Teaching Opinion

Democracy Schools: Lessons From Community Organizing

By Harry C. Boyte — October 20, 2015 2 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Your comparison of families and schools makes me think of what is called “relational organizing.” This idea comes from the civil rights movement - Ella Baker and Bob Moses, among others, distinguished between “mobilizing” and “organizing.” The distinction has been developed in broad-based community organizing and it’s spread to environmental groups and elsewhere.

Mobilizing is transactional, focused on getting large numbers of people to vote, sign a petition, contact a legislator, go to a demonstration, etc. Organizing is transformational. It takes time. It involves investing in people’s growth, connections with others, intellectual capacities, ability to act effectively in public - their civic agency. At the heart of organizing is building relationships.

Hahrie Han’s book, How Organizations Develop Activists, compares “low-engagement” local chapters of two national organizations (a health group and an environmental group) with “high engagement” local chapters. Low-engagement chapters mobilize. High engagement chapters do some mobilizing, but they emphasize organizing, relationship-building and developing members’ capacities. They are also far more effective in building power and sustaining members’ engagement over time.

Social media and other “on-line” practices can be useful supplements to relationship-building and capacity-development. But they don’t substitute. Organizing also cuts against the grain of our fast-moving, high-tech world. It takes intentional, strategic focus.

Like organizing, you emphasize the central importance of creating human relationships. On the basis of our experiences as well as social change literature, I strongly agree that relationship-building organizing is key. We’ve found it possible to translate relationship-building practices (like “public narrative” and “one on one” meetings) into schools, colleges, and professions. Supportive, deep human relationship-building will be at the heart building the democracy school movement. Relational organizing redefines abstract “institutions” into living “communities.”

We have also found that another distinction from the organizing world, between “public” and “private” relationships, is extremely helpful. Public relationships are those in schools, colleges, work, civic groups, etc. Private relationships are in families and among close friends. It’s always a matter of more or less not either-or. But recognizing that in public settings the goals shouldn’t be intimacy, being liked, and loyalty, but rather mutual accountability, respect, and getting things done makes a large difference. In fact young people often express huge relief when they learn to distinguish between public and private life. All the cultural messages they’ve received collapse any distinction.

Alyssa Blood, who has studied special education kids who do Public Achievement, found that their development of what she calls a “public persona” - learning that acting “in public” shouldn’t be the same as their behavior “in private” among their buddies -- is transformational. It greatly increases their confidence and agency.

Can this distinction help with your dilemmas?

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