Dear Deb and Colleagues,
It seems to me that the fact the new chancellor and state superintendent could end of your “large scale experiment” in the early 1990s, despite the broad coalition involved in planning it, shows why we need to rethink politics on a large scale.
Politics has become narrowly professionalized, detached from “civic roots” in the life of local communities. It now almost entirely revolves around politicians (and other public figures), their antics, promises, and positions. Like many other experts, they are detached, especially at state and national levels and in federal agencies. Citizens are reduced to consumer choices. This makes for dysfunctional politics and powerless and irresponsible citizens.
I had a different experience as a young man in the civil rights movement. Black beauty parlors and barber shops were places where people learned “everyday politics.” I saw how this learning could be deepened. Highlander Folk School worked with beauticians across the south to teach organizing skills.
One story with parallels from our years at the Humphrey Institute is about the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey described in his biography, Education of a Public Man, how his father went about making his drug store in Doland, a small town in South Dakota, the civic center of the town. His father was one of six Democrats in a town of about six hundred Republicans. “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.”
Here and there in recent years we’ve seen large scale educational experiments like you all developed in New York out of community organizing. For instance, the Alliance Schools in Texas, organized by an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate with churches, unions and others, developed large scale efforts to redesign schools. It had similarities to your story - more local autonomy, parent and student voice, democratic purpose, different assessment. It sought to hold politicians accountable.
But like most other community organizing initiatives, it didn’t undertake organizing to make democratic change within schools or the teaching profession - or within electoral politics. It didn’t build enough power to overcome entrenched political and economic interests and ways of thinking.
If we see organizing as “citizen politics,” the practices of diverse people negotiating differences, working together for some common good, and developing political skills in the process, it can be taken into professions, schools, colleges -- and electoral politics and government. We need such politics on a large scale to develop the power and make the changes we need.
Experiences with citizen politics also changes identities of those who become politicians.
All his life Humphrey was a “different kind of politician” as a result of his father’s drug store. He was able to find common ground with Republicans. He was expansive in his vision - he gave the famous civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention, birthed the Peace Corps, led the Senate fight for desegregation. He also challenged everyday citizens to get involved.
Parties, ideologies, and professional politicians all have a role but they shouldn’t be at the center of the political universe. Citizens - and civic settings where people of different interests interact and learn citizen politics - need to be at the center.
It will take a Copernican Revolution in our political thinking to bring this about.
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.