Legacies of Public Work

By Harry C. Boyte

In the view of many, attack ads and internet tools that inflame voter passions have replaced problem-solving and removed the human element in politics. But here and there, examples of “a different kind of politics” based on building public relationships and public work push back against polarizing politics.  Higher education can claim a key leadership role in spreading these.

Though support for Obama among those concerned about partisan wrangling has eroded, in fact his campaign this year suggests lessons for a different kind of politics. There are also insights from earlier histories of democratic movements and work with public qualities that point to sustaining a different politics, for the long term.

Below the surface of the visible ad campaign, the Obama ground game has sought to re-embed elections in face to face relationships, beyond sound bites.  As Jeremy Bird, director the Obama field operation, told Ryan Lizza, the ground game has taken the animating principle of face to face contact in the 2008 election to large scale.

During the 2008 campaign, Bird, a student of community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, directed Obama operations in South Carolina and Ohio. He resisted the common “mobilizing” approach which demonizes the opposition. Rather his field operation rooted work in local sites like barber shops and beauty parlors, spread the idea that everyone — including McCain supporters — deserves respect and has a story, and encouraged local leaders to act as organizers.

In 2012, elements of this approach have gone national. Barbershops and beauty salons are campaign centers.  Conference calls are organized specifically for barbers and hairdressers. Lizza writes that “from his study of the 2008 campaign, Bird concluded that the single most effective medium was not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.”

If we are to move to cultural change beyond partisan warfare, citizen politics also has to point beyond elections, gaining support from more than the “fifty percent plus one” formula. Lessons from the civil rights movement are worth recalling.

Thelma Craig, an African American leader in the movement in southern Alabama, told me that “Real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests.”   As a college student in the southern civil rights movement, I saw first-hand the role which barbers and hairdressers, as well as clergy, teachers, bus drivers and others played in such culture change. Earlier this year Blase Scarnati and I described how her “different kind of politics” finds grounding in settings around Northern Arizona University.

Histories of earlier democratic movements underscore the point.

In his autobiography, Making of a Public Man, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his career to his father’s drug store in Doland, South Dakota, at the heart of civic life, part of the populist ferment of the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. “In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion,” Humphrey wrote. “I’ve listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain.”

The store created a cross-partisan civic root system.  “Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism – along with their religion – very seriously.” His father became the highly regarded mayor of the town, but saw elective office as only one of his contributions. The store functioned as lending library and cultural center – music came from the window of the second floor, from his father’s rickety phonograph. The store also catalyzed action. “When most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad…fought the idea tooth and nail. I was twelve years old…he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, install me in a chair by a corner window, and then do battle, hour after hour.”

In short, the drug store was a public space sustained by his father as a citizen businessman, who championed a commonwealth of public goods, and organized with other citizens.

He also mentored his son in the civic possibilities of small business, of vital importance today as well.

In a Senate debate about box stores in 1952, Humphrey declared that the purpose of small business was not cheap prices but survival of democracy. “Do we want an America where the economic market place is filled with a few Frankensteins and giants?” he asked. “Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businesses, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their Government or anyone else?”

Humphrey saw the civic side of business as tied to citizens as the agents of democracy, embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution with its message of “we the people.” He touted this through his career, challenging audiences looking for saviors. “Government isn’t supposed to do all of this,” Humphrey declared on February 22, 1967, in a Phoenix television interview, in response to a caller who asked him to fix the problems with politics. “If you think politics is corrupt, get your bar of political ivory soap and clean it up!   Get out there and get roughed up a little bit in the world of reality. Join the community action groups, volunteer your services.”

We need a new generation of civic leaders like the barbers and hairdressers of the civil rights movement — or Hubert Humphrey’s father a generation before.

Changes in “upstream” institutions like colleges and universities will be crucial as they reorient themselves to education for civic agency through public work. We also need people in many places who turn their jobs into public work, and make their worksites public spaces.

These will be the architects and agents of democracy’s future in 21st century America.

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.


Action needed: Support Democracy in Education

Momentum is building in the American Commonwealth Partnership, and we have a unique opportunity to leverage support for our work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship has a challenge grant that will match any new and increased gift made by May 31st!

The ACP strives to democratize higher education by opening access, improving curricular and co-curricular teaching and learning, and creating an ethos of  public engagement to make life better for all of us.

So far, generous supporters like you have contributed $13,785 . Help us reach our goal of $20,000 by making a contribution today. Please click here to make a contribution of $50, $100, or $250 today.

The skills needed in both the workplace and our society as a whole require cooperative and productive citizenship to build an equitable, sustainable democracy. To develop such capacities, higher education needs to tap the full participation of all, and integrate science with arts, humanities and design. This requires bold action. ACP develops strategies to help realize these goals.

Higher education must rise to the occasion, and ACP aspires to be the resource and a meeting ground for this great work.

Help us to build a better tomorrow for students and America as a whole. And please spread the word by sharing this link on Facebook,twitter and other social media.

Thank you,

Harry Boyte, National Coordinator, ACP


DemocracyU and the Happiness Initiative

By John de Graaf

It’s an honor to blog for DemocracyU and the American Commonwealth Partnership, another much-needed organization in the quest for engaged higher education.  In the past year, I’ve been delighted to work with The American Democracy Project and Inspire America to introduce faculty and students to The Happiness Initiative , a project launched to let communities and campuses alike ask deeper questions about where we wish to go as a nation, how we get there, and how to measure what we achieve.

Since I spoke about the Initiative at the ADP meeting in Orlando last June, interest in the project has already come from about a hundred colleges and universities throughout the United States.  From Western Washington University to Western Kentucky, from San Jose State to Middlebury College, students are taking the 12-minute “happiness survey” on our site (developed with the help of hundreds of faculty and student volunteer hours from San Francisco State University’s psychology department), thinking about their happiness in much broader terms than money, and beginning to engage with their communities to measure and improve wellbeing.

With guidance from campus civic engagement director Don Mowry and several other faculty members, students at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire are working with their city government, chamber of commerce, public library, local non-profits and other groups to conduct a community-wide happiness initiative.  They will be taking the survey to underserved populations and are conducting a random sampling of the Eau Claire population and of their fellow students.

The Happiness Initiative—measuring wellbeing in ten “domains” of life—economic satisfaction and security; mental health; physical health; time balance; access to education, arts and culture; social connection and community participation; work satisfaction; confidence in government; environment and quality of place—offers an opportunity for broad inter-disciplinary learning and civic engagement.

Many colleges will be joining with The Happiness Initiative to celebrate “Pursuit of Happiness Day” on April 13, 2012—Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  Dr. David Gould of the University of Iowa is collecting materials for colleges to use in a possible national happiness teach-in that day.

I am reminded that January 11, 2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most significant acts of civic engagement in American history.  On that date in 1912, thousands of workers, most of them women and most of them immigrants, left the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to march in its snowy streets for better pay and shorter working hours.  Singing as they faced bayonets, imprisonment and physical violence for two months, they won America’s sympathy and their demands.

Historians have come to refer to the event as “The Bread and Roses strike,” because observers remarked that a few young women in the Lawrence textile strike carried a banner which read: WE WANT BREAD, AND ROSES TOO.

The bread symbolized higher wages—money, stuff, as we use the term colloquially today.  But the roses represented shorter working hours—time to smell the roses, or as the beautiful song about the strike, “Bread and Roses” (there are many versions on You Tube) puts it, time for “art and love and beauty their drudging spirits never knew.”  The roses symbolized all those non-material things that go beyond Gross Domestic Product as measures of the good life, the non-material things which The Happiness Initiative calls attention to.

In the years after World War Two, as America became the world’s richest consumer society, the roses were left to wilt.  We came to believe we could live on “bread” alone and measure our success by economic power alone.  In the past generation, the percentage of students whose after-college goal was to “make a lot of money” rather than find work that serves others has doubled.

But The American Commonwealth Partnership and The Happiness Initiative, drawing from the wellsprings of our history and our hopes for greater justice, sustainability and quality of life, can nurture the gardeners who will water our roses once again.

For more information about doing a happiness initiative on your campus, email Andrew Cozin: andrew@happycounts.org.

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, and producer of fifteen prime time national PBS documentaries.  He is the co-author of Affluenza: the all-consuming epidemic and What’s the economy for, anyway? John is also the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and the Outreach Director of The Happiness Initiative.  He has taught at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.