This article was originally published on huffington post.
By Harry Boyte and Bill Muse
By coincidence, September 4th marks two events. They seem unrelated, but both signal an enduring pattern of American history: Significant advances toward “a more perfect union” takes the work of the whole people, not simply the efforts of political leaders, experts, or famous personalities.
A concept of the late political theorist Hannah Arendt, the common table which both unites and separates us, helps to explain why.
September 4th is the release date for If Your Back’s Not Bent (Atria/Simon & Schuster), the long awaited history of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) of the civil rights movement, written by Dorothy Cotton, its chief architect and director. Cotton was the only woman on the executive committee of Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The book is named for a talk by King at the end of a CEP training program which concluded, “If your back’s not bent, nobody can ride on it.”
In it, Cotton tells the story of the movement’s “best kept secret.” The grassroots adult citizen education program, largely ignored by mainstream media and standard histories which focus on marches, demonstrations, politicians, and famous leaders, transformed legions of men and women across the South from victims to active citizens, agents of change. In turn, they had lasting impact. They made their communities and the nation places of greater freedom and more inclusive justice for all.
September 4th is also the launch of “Shaping Our Future — How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want,” dialogues in at least three hundred communities over the coming year about the public purposes of higher education.
Shaping Our Future is organized by the new American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition with hundreds of colleges, universities and other groups promoting higher education as a public good, and the National Issues Forums, a non-partisan institute promoting public discussions. Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of Education, will participate in the launch, along with Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, Scott Peters, Co-director of Imagining America, a consortium of schools involving artists and scholars in public life, Kaylesh Ramu, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Bernie Ronan, chair of The Democracy Commitment and others.
The launch, held at the National Press Club, will be live-streamed here.
Shaping Our Future dialogues will explore questions such as how higher education can best prepare a highly skilled workforce, provide opportunities for all Americans to attend college, strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, and develop skills of citizenship in which students and others learn to work across differences to make needed change.
Early experiments show discussions can bring people together across partisan and other differences. “Seeing the different levels of a university present in one group with community members truly provided unique input,” said Laura Lake, a student at Winona State University who moderated an early discussion. “Seeing the differences between the views was extremely interesting. What was more exciting was seeing the areas they agreed upon — that higher education does indeed help us create the society we want.”
A concept in political theory helps to illuminate the dynamic described by Laura.
Hannah Arendt developed the idea of a “table” which acknowledges differences while also offering the possibility of discovering areas of commonality. “Interests constitute something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together,” she argued in her classic work, The Human Condition.
The common table is connected to “world-building,” which allows people to shift focus from feelings about each other to common tasks. As the feminist theorist Linda Zirelli puts it, “Foregrounded in Arendt’s account is something less about the subject than about the world… the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.”
Half a century ago, the civil rights movement served as a common table. It captured the nation’s imagination with images of everyday citizens risking lives and livelihoods to transform the culture of racial bigotry and structures of discrimination. Demonstrations and speeches were visible manifestations, but these channeled vast grassroots energies, cultivated in everyday experiences like the Citizenship Education Program.
The common table focused the attention of millions of Americans on the task of promoting “liberty and justice for all.” The table of change also evolved, taking up other areas of discrimination against women and minorities, in addition to African Americans, like Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.
It also energized all of American society.
Today, we face new and daunting challenges. Public opinion research by the Kettering Foundation shows that Americans are deeply worried about long term problems which neither government nor markets, by themselves, can solve. The U.S. economy struggles with challenges in a tough global environment. We’ve become an increasingly divided nation, dramatized by this hyperpolarized election. Values like responsibility, integrity, and quality in work seem to be fading. Too many, from Washington to Main Street, are unable to work together to solve problems. The country sees growing economic disparities. Many who work hard and play by the rules are slipping out of the middle class.
These are complex and multifaceted problems. Families, schools, religious groups, non-profits as well as government and business will need to be at “the table of change” if we are to address them. But as shown in the ongoing Huffington Post blog which recounts stories of colleges as agents and architects of change, higher education has far more to contribute to the work of building a more perfect union than is commonly realized.
Shaping Our Future will acquaint large numbers of Americans with stories and methods of colleges and universities that act as agents and architects of change. The discussions will also invite the whole people, not only those in higher education, to be change agents. Strengthening higher education’s contributions to solving problems, building healthy and prosperous communities, and creating a sustainable democracy is important to all of us.
We believe such conversations and the civic work that flows from them can help to create a common table. Though public opinion research shows higher education’s public contributions have slipped from view of most people — who see college only as a ticket for higher paying jobs — Americans overwhelmingly recognize higher education’s importance. Nearly nine out of 10 people say Americans are better off going to college.
One of the objectives, indeed, of the National Issues Forum is to help participants find common ground, a path they can travel together. We need a common table, a way to find common ground, more than ever if we are to recall King’s words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Harry C. Boyte, National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, worked as a field secretary for SCLC as a college student.
Coalition of Colleges and Nonprofits to Conduct Hundreds of Community Forums During the Next Year
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A yearlong, nationwide series of deliberative forums dialogues on how higher education could do more, or operate differently, to strengthen America’s economy, culture, and civic participation will be launched by a coalition of nonprofit and educational leaders on September 4 at 9 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The project, Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want, is being led by the American Commonwealth Partnership and National Issues Forums Institute, both nonprofit, nonpartisan groups.
While there is heated discussion among education, political, and business leaders about how to address the many challenges facing higher education, this initiative will help students, faculty, and other citizens weigh different approaches to problems and seek common ground for action. The deliberative dialogues—to be held in at least 300 communities—will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to insure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness, promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans, and strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, as well as develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.
The September 4 panel launching this initiative will include: Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education; Bill Muse, president of the National Issues Forums Institute; Harry Boyte, national coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership; NancyCantor, chancellor of Syracuse University; Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment; Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Scott Peters, co-director, Imagining America.
“Preparing all students for informed, engaged participation in the civic life of our communities is notjust essential, it is entirely consistent with the goals of increasing student achievement, closing achievement gaps and preparing citizens to understand their role and responsibility in our democracy,” Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, said.
WHAT: Shaping Our Future How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want
WHERE:National Press Club, Holeman Lounge, Washington, D.C.
To RSVP, please contact Phil Lurie, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-393-4478. For additional information about Shaping Our Future, visit http://www.nifi.org/issue_books/detail.aspx?catID=6&itemID=21640.
By Angela Bonfiglio
For a number of years, I have found a variety of sources of inspiration to see why it is important to be an active citizen in the world and for me personally to take action and participate in what is most important. This inspiration has come from sources such as my faith, inspirational leaders, people who believed in me, and being struck by some of the deepest issues that face our society, such as racism, poverty and inequality in schools. It is an imbalance in equity and fairness that is at the core of many of these issues.
As humans we are always changing. This is especially true in college where opportunities continue to arise as learning takes place inside and outside the classroom. If the person I was, knew the person I am today, we would not recognize each other.
At the end of my sophomore year at Augsburg, I became involved in Redeemer Lutheran Church, located on the North Side of Minneapolis. Redeemer is a different kind of church. It is focused on the immediate community around them, but utilizes the agency of its diverse membership to be “a beacon of hope” for the neighborhood and for the world. Between the church and the non-profit, Redeemer is involved in projects including housing, food sustainability, youth, anti-racism, and employment. In North Minneapolis there has been disinvestment for a number of years, which is reflected in high unemployment rates, poor schools and a population exodus.
As a part of a scholarship from Augsburg, I was supported to work at Redeemer, and was asked to be the Program Coordinator for the Redeemer Afterschool Program (R.A.P.), which was being reworked into a weekly outreach program focusing on arts and music as a tool for building youth leadership and community. I was very excited about this opportunity and said “yes” without really knowing what I was getting myself into.
I had the opportunity to take on a leadership position and figure out more about what it means to work with others. Along the way the children we worked with provided inspiration and helped us understand how the program should be run based on their needs.
My latest source of inspiration has come from my experience studying abroad in Namibia. I was there for a six week summer program with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg for a class on development and an internship with the Namibian Women’s Health Network. I was exposed to a number of people who are working in their communities to make a difference and create change around huge problems that the country faces, such as having one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. I was also inspired by people who served their time and energy with such a sense of care and joy. It was beautiful to watch a small community at work, building on each others’ activities. I was constantly thinking of my Redeemer community and ways that I could bring back lessons from this experience. I was given so much more than I ever gave over those six weeks.
Now as I continue my role at Redeemer, these sources of inspiration provide fuel for the work that I do. Our goal for R.A.P. is to build a beloved community where kids feel a sense of safety and belonging. My experience in Namibia definitely helps me in thinking about what the beloved community means in my own spaces and places here in America.
Angela Bonfiglio is an undergraduate student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota majoring in sociology and minoring in youth and family ministry. She works at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis as the afterschool program coordinator. She recently spent time studying abroad in Namibia with the Center for Global Education and interning with the Namibian Women’s Health Network.