Social Studies Opinion

Building Democracy in Schools: The Larger Strategy

By Harry C. Boyte — May 31, 2016 5 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

You ask, “At what point does one go from flawed democracy to one not at all?” I have two points, both about larger strategy.

If we understand democracy to include not only governance structures but also empowering cultures, the question is, How does such culture develop? As I learned in the freedom movement as a young man (the “civil rights” movement) it’s a mistake to make overly sharp contrasts between “democratic” and “undemocratic” communities, just as it’s mistaken to contrast “good” and “bad” people. It’s more or less, not either-or.

All communities have elements that “make for democratic action” and elements that “oppose democratic action,” as the community organizer Saul Alinsky put it. In community organizing, the first job of an organizer when entering a community is not to identify what she or he thinks is wrong with it, but rather to get to know that community and its values, histories, power dynamics, conflicts, and leaders. Democratic capacities are developed from the inside out.

Beginning where a community is, not where one would like it to be, and developing democratic capacities, civic agency, is the strategy of “organizing.” It contrasts with both mobilizing and also a human rights stance. Mobilizing, rallying people against injustices, often overlooks developing democratic capacities. Human rights, articulating ideals of equality and dignity and seeking protection usually through the courts, often is advanced as an alternative to popular agency. Both mobilizing and human rights play important roles in democracy. But the question needs insistently to be asked: How do they build civic agency?

In this vein, Martin Luther King assigned me to organize in poor white communities, though he knew full well that they included KKK members, a story told on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. We had some success, beginning in a white mill village in East Durham, N.C., as I’ve mentioned. I don’t want to exaggerate. We also had many challenges and made mistakes, but we also saw changes and new interracial relationships.

My other point: it’s important to think about building democracy schools in historical context.

I didn’t know this at the time of King’s assignment but later discovered that he and others were thinking about the movement’s “next stage,” which they believed needed to involve alliances between blacks and white working people.

Bayard Rustin, a political mentor of Dr. King, had argued for such alliance-building since the 1940s. By the mid-1960s he was making this argument with urgency. The battle against legal segregation was largely won. He saw the movement’s next stage as much more difficult, tackling many-sided, complex problems, “wicked problems,” such as chronic unemployment, failing schools, lousy housing, drugs, and antagonistic relations with police. All are still with us. The strategy Rustin proposed is still relevant.

In his 1965 essay “From Protest to Politics” Bayard Rustin proposed three elements. The first was electoral coalitions to win over middle America. Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1968 was in this vein, successfully appealing to white blue collar voters who had earlier backed the segregationist George Wallace. Cross-racial community organizing of the kind I was doing was the second. Here and there across the country, it was proving highly successful, but it never went to full scale. Institutional transformation, including transformation of schools, was the third. You helped show the way in this, Deb, which is why I see your work as so exemplary, but most neglected this approach entirely.

Rustin contrasted this, what could be called a sober democratization strategy, with the purist tone he saw among many young activists and white professionals, whom he called “moralists.” Moralists looked at white working people with condescension and prejudice, seeing them as the enemy. This continues to be a problem. Today in education, a focus on consciousness-raising about injustices continues to substitute for the citizen politics which Rustin advanced.

Rustin, King, and others anticipated what would occur if alliance-building did not happen on a large scale: elites would drive a wedge between blacks and white working people. Divide-and-conquer was central to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and 1972. It reached new levels with Donald Trump. This is our context and our challenge.

“Trumpism” is much bigger than Donald Trump. Bill Doherty, a family therapist and pioneer in the movement called citizen professionalism, observes that Trumpism includes scapegoating groups; degrading rivals; and promoting the cult of the strong man. The cult of the strong man appeals to resentments, scorns reasoned discussion, champions narrow nationalism over respect for other societies, incites violence, and calls for people to trust in the great leader. Whether it is resurgent fascism or something new is beside the point. Trumpism is profoundly dangerous. It threatens existing elements of democracy, like protection of human rights. It threatens future democratic possibilities. It is emerging not only in the US but also around the world.

Bayard Rustin, like many around Martin Luther King, was shaped by the 1930s, in a time with parallels to our time, when the world faced rising dangers of totalitarianism. In response people created an international movement against fascism which not only defended democracy but also deepened democracy, showing connections between many issues. Rustin brought this perspective to the sixties.

The international movement was a seedbed for unions, cooperatives, culture change, anti-racist struggles, and organizing in and around education. It birthed successful anti-colonial movements. Overall it built civic agency on an immense scale, even with all its contradictions (like the manipulations of the self-proclaimed communist “vanguard”).

Today, again, we need to develop something parallel.

Building democracy in schools is inextricably connected to building democracy everywhere.


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