By Harry C. Boyte
In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King’s bible.
Like King a half century ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama’s call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this year as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.
Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the attention of the nation,” he said.
In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold tone. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. King’s Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with the welfare of the whole society in mind:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are seen as its agents.
King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy, meanness in everyone – including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.
This rootedness of King is often missing in today’s tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.
In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Angelou said, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, ‘you might say it.’ It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was.” After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.
I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.
The sermon wasn’t creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. King says:
“Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
King continues, the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It’s that the follow up question, for what? is rarely asked. That’s the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial. King’s “for what” drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for “I Have a Dream.” Rustin’s question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.
By the mid-sixties, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute “posture and volume” for strategy. In 1965 in an article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. “The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question,” he said. “It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”
Rustin argued that the movement for equality requires institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples.
Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained in SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP’s vision statement: “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Such broadening involved change in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for CEP as a college student.
King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticism to the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major – and co-worker — in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.
His marching orders have never been more relevant.
By Harry C. Boyte
At a level deeper than policies and prescriptions, elections are contests about different collective narratives — the story that each candidate is telling us about the future. These involve not only the candidate and what he or she will do but what the rest of us do as well.
All of us need to flesh out a new story for our future by building on President Obama’s successful challenge in the second debate to Mitt Romney on the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US citizens.
Obama applied the “terror” label to the attack in his first public statement. But the more important aspect of the Administration’s response was a “different kind of politics.” Such politics, far from demonizing opponents, is based on recognizing different interests and finding common ground where it is possible. Though it goes against the grain of our highly polarized society, examples can be found, in very different places.
For instance, Minnesotans United for all Families is using such a politics in their fight against a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. Such politics is emerging in efforts at reform in higher education. It has roots in civic and populist movements like the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
In the case of Libya, such politics needs to be explained.
In fact, Obama’s White House and the State Department responded to the Libyan attack and more broadly to demonstrations across the Arab world in the wake of an anti-Muslim film released on YouTube, in ways far different than the simplistic “good versus evil” foreign policy touted by Romney and his neoconservative advisers. And their response, in significant measure, worked.
By now, Mitt Romney’s story is well-established. He is less a diabolical right winger portrayed by many on the left than a “boss” who tells lame jokes and waits for people to laugh – and they better, as James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio” put it on Chris Matthews show “Hardball” after the second debate.
A boss-president would also throw his weight around in the world. A US leader trying to be a global CEO in the 21st century is a worrisome thought.
Do we want a boss or a president? Lipton asked, comparing Barack Obama, facing down Romney on the issue of Libya, to Gary Cooper on “High Noon.” Lipton has Romney down cold. But he misses on President Obama.
Obama generates hope and connects best with the American public when he is a “citizen president,” not a town marshal but rather an organizer of collective efforts to address common problems. Obama is more like Will Rogers, who brought communities together to address their challenges in his movies of the 1930s, than Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Obama’s role as citizen organizer, widely missed (or dismissed) by political pundits, was key to the 2008 ‘Yes We Can’ campaign. Obama revived it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year, when he declared that “as citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Such citizen work is a different kind of politics. It engages people “where they are,” not where one would like them to be. It recognizes the right of people to be different, based on respect for their stories, interests, and cultures. Far from being weak or apologetic, it requires great skill and poise.
Such politics appeared in Obama’s Cairo speech to the Arab world on June 4, 2009. Long practiced by successful diplomats as well as by community organizers, it has been at work in the aftermath of the Benghazi attach and in the midst of the anti-American violence after the anti-Muslim YouTube video.
Republicans charge that the Benghazi attacks were part of the global Al Qaeda movement and that the Administration has been covering up the connection. But facts on the ground appear to be far more complex.
David Kirkpatrick reported in the New York Times on October 16 that Libyans who witnessed the assault and knew the attackers say they had another motivation. “A well-known group of local Islamist militants mounted the attack in retaliation for the American-made video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without ever mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the terrorist attacks of 11 years earlier.”
It was important for the president and the State Department to send a message that “no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States,” as Obama put. It was equally important to signal respect for Muslims and for Islam, and to recognize that the anti-Muslim video generated legitimate anger.
This was the strong message of the administration immediately after the attack and in the weeks following, from UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s remarks on news shows to Obama’s speech at the United Nations. The press corps and voters should be pressing Republicans about their views on such respect.
As a result of the US message, Libyans turned out in large numbers in pro-American demonstrations expressing shock and shame about the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials declared their intentions to work with the FBI team investigating the attack. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the combination of behind the scenes pressure and public pronouncements from the administration distancing the US from ant-Muslim views calmed the situation.
Violence and anti-American demonstrations subsided.
In sum, the Administration’s different kind of politics helped to tame a wave of anti-Americanism threatening to get out of control.
Americans are desperate for such politics, in a time of profound dysfunction in ‘politics as usual.’
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
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.
We sat in his office in the State Capitol. He laughed that he had “survived the session, and can look back at it with some humor.”
“The question, ‘what is the purpose of higher education?’ is profound. Higher education needs to be so much more than getting a credential. As a society we place an amazing emphasis on getting credentials. In many corporate settings the higher education degree is used as a sorting device in employee selection. Obviously we all know the degree is important but it should not be the sole determination of whether or not an individual will be a good employee or a good citizen.
“In the end, I believe the most important role of higher education is to prepare people to be life-long learners, to be immersed in life experiences, and to give back.
“I spoke to 300 young women at Girls’ State the other day. They were all high achievers. I’m sure most will be going to college. They will make A’s and so forth. I asked them, ‘What do you want your life to be remembered for? What do you want your legacy to be?’ These are questions that are not often asked. In many cases young people probably have not had the life experiences to think about the meaning of ‘success’ beyond academic success.
“When I think back on my high school class, the high achievers in academic terms weren’t necessarily those who achieved financial success or who gave back to their communities. A focus on achievement is good. Getting good grades is good, but not at the risk of producing individuals who may think in narrow terms. A cancer researcher maybe brilliant in terms of his or her ability to understand the workings of a living cell but may be less able in terms of human interaction and problem solving.
“We need to have a discussion in the legislature about the purpose of higher education.”
Harry Boyte is a National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)
The article originally appeared on the National Issues Forums Institute’s website.
The people of Iowa are serious about the well-being of their young children. Their earnestness was shown this past week at Get Ready Iowa, a convergence in Iowa City of psychologists, early childhood development specialists, speech pathologists, P-12 administrators, policymakers, daycare providers, parents, and many others who shared a common concern: how to facilitate the healthy development of Iowa’s youngest. This included discussions on civic science, a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
Much of conference was dedicated to the latest, most innovative scientific findings in the field of early childhood development. But the uniqueness of the conference lay not just in the top-notch research expounded by scientists at various presentations; it was also evident from the composition of attendees.
By bringing together folks from all walks of life—scientists and laypeople, educators and parents, policymakers and citizens—Get Ready Iowa made a clear statement: improving early childhood development in the state will take all of us. The best scientific research needs to be coupled with the wisdom, experience, and power of the community if it wants to make a significant public impact.
This is the stance of civic science, that scientific research needs to be embedded in local communities, and that stance was translated into action on the fourth day of the conference, when about 25 Iowans took part in a round table discussion to exchange points of view on issues related to early childhood. The group included a state legislator, nonprofit leaders, concerned parents, daycare providers, school administrators, researchers, and many others. Facilitating the conversation were Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and John Spencer of the Delta Center.
Because a project on civic science brings together people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the day required a sort of “Organizing 101” that would provide tools and concepts important for collaboration. So Boyte, a long-time organizer, began the discussion in the morning by asking about people’s self-interests. Why were people there, anyway? The stories were diverse and heartfelt. One parent voiced the concern that access to resources for parents was inequitable. A daycare provider had an interest in expanding the conversation to include children ages 0-3, since most of the conversation around early childhood focuses on 3-5 year olds.
Concerns about the mental health of children, as well as issues affecting children with special needs, were also shared by people who alluded to personal experiences with such issues. The process thus unfolded in a way that opened up the agenda to include interests from a variety of people and angles.
A discussion on rule-breaking then ensued. Boyte asked people to share stories of instances when they “broke the rules” for the sake of education, the implication being that Iowans were “breaking the rules” by taking science out of the laboratory and into the community. A boy seeing Jurassic Park at age 5, a child who defied his parents to build an electric circuit, and finger painting in a strict private school were among the highlights. The stories both loosened people up and drove home the point that new ground was being broken.
The dialogue in the afternoon moved toward action steps, as group members began talking about assets, strategies, and challenges in furthering early childhood development. Group members spent a considerable amount of time highlighting and deliberatingIowa’s potential “civic institutions,” spaces where citizens could organize and work together on issues pertaining to young children. Small group discussions formed around several viable sites: the Iowa Children’s Museum, the communities of parents, schools, daycare centers, and theDeltaCenter. Participants then reported back to talk about the strengths, weaknesses, and action strategies for each institution. It was highlighted, for instance, that the Children’s Museum was accessible due to its convenient location (in the mall). Daycare providers were held up as deep sources of community knowledge. Interestingly, and fittingly, many of the weaknesses described underscored the need for greater collaboration among those at the table. Could researchers from the Delta Center bring their scientific know-how to daycare centers? Could parents find respite from their busy days at the Children’s Museum?
As the conference began to creep into the evening, and the sound of dance music in an adjacent ballroom started pounding (the conference was in the downtown Sheraton hotel), people were about to call it a day. But before everyone left, the conversation went around the table one more time, as people committed themselves to 1-2 concrete actions that could be done immediately. Ideas ranged from the re-tooling of Facebook pages to more service-learning projects for psychology students. People also shared their reflections on the day as a whole, and there was a general sense of enthusiasm around the table. Everyone was energized by the conversation and excited for the work ahead. They enjoyed the intimacy of the conversation and the opportunity to connect with others sharing a common cause. New feelings of agency were palpable, a fact acknowledged even by the group’s highly-respected scientists. People knew that something meaningful was starting to happen.
For more on Get Ready Iowa and the concept of civic science, check out this editorial from a local news publication.
Hunter Gordon is a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He is also an organizer with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Minneapolis. In his spare time, Hunter likes to read about history and philosophy, run, and have one-to-ones with his baby daughter.
By Samuel T.O. Neisen
In the spring of 2012 at the University of Minnesota I took an organizing class- “Organizing for the Public Good”- and it changed my life. See I have always been interested in public work, helping others, and trying to strive for “a more perfect union” and even a more perfect world, however it wasn’t until the last several months that things have started to become clear. I have discovered my passions, my self-interest, and how I want to go about achieving these things. My interest has been sparked and a fire has been ignited within me to actually become an agent of change. I discovered organizing is the way to do so. Moreover, I have started working with the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) and have discovered that now more than ever this world needs committed citizens to positively transform the world.
Over the past several months I have uncovered a passion: a passion for education. I want the country to rethink its concept of education and change the paradigm so education becomes a way in which everyone is empowered to improve their own lives. With these beliefs everyone can have the skills to make any change they would like to see in the world. Everyone will be empowered. There are no rescuers, helpers, or Moses for people; only empowerers. There is no need for an alphabet soup of programs hoping to help “underprivileged;” from day one for a child, there will be communities, families, and schools, all there to help support, educate, and build this child up into a benevolent, contributing, and compassionate member of society. Only with this new paradigm will everyone have the tools to become empowered to change their community, and their world, around them. Organizing is the key to achieving this.
Even after I realized this passion I was unsure as to how I would go about changing this paradigm or even what this new paradigm would look like. That is until I started working with the ACP. Finally I have realized what this new culture of education would look like: Public Achievement. See on May 31st, 2012 was Fridley Middle School’s Public Achievement celebration. And it was remarkable. At Fridley the 5th– 8th grader special education students take part in Public Achievement. And by watching their presentations one can tell these students are engaged and actually care about going to school and learning. Public Achievement should be the model for this new paradigm of education. These students at Fridley took charge of their education; they were engaged, captivated, energetic, and enthralled about what they were learning. They wanted to go to school. That fact in itself is remarkable as in many places these students- special education students- are the ones pushed aside, marginalized, and told they cannot do anything making it hard for them to want to go to school. However with the Public Achievement model they are pushed to make something of themselves and they believe in themselves which engages them in the world. Frankly I never thought I would see this level of engagement from special education students. Yet Public Achievement empowered them and the beneficial results are extremely apparent.
Moreover, at the celebration, Harry Boyte asked the students: “so what do you think you have learned over the course of the year? Have you grown and developed new skills?” In response to this literally every single student’s hand shot into the air, energized to talk about their experience. It was remarkable to see the engagement and excitement this new mindset of teaching did for students.
The deep level of engagement drives me to work to make Public Achievement part of every student’s learning all across the nation. If special education students can grow so much I can only image what would happen if every student was empowered. I even wonder about what would happen, and how our entire country could grow, if a model like this would be applied to businesses, governments, and other places in the public arena. How much more responsive, effective, and benevolent could our country be? Could we actually start to work together to solve the big problems and not just bicker about minuscule details? One can only wonder.
Still as I take time to reflect over the past several months and all that I’ve learned I truly believe organizing is the way to actually transform the world and make positive change. Small groups of committed people actually can reshape the way the world works. Yet people need to start doing things. Critiquing neoliberalism or racism or deindustrialization won’t solve problems; work will. We all need to start connecting with others, building bonds and building bridges across the divides so we have power networks to do work and actually make change. People are so often caught waiting for a superman to come rescue them. There is no superman. No politician, nor president, nor CEO, can save the world. It takes all of us to do so. Even then it will be difficult. Public work is messy. But by working together I have hope we can transform our world.
We are lucky we even have the opportunities to work to change our society. It is a uniquely American aspect that we have. It is privilege. We must make the most of it. Even Thomas Jefferson said “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Let’s make a little rebellion. This is our democracy and our right to make the changes we want to make in the world. This is democracy; so let’s put it into action.
All in all, as I now sit and ponder over all my experiences I am filled with hope- hope for a better tomorrow. I have the skills to make the world whatever I want it to be. I am empowered. Yet as I reflect on my writing here I realize this is a call to arms of sorts; a call to action. We are at a crucial time in history where we all need to work together to start solving some big problems we are facing. We need to get to work. Even though I am filled with hope, as I now know how to make positive change, I am urging others to start organizing in their communities. Start working. Start connecting with people that are different from you. We must bridge these divides and work collectively to solve these problems. Only then will there be any semblance of the world that could be. Work together, connect with others, and stop waiting for superman. Just act; let us all make the world what we can only image it to be.
Samuel Neisen is a junior currently studying history and Spanish at the University of Minnesota. Sam is working with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and looks to continue to use organizing as a way to empower others.
In September 2011, Auburn University students Marian Royston and Blake Evans traveled with Dr. Mark Wilson, College of Liberal Arts Director of Civic Learning Initiatives, to the Newnan Public Library in Georgia to interview Willie B. Wyatt regarding his role as one of thirteen students who filed the historic suit, Lee v. Macon County Board of Education, which desegregated Tuskegee High School in 1963. The oral history interview was one of several taken as part of the CLA Community and Civic Engagement Initiative’s participation in the Appalachian Teaching Project. The historic graduation event described below on May 23, 2012 is the result of this collaboration.
MACON CO., AL (WSFA) – You can hear the drum line of Notasulga High school miles away as band members welcome the graduating class of 1964 back to Macon County for a ceremony that’s been long overdue.
“I kind of thought I was a forgotten person from a graduation standpoint,” Willie Wyatt Jr. said.
Wyatt and Anthony Lee along with 10 other students paved the way for integration in Macon County and the state when they integrated two schools in the county.
“On the first day we were turned away by the state troopers. We just wanted to have the same opportunity as the other students did,” Wyatt said.
Lee and Wyatt say they would have graduated on May 25th, 1964 from Notasulga High School, along with now deceased classmate Robert Judkins. But after resistance and violence, the school mysteriously burned.
“[The principal was told] give them there diplomas, let that be there last day of school,” Wyatt said.
He says they were also denied class rings. But with the help of Auburn University and the Macon County School Board and current students who are celebrating them, these men will finally be in their high school cap and gown.
“We’re going to give them the full salutations that they deserve,” Macon County Superintendent Dr. Jacqueline Brooks said.
They will walk with the graduating class of Notasulga high school Wednesday at 7p.m., something they say will be very emotional but will serve as closure.
“To let them know how things were and how things are now and how they can with dreams and preparation and determination accomplish almost anything,” Lee said.
Finally getting the recognition they should have gotten 48 years ago.
The 12 students who integrated Macon County schools are a part of an exhibit on display at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.