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The Concept and Philosophy of Public Work

The Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship has long utilized the concept of public work as an philosophy and approach to our work with individuals and communities. Public work is sustained, visible, serious effort by a diverse mix of ordinary people that creates things of lasting civic or public significance.

The ultimate goal of public work is a flourishing democratic culture, created through a different kind of politics in which citizens take center stage. We believe citizenship is best seen as work, whether paid or unpaid, that has public meaning, lasting public impact, and contributes to the commonwealth. Public work is different than citizenship as charity,  volunteerism, or protest politics. Instead, public work stresses the contribution of individuals in their everyday lives to shaping a common way of life together.

Public work teaches people to work across party lines and partisan differences. Diverse groups have come together to create parks, schools, and libraries, to organize civic holidays or movements for social reform. Institutions such as political parties, religious congregations, unions and commercial associations, settlements, cooperative extensions, schools, and colleges were once “mediating institutions” that connected everyday life to public affairs. They also taught an everyday politics of bargaining, negotiating, and problem solving. People learned to deal with others that they may disagree with on religion or ideology. They gained a sense of stake and ownership in democracy.

Such experiences of everyday political education and action have declined. Many institutions have become service delivery operations in which experts or professionals deliver the goods to clients or customers. Many forms of citizen politics have been reshaped as large-scale mobilizations, in which issues are cast in “good” or “evil” terms, and solutions are often vastly oversimplified. Public work politics aims to renew the civic muscle of mediating institutions and to teach the skills and habits of navigating many-sided public projects.

Public work is also a philosophy, a theoretical framework that draws upon diverse intellectual traditions and aims to have broad explanatory power about the craft of democratic action. Public work understand humans as creative agents, and emphasizes developing human talents, connecting people to each other and to society, and generating a sense of the world as open-ended and co-created by human beings. People are contributors, rather than victims, volunteers, or consumers. People are part of a relational public commons, in which our thriving is mutual and interconnected.

Public work is an evolving framework that speaks to the central challenges of our time. Public work dissolves the distinction between a separate government, a “them” responsible for our problems, and “the people,” innocent and aggrieved. Our government and our democratic way of life become what we make them, and are a reflection of ourselves.