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.


Democracy then and now

By Harry C. Boyte

Today is the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Proposed by
Congress on September 25, 1789, the Bill of Rights – otherwise known
as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution — went into effect
after its ratification by Virginia, on December 15, 1891.

The Bill emerged from a fierce debate between “Federalists” and
“Anti-Federalists” about whether to ratify the Constitution itself,
which the historian Pauline Meier described as a national “dialogue
between power and liberty.”  The dialogue continues in today’s
tempestuous arguments about the role of government, the dangers of
centralized power —  and how to develop the authority and capacities
of the citizenry.

Supporters of the Constitution like Benjamin Franklin argued that
while “there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not
approve,” its adoption was necessary if the nation were to survive. It
seemed unlikely that anyone would be “able to make a better
Constitution.” Opponents warned of the dangers of centralized power,
citing examples through history.  Brutus (most likely Robert Yates)
cautioned of the tendencies of government to produce “an absolute
state of vassalage.”

The Bill of Rights broke the impasse. It embodied civic agency in
content and process.

In the first instance, the amendments not only limit the powers of
government, but also,  positively, enumerate and protect methods
through which citizens express and develop their civic capacities —
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of
association, and freedom of the press, among others.  These freedoms
also allow powerless groups like African Americans, the poor, women
and others to challenge the severe exclusions built into original
understandings of “citizen.”

In the second,  the debate itself, taking place in taverns, homes and
congregations, schools, colleges, local governments and local media,
created a wide  experience of ownership in the fledgling nation.
Discussions gave substance to the Constitution’s Preamble, which had
declared that “we the people” establish government as the instrument
of  common labors and common purposes.

In the Information Age, colleges, universities, schools and
educational groups of all kinds have crucial roles to play as civic
centers in the life of communities. They are schools for citizenship
through which people develop the knowledge, dispositions, skills and
habits necessary for a flourishing democratic society while tackling
real world problems and making a common life.

The American Commonwealth Partnership, like the debates which produced
the Bill of Rights, puts citizens on center stage.  It aims to
strengthen the capacities of education to help create a democracy “of
the people and by the people,” not only “for” the people.

ACP continues the dialogue between power and liberty.


Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is director of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

On The Occupy Movement: Stop Demanding Change, Bring It

By Yasmin Karimian

Each day as I pass Freedom Plaza, I see the tents of the occupiers still up. The dedication is inspiring and because of the closely proximity to my apartment, I am always curious and interested in the movement. Having just graduated college and as an avid user of Facebook, I pay particular attention to the Occupy Colleges movement.

According to, over 90 colleges have registered as having some sort of occupy movement on their campus. While I wholly support the message and concern of many students across the nation about rising tuition, the over privatization of education, and more graduates unable to find jobs, I question whether we are going about creating change in the most effective way.

Throughout my four years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I focused on methods of community organizing in order to revive the student government and create partnerships between the administration and the students. While it took much time and energy, the change seems to have been sustained in the community. Occupy Colleges writes about what Gandhi would do in times like these. The article on the front page of their website points to Gandhi’s persistent efforts to reduce division between two groups, the social responsibility that Gandhi constantly reminded his followers we each have, and his encouragement of “constructive work,” not mere protest.  Gandhi was not the only leader who used these methods. The Civil Rights movement in large part also used community organizing techniques.

It may be time for us to reevaluate the methods we are using. If we keep it as us against them, nothing will change.  We should build relationships with our administrators, who in fact have significant political power in government. As long as we continue protesting and demonstrating, we will not be able to create the ties necessary to produce change. It does not take more than a few bright minds to bring about change. What if we put our minds together and came up with solutions to the problems of our economy? Is our energy and intelligence really being spent in the most effective way as we spend our time in tents? It seems as though the Occupy movement has caught the attention of many and has many supporters. And with this attention and support, we have power. We need to stop demanding for something to change and actually help bring about the change.

Yasmin Karimian, past president of the Student Government Association at  the University of Maryland Baltimore County, led in a transformation of SGA to be a center for student public work and culture change.