Teaching Opinion

How Cultural Organizing Can Promote Democracy in Schools

By Harry C. Boyte — November 10, 2015 3 min read
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November 10 Harry

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

You ask “what’s our alternative?” to choice. I agree choice does not equate with “democracy.”

The wellspring of democracy as a way of life in American history is citizen politics. Let me elaborate.

Mike Miller’s participation in the conversation helps to show one kind of citizen politics (his comments are up on the blog of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship).

In 1983 I wrote about the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP), a broad-based community organization which he was organizing, and attended its convention.

SFOP was wonderfully diverse. It reminded me of a vivid description of San Francisco I read in a black newspaper from the turn of the century, “Like a Fairway of an enormous circus [with] thousands of every race...Hindoos, Japanese, Black men with wide shoulders, slim hips, loose relaxed gait, Jews, Swedes, Spaniards, Chinese, lean Englishmen...”

SFOP brought together religious groups, trade unions, community organizations, people from different racial, cultural, and partisan backgrounds to work on issues like affordable housing and jobs. These days some such broad-based community organizations also include schools.

Building the conference involved intentional work to create public relationships across huge differences, using methods like one on one meetings. It was full of conflict but very productive, growing the “public persona” which Alyssa Blood observed among special education kids in Public Achievement—capacities to work in public settings full of diversity. It also embodied democratic values such as equality, cooperation, and respect—faith in the potential of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Overall it was about civic agency, developing collective empowerment.

That’s what I mean by “citizen politics.”

Mike and I discussed how citizen politics can spread. We both agreed that more is needed than community organizing to change America. We had some differences on strategies.

We discussed two models. The Chinese model, the countryside encircling the cities, builds coalitions to overcome the powerful. Mike advocates variations on this model—as do most community organizers.

I also argued for another model, “cultural organizing,” and discussed the astonishing spread of Christianity in its early centuries especially among the poor and marginalized. It involved conversion to a different way of people seeing themselves and reality, which accorded them a new dignity and worth. This was a molecular process of cultural transformation. In American history something similar has taken place again and again around democracy and education. Here, religious values and practices are part of a larger whole.

We’re seeing signs of democratic ferment now around education, connected to democratic stirrings elsewhere. Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritotocracy has many examples of bringing a more cooperative ethos into the hypercompetitive individualist culture of education. For instance, Guinier describes the “quiet revolutionary” Shirley Collado, who develops ways for minority students from low income backgrounds to work together cooperatively. Guinier calls such examples “democratic merit,” challenging the “testocracy.”

The subtitle of her book, “Democratizing Higher Education,” points to the larger setting. In colleges and schools, there are signs of a fledgling democratic movement. This movement needs the idea of public life as an arena of diversity and tension which can be constructive, if people grow “public personas.”

Public Achievement illustrates. At Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul, a PA team of 5th grade African Americans are working on an anti-bullying campaign. I asked them why kids bully. They had many insights about the hypercompetitive culture. They are learning strategies for working together—cooperating—and with a broader public, kids not their buddies.

PA is one example of cultural organizing for a new democratic movement.

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.