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Democracy as Way of Life

This blog post is adapted from selections from “Renewing the Democratic Purposes of Higher Education,” forthcoming from Association of Governing Boards Guardians Series.

It is commonplace for Americans to assume that our democracy is summed up in the rights of individuals to vote and in the institutional forms of government created to carry out the will of the people. Though voting and government systems are important, they are at best the “machinery” of our democracy.

Rather, we must embrace an understanding of democracy as a way of life, what the great social reformer Jane Addams called “democracy as a social ethic.” Democracy is the day-to-day work of all of us innovating together to solve common problems. As a shared enterprise, everyone has power to participate in democracy.

For higher education institutions, an understanding of democracy as a way of life has several implications. It means that the education we offer, aimed as it may be to particular careers, professions and other walks of life, is always at the same time preparatory for democratic citizenship. It also means that higher education institutions have civic purpose. The economic, social, and civic impact of colleges and universities are part and parcel of their roles in democratic culture.

There are certainly challenges to democracy in the United States today. Institutions of higher education have distinct opportunities to bolster democracy through the education they offer, as well as emerging practices:

Liberal Arts as the Practice of Freedom

Though political polarities might suggest otherwise, the definition of “liberal” in “liberal arts education” is in fact most closely related to the meaning of the Latin word “liberalis,” or freedom. Encompassing a wide range of disciplines and not easily fit into a standard package, the ethic of liberal arts education places primary value on freedom of thought, critical analysis, open-mindedness, adaptivity, empathy, and life-long learning, so that graduates cultivate the habits of mind and practice that contribute to a thriving democracy.

In our wider democracy, there is both a decreased trust in public institutions and an isolation from and distrust of people who are different from us. There is meaningful opportunity in embracing the capacity for liberal arts to help students build empathy, open mindedness, and knowledge of the foundations of democracy and citizenship. By embracing their public purpose as beacons of free inquiry, colleges and universities can cultivate spaces for deliberation and dialogue on tough topics, cutting through polemics of “conservative” and “liberal” to present opportunities for thoughtful engagement on behalf of the wider community.

Universities as Community Members

Higher education institutions have immense opportunity to build democracy when they take seriously their public role as community members and generators of knowledge. Countering the notion that universities are elite “bubbles,” schools that have made “anchor institution”[i] commitments work to collaborate with the surrounding community around employment, training, local purchasing, infrastructure, and community-identified problems. Place-focused community engagement centers partner with community organizations and members as citizens to connect research, academic service learning, and civic engagement, to maximize collective impact, and to prioritize community needs in university interaction with the community.[ii] Everyone is a citizen of the community, and universities build democracy when civic practices are part of the education offered to students in the curriculum and co-curriculum and when these elements are intentionally integrated into how the university participates as a community member.

The university also centers its role as community member by taking seriously its public position as a center for the creation and sharing of knowledge. In a thriving democracy, individuals rely on the “public store” of knowledge to participate as citizens.[iii] This must include all sorts of knowledge that may be located outside of books and classrooms. Engaging local communities through partnership, experiential education, community-based research, and deliberative dialogue has the potential to break down boundaries around legitimate knowledge, bring the local community into the knowledge building process, and to build student appreciation for the different sorts of knowledge required to act as an effective citizen in a democracy.

Connecting Work and Citizenship

Institutions of higher education have great opportunity to further democracy when they help students connect work and professional identity with citizenship and participation in democracy. A robust understanding of democracy as integrated into the fabric of society indicates that citizenship is a means of living, rather than isolated volunteerism or participation in elections. Work, workplaces, and professional identities are thus sites for participation in democracy. Work serves a public purpose: it is not isolated from society, and it serves as a means for education and construction of human community. When professionals see their work as infused with a public mission and purpose, perhaps driven by a personal sense of vocation, they are practicing citizenship by understanding themselves as agents in an interdependent system. Work places and professions are also importantly potential sites of monumental social change, as evidenced by the long history of the labor movement and the work of professional guilds in the early twentieth century.

In our democracy, individuals most frequently see their work and roles as citizens as separate. Politics are understood to be largely an issue of elections and government, rather than the every-day “choice work” of community deliberation, change-making, and problem solving. Institutions of higher education have an opportunity to change this attitude by intentionally integrating civic education with post-graduation work preparation, and by centering institutional missions focused on education for the health of democracy. By helping students understand the links between the spheres of work and citizenship, universities help students prepare for lives that holistically integrate work of all sorts into the role of a citizen.

 

[i]  The Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Anchor Dashboard. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013. Accessed July 10, 2018. http://www.aecf.org/resources/the-anchor-dashboard-1/.

[ii] Seattle University Center for Community Engagement. “Place Based Justice Network.” https://www.seattleu.edu/cce/suyi/advance-the-field/place-based-justice-network/. Accessed August 28, 2018.

[iii] Harry C. Boyte. Reinventing Citizenship as Public Work: Citizen-Centered Democracy and the Empowerment Gap. (Dayton: The Kettering Foundation, 2013), 23, accessed July 10, 2018. https://www.kettering.org/catalog/product/reinventing-citizenship-public-work-citizen-centered-democracy-and-empowerment-gap-0.

 

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.

Workshop Offerings

The Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship offers workshops and training sessions on topics related to civic, community, and political engagement for students, community members, staff, and faculty. See upcoming workshops on our events calendar.

 

Basics of Organizing: Public vs. Private, Power, and Self-Interest

Interested in learning about community organizing but don’t know where to start? This workshop is for you. Learn some of the foundational concepts of organizing to get started on your change making journey. Participants in this workshop will gain an understanding of relational power, the difference between public and private relationships, and how self-interest motivates us to act.

Deliberative Dialogue

According to research through the National Issues Forum, Americans are deeply worried that the social fabric may be unraveling due to polarization. A deliberative approach helps to address the problem of polarization. Deliberative practice promotes learning, listening, and understanding across lines of difference, and can lead to collective action. This experience-based training for moderating deliberative dialogues offers the opportunity for participants to engage in a deliberative dialogue, and to develop facilitation skills for moderating deliberative dialogues.

Democracy and the Philosophy of Public Work

In this dynamic workshop, participants will learn about the theory and practice of public work. Participants will leave being able to distinguish between three ways of conceptualizing democracy and what it means to be a citizen, and will understand civic agency and its role in public problem solving.

One-to-One Relational Meetings

If you want to create change, few things are more important as one-to-one relational meetings. One-to-ones are at the heart of community organizing and leadership. These conversations are about establishing a public relationship with someone, and sharing stories as a way to understand their motivations and self interests. They can uncover common values and interests that might lead to collaborative work in support of the change you are trying to create. This mix of personal, sometimes intimate knowledge leading to public action holds unique value. Participants in this workshop will learn and practice one-to-one relationship building for organizing and public work.

Orientation to Community-Based Learning

Through community-based learning, students engage with a local community or organization around co-created goals. These experiences do not take place in a vacuum and have potential for substantial impacts making it important to do thoughtful preparation. Participants will engage in reflection about the skills, capacities and lens they will be bringing to their work, reflection about their pre-existing knowledge and remaining questions about the community they’ll be working in, and learn helpful practices for navigating collaborative work in a new context.

Power Mapping

People interested in promoting positive social change— through public work, civic action, advocacy and other vehicles—need to be aware of who else cares about their cause, and the political and social power structures in play. Social change agents need tools to access resources and to put their ideas into action. Power mapping gives participants a way to think about different kinds of power, and a set of tools to access the power needed to make things happen.

Public Narrative

Using Marshall Ganz’s framework for storytelling as a catalyst for social change, participants in this workshop will learn about the power of the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now, and will begin to develop their own public narratives.

 

Sabo Scholars

Photo of Martin Sabo with students.Yearlong student seminar exploring civic and public life.

The Sabo Scholar program provides a unique opportunity for students to engage in civic life, study the political process, work on public policy, and explore careers in public service. The cohort meets on Thursday nights for academic seminar and civic engagement project work with the cohort.

Current 2nd or 3rd year Augsburg students who have an interest in politics, community, and civic life are encouraged to apply. To be enrolled in the Sabo Scholars course you must plan on studying on-campus for the entire school year (i.e. not going abroad or student teaching for part of the year) and be available for the class period on Thursday nights. Any eligible student is welcome to enroll in the course whether they receive the scholarship or not.

Benefits:

  • Unique opportunities to explore civic engagement and politics as a cohort
  • Earn upper-division credit (4 credits) in the Political Science Department
  • Seminar setting that is small and supportive
  • $2000 scholarship
  • Opportunities to formally develop civic leadership skills

The Sabo Scholars is one of three public leadership scholars programs at Augsburg.

Please check out the Christensen Scholars and the Interfaith Scholars.

Whose Democracy is it Anyway?

Join the Sabo Center and a panel of distinguished guests in exploring the questions: What role do citizens play in our democracy? What role do elected officials play? In a thriving democracy, how do (or should) the two interact?

October 4, 2018

4:00 – 6:00 p.m.

Hagfors Center, Room 150, Augsburg University

 

Panelists:

Catalina Morales, Lead organizer with ISAIAH and Faith in MN

Harry Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy, Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship  

Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis Ward 5

Irene Fernando, Candidate for Hennepin County Commissioner – District 2

 

 

Democracy Augsburg Teach-in: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

 

Join us Tuesday, September 25 at 4:00 p.m. in Hagfors 151 when Harry Boyte delivers the first Democracy Augsburg Teach-in of the year, Addressing the Crisis in Democracy- Lessons from the civil rights movement. Harry Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center, served as a field secretary for Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the southern freedom movement. He will lift up lessons from the movement, including the key role young people played, and relate them to our current crisis in democracy.

Relational Skills for Bridging Divides

How to Talk Across the Political Divide, a Better Angels Skills WorkshopIn our current climate of political polarization, people with differing perspectives and opinions struggle to engage in productive conversation. We tend to be quick to defend or demonize, deepening the divide that exists in the American people. Even when we want to reach out to those with different perspectives, we often don’t know how.

In response to these issues, the Sabo Center with the Civic Studies Fellows is offering this day-long workshop will feature a morning Better Angels skill-building session in which participants will learn effective ways to communicate with others who differ from them politically or ideologically. Over lunch, Dr. William J. Doherty will deliver a keynote address. Bill Doherty is an educator, researcher, therapist, speaker, author, consultant, and community organizer who designed the Better Angels process.

In the afternoon participants will practice their communication skills in deliberative dialogues on topics including:

  • How to Prevent Mass Shootings in the United States
  • Land of Plenty: How to Ensure People Have the Food They Need
  • Shaping Our Future: The Purpose of Higher Education
  • Making Ends Meet: How Should We Spread Prosperity?
  • What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic?
Bill Doherty, Facilitator for Better Angels Workshops
Bill Doherty, Facilitator for Better Angels Workshops

Relational Skills for Bridging Divides

Saturday, November 3, 2018

9:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Hagfors Center, Augsburg University

 

Thanks to support from Augsburg University and the Kettering Foundation, there is no cost to attend this event but registration is required.