone.  We will not make headway against the tide unless we all row together.

Here’s a short video describing the transformation of a student’s ideas about her future professional work after taking a course in Citizen Professional Work with Families and Communities.

William J. Doherty, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Family Social Science and director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota.  He leads the Citizen Health Care and Families and Democracy Projects, which are developing the theory and practice of civic action by families and democratic public work by professionals.  He and his colleagues currently have implemented 15 grass roots organizing projects among parents and other citizens around cultural, health, and community issues of importance to families.  These projects range from the cultural discontents of middle class families (overscheduling, out-of-control birthday parties) to challenges of urban single fathers, from health care problems among American Indians to the enduring effects of war and trauma on an African immigrant community.  For descriptions and publications, see  Bill is also a practicing family therapist, does frequent media interviews to promote cultural change, and is past president of the National Council on Family Relations.

Citizen Nurses: A Unique Perspective on Health

By Katie Clark

In our society today, people have become so medicalized that we often forget that health is not about the absence of disease, but a place of belonging.  Here at Augsburg College, our department has been focused on going back to what nursing was originally intended to be about, relationships.  We have opened two drop-in centers focused on just that.

One of these drop-in centers is focused on working with people living on the streets of Minneapolis.  We listen, we provide basic necessities, and we take the time to make sure people feel supported as well as feel as though they are part of a community.  In our current medical world, few people would say that helping someone find housing is a role of a nurse.  But to us, it is exactly that.  It is about having heart-to-heart conversations.  This center has been in existence for close to 20 years. Nurses engage with about 120 people each week.

Our other drop-in center, the Health Commons at Dar Ul-Quba, is a new innovation this year that is focused on immigrant health in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.  Our focus is similar to the other commons, but is carried out differently since many people have a place to call home.  Our efforts here have been about trying to help people not only understand our health care system, but to help people realize how they can practice health and healing in similar ways that they did in their country of origin.  Also, it is about helping people come together and create the desired change they want to see in their neighborhood.

To us, being citizen nurses means that we are working to strengthen our communities in ways that avoid the expert model. We see people as collaborators and co-creators.  Our Augsburg nursing students are able to have experiences at these drop-in centers and are changing their world view in ways that are benefiting our society.  Our hope is to continue to work in  communities locally as  well as abroad to help create a more accepting and loving world.


Katie Clark, RN, is a nursing instructor at Augsburg College and coordinator of Augsburg Central Health Commons and Health Commons at Dar Ul-Quba.


Campus Organizing to Reclaim Higher Education’s Civic Purpose

By Kevin Bott, Associate Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life at Syracuse University

The large-scale, collaborative effort of the American Commonwealth Partnership turns my thinking to the organizing that’s required to foster a “movement” to reclaim higher education’s civic purposes. Last September, participants at Imagining America’s national conference in the Twin Cities were asked to consider their own role within higher education’s civic engagement movement. But while some considered, others questioned: Is this really a movement? Is there anyone besides the people at this conference who think of what we’re doing as a movement, or is it more likely people think of this as a passing fad?

At Imagining America, our response is of course, “yes, it is a movement!” Granted, within the great landscape of higher education, it’s a relatively small one. And although the idea of education serving an important function in a healthy democracy has been part of American rhetoric since colonial days, what many now think of as a “movement” to reclaim the civic and democratic purposes of higher education is also relatively young. Depending on which lineage one traces, we can find advances and new forms of an “engaged” scholarship springing up in the United States for at least 150 years: with the passing of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890; during the 1960s, a period that saw the expansion of both whom entered the university, and who and what was studied in it; and from the 1980s through the present, when in addition to Imagining America organizations like the AAC&U, AASCU, America Democracy Project, Campus Compact, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, Project Pericles, and the Bonner Foundation continue to push for richer, more critical, and more ethical praxes to address real-world issues.

(It is also worth noting that many Imagining America consortium members identify with artistic, cultural, and humanistic movements to expand democratic engagement that are wholly separate from higher education. Much of our focus for the past several years has sought to bring those many strands of knowledge together – but that’s a topic for another blog!)

So this movement is afoot – of indeterminate size and maturity – and it aims to transform colleges and universities in such a way that it expands our notions of higher education’s role in democratic society. It is a collaborative movement that includes many other prominent national higher education, policy, government, community-based, and funding agencies.

Yet, no movement can reach its potential without an organizing strategy to connect a large and overarching vision and values to the day-to-day concerns of the movement’s stakeholders (us). With that in mind, here are some questions exploring what it means to organize within this movement:

  • How can organizing help leverage the local knowledge that’s generated in campus-community partnerships to address real-world issues so it can serve to advance a broad, national, and perhaps international agenda?
  • Does organizing suggest the development of one or more campaigns around particular issues so that we are not organizing for something so broad (“the transformation of higher education” or “civic engagement”) that our efforts gain no traction by dint of being disconnected from specific, concrete concerns?
  • How can we organize around particular issues in a way that is resonant with all the movement’s stakeholders?
  • How can we forge greater alliances with other higher education and community-based organizations who share similar values?
  • Are there allies to the movement that we are inadvertently overlooking? And how can we listen to the perspectives of those who might oppose our aims?

It seems this blog is an apt forum for thinking through the questions about campus organizing in the context of the many different types of higher education institutions that often have very different aims. I’m looking forward to the ongoing discourse!

Kevin Bott is associate director of Syracuse University-based Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, the national consortium of 90 colleges and universities dedicated to advancing the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts, and design. Bott holds a PhD in educational theater from New York University, and has led numerous community-based and applied theater projects in the U.S. and abroad. He currently directs The D.R.E.A.(M.)3 Freedom Revival, a campus-community performance project designed to encourage active democratic participation in Syracuse and Greater Central New York.

Higher Education as a Movement

By David Mathews, President of  The Kettering Foundation

At signal points in their history, American colleges and universities have encountered an aroused polity — a citizenry that would rule itself. These encounters have given the institutions a political sense of mission. This happened around the time of the American Revolution. Colonial colleges taught piety and the classics until politically sensitive presidents like Ezra Stiles of Yale encouraged students to debate the issues of independence. It happened in Jefferson’s time, when state legislatures began to charter universities to prepare leaders for the new nation. It happened in the late nineteenth century, when land-grant institutions were created to serve America’s working citizens—its farmers and mechanics. The mandates for historically black institutions and community colleges emerged from similar encounters.

In higher education, significant changes have come from linkages with political and social movements outside the academy. As colleges and universities have responded to democracy’s claims, the institutions have enriched their missions. And they have been reminded that they are part of the greater causes of liberty and self-rule rather than just businesslike organizations to be judged only by their efficiency.

Are academic institutions today in touch with the citizenry that is angry about being shut out of the political system? Is there any connection between the quest for more “engaged” universities and the efforts at public engagement going on in government agencies, schools, and civic organizations? Maybe there should be.

David Mathews is President of the Kettering Foundation, a leading center for partnership partnerships which explore how democracy can work.