Families & the Community Opinion

Who Makes Democratic Change?

By Harry C. Boyte — April 03, 2017 4 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues

In this discussion of who drives democratic change, it’s worth recalling what can be called the “citizen-centered” model (perhaps “civic populist” model) of making change to achieve goals like racial justice and fairness and the flourishing of every student.

I’ve been reading Minority Outcry, an important book by Abdiqani Farah, a Somali educator in Minnesota. He documents the despair and anger many Somali students and their families feel at schools which turn a deaf ear to their language, culture, and interests. But it is not a despairing book.

Farah argues convincingly that teachers haven’t been well prepared to understand Somali young people. The solution is education which focuses on agency. “Empowered students can lead successful academic and professional lives.” He calls on educators “to open their eyes and empower their students.”

He also calls for the Somali community to be involved. “Students can be empowered through their own cultures and values. [Schools need] the infusion of culture and norms into curriculum and lesson delivery.”

As you say, my background in the freedom movement made me aware of the racial inequities and injustices in America, reflected in residential segregation, inferior schools, lack of adequate legal redress, and many other areas. It also made me aware of the profound cultural and human resources in African American communities - just as in Somali communities.

The problem I see in the last generation of school reform efforts is that these resources have been neglected. School change approaches have been driven by government and focused on deficiencies and injustices not on resources (there is a clear parallel here with the ways educators don’t see young people’s wonderful capacities).

The remedy has been government action - laws ending segregation, court busing, other legislation that seeks, at least rhetorically, to ensure that “all children are treated equally.” All these are important goals but it’s a mistake to substitute government action for citizen action.

I want to recall citizen-centered philosophy and politics.

In his first book drawing on organizing experiences in the 1930s, Reveille for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, the community organizer, put the citizen-centered philosophy well. “The world is deluged with panaceas, formulas, proposed laws, machineries, ways out, and myriads of solutions,” he said. “It is significant and tragic that almost every one of these proposed plans and alleged solutions deals with the structure of society, but none concerns the substance--the people. This, despite the eternal truth of the democratic faith that the solution always lies with the people.”

Alinsky wasn’t the only one with such a view. Mary Mims developed the “community organizing method” in the cooperative extension service in the 1920s which spread to more than 1000 poor black and white communities across the south through the 1930s.

Mims, like others in cooperative extension (home economics, 4-H and other areas) drew on the Jane Addams Hull House tradition. She was also inspired by folk schools in Denmark. These had a focus on agency, building the civic power of students, families, and larger communities. They were “schools for life,” grounded in the experiences and life of common people not elites, with parallels to the “New School” (Escuela Nueva) movement in Latin America, begun in Columbia, which we’ve discussed before (“Democracy Schools - Lessons from Escuela Nueva,” December 22, 2015).

In Mims view, professionals of any kind should be a “leaven” for community self-organization. “So-called ‘social workers’ cannot hammer a community into shape,” she argued in her book, The Awakening Community. “If a community grows, it must do so from the inside.”

This is not to say government policy and government workers don’t have important roles in educational change. The New Schools, grounded in communities and empowering teachers, students, families and communities were spread through government policies in Columbia and other countries.

In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture and land grant colleges from 1937 to 1942 involved more than three million people in rural America in community discussions about the future of rural life, taking up issues that ranged from commodity prices and soil erosion to the future of democracy in America, described in Jess Gilbert’s book, Planning Democracy.

Why can’t we envision -- and develop strategies to catalyze and organize -- an initiative like this about “common schools,” or “democracy schools,” for the “age after DeVos and Trump”?

This citizen-driven change approach is more important than ever now, in our time of bitter partisan divisions and widely distrusted public institutions. We need a plan for making school change where politics is citizen politics, change occurs through civic organizing and deliberation, and government is “of the people” and “by the people.”

If we develop school change strategies based on this model we will build mainly on assets of poor and minority communities not mainly their needs. We will also be able to tap the assets and resources of other communities.

I am certain that this is the path to real democratic change.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.