Teaching Opinion

Citizens as Co-Creators

By Harry C. Boyte — December 15, 2015 3 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues,

I like your question to students, “how are decisions on various levels of importance are made?” I agree that the capacity to “throw the rascals out” is essential.

But I also am convinced democracy is not only about decision making. It is about co-creation and a feeling of ownership - where “culture” comes in.

Some years ago I had an exchange with two distinguished academics, Eric Olin Wright and Archon Fung, about their “Deepening Democracy” essay, later published in Politics and Society (my response, “Reconstructing Democracy,” is also on the Havens site).

They were interested in developing “transformative democratic strategies,” larger than local experiments or single issue movements. Drawing lessons from large scale examples which they called “empowered deliberative democracy,” from habitat conservation planning under the Endangered Species Act to participatory budget discussions in Brazil, they developed a model which could be adapted to schools.

They distilled three principles: Issues have a practical focus on specific, tangible problems; all involve ordinary people affected by the problems and officials close to them; all rely on deliberative development of problem solving. They noted three design features - decentralization of state decision making to local units; creation of formal linkages that connect local units to each other and to more central authorities; and ways to support and guide problem-solving efforts.

Their model aimed at developing a large, visible model of democratizing change, and it gained a lot of attention. The problem is that it doesn’t address a key issue: the way people have become consumers of democracy, not its creators (in fact, they defined citizens in these terms: “These transformations attempt to institutionalize the on-going participation of ordinary citizens,” they wrote, “most often in their role as consumers of public goods.” -- my italics). We saw the problem first hand in the Clinton administration, where citizens were redefined as customers, during our Reinventing Citizenship project.

“Consumer democracy” is too central today to ignore, and has hollowed out democratic identities. In contrast, the Henry Wallace democracy speech I referred to last week (“The Century of the Common Man”) countered Henry Luce’s “American Century” because it was able to sum up the sense, widespread in the Great Depression, that the people, not simply government or experts, were addressing the problems. The work of thousands of journalists, writers, film makers, and others helped make “the story of the work of the people” come alive.

In recent years I’ve seen many stories like Cesar and the Bathroom Busters team in Public Achievement. Cesar was a Mexican-American 5th grade student who helped organize a successful project in Anderson, an inner city Minneapolis school. I know your schools would be rich with similar stories.

Their team painted the bathroom, overcoming downtown bureaucratic resistance. The next year when graffiti started reappearing, they figured out how to involve kids throughout the school in coming up with a lasting solution. They created a mural, integrating many kids’ suggestions. As it took shape, the bathroom became graffiti-free.

It also turned into a symbol of school pride. A string of prominent visitors - Congressman Martin Sabo and others - came to see the school and were taken to the bathroom by Cesar, who became known for his eloquence on the topic: “This is our property. We have to take care of it!”

Co-creative work appears now, including in schools, but it lacks a larger narrative. Where is Ernie Pyle, the journalist of front line “GI Joes” who communicated the public narrative that World War II was about democracy, not American dominance?

Put differently, how can we develop public narratives about democracy schools that include the idea that teachers, students, parents, and communities are co-creators of democracy? It won’t happen easily.

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.