Social Studies Opinion

Repairers of the Breach

By Harry C. Boyte — March 21, 2017 4 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues

You ask the question, where do we disagree?

We both recognize that any school -- public, private, or parochial - can be a democracy school. We agree that if schools get public funding there should be “strings attached,” making them accountable to certain standards that are, in turn, products of democratic debate and decision making.

But we do have a difference. I would say it’s like a camera lens. We’re using different lenses - you focus on “public bodies.” I am alarmed about the radical unravelling of the civic culture in which public bodies are embedded.

So you highlight “democratically chosen authorities” and their rules. As you say, they “lay down obligations of many sorts that must be followed as well as transparency in all matters including how they spend their money. So too the legal rights of children, parents, and teachers are determined by public bodies.”

I’d highlight the fact that “public bodies” are now experienced by most citizens - not only conservatives -- as not “public” in the sense of including “the people.” They’re seen as distant, arrogant, unresponsive bureaucracies which shut people out. How to bring “the public” back into “public” schools (or any schools)? is one question.

It’s tied to a broader question. The civic fabric is unravelling, especially along lines of partisanship. What do we do about that?

Last week I wrote a piece for the Nation on the student protests at Middlebury College, “The Deeper Lessons of the Incident at Middlebury.” My point was that the protests illustrate what can be called “mobilizing,” using a Manichean formula for change-making that students have learned from my generation of activists.

The mobilizing, Manichean formula of politics is concrete: find an enemy to demonize, use a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms, inflames emotion, and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue.

It has spread. Indeed, Trump can be seen as the ultimate outgrowth.

Old colleagues in the community organizing world reacted furiously, objecting to the fact I described Rules for Radicals, the second book by the community organizer Saul Alinsky, as a text used in mobilizing, Manichean politics.

I realized I need to focus attention on the Manichean problem not mainly on what Alinsky may or may not have said (though I know from direct experience and many interviews that Rules for Radicals, abandoning local communities as sites of change, was an influence on mobilizing. So were others like Andre Gorz’s Strategy for Labor and the “majority organizing” method of George Wiley, head of the National Welfare Rights Organization).

Here’s a more detailed treatment.

In 2001 I gave a paper at the American Political Science Association conference, “A Tale of Two Playgrounds.” The paper tells the story of a playground that children at St. Bernard’s Elementary School built over several years in a low income and working class neighborhood in St. Paul.

They were in the youth civic education and empowerment initiative Public Achievement. It used what we call citizen politics or the politics of public work. As I put it, “young people [in Public Achievement] are conceived civically as co-creators of a democratic way of life. Politics has a ‘jazz like’ quality, negotiating diverse interests for the sake of creating things of broad public benefit.” I added findings from evaluations which show young people can be re-engaged in politics through such experiences.

The teams, with college students as coaches and teachers in the school as mentors, turned around neighborhood opinion, negotiated zoning changes with the city, and secured more than $60,000 in support from local businesses. In the process they learned many political skills and concepts.

We’re interviewing past participants in Public Achievement for a book and I’m deeply impressed by how much the experience impacted those involved.

The story contrasts with experiences of a young friend who knew about the St. Bernard’s playground. He was on staff of the community organizing group ACORN in New York. When teenagers in the neighborhood where he worked wanted to build a playground he took it up with the regional director.

She said he couldn’t do it unless he could figure out how to “cut” the issue in progressive ways - citizen action language for figuring out the enemy and organizing a protest.

He knew that wasn’t likely to build the playground. He worried that it would teach young people the wrong lessons, in any event. The story, including the way the Manichean formula developed, is on my academia.edu site.

Some politics is constructive and jazz-like, as in the St. Bernard’s playground. Some is conflictual, with winners and losers like elections. But conflicts can be undertaken in different ways.

That’s why I emphasize the importance of the nonviolent philosophy which combines relational power and public love. It’s also important to note large scale campaigns which had elements of nonviolence, like the Obama 2008 presidential campaignand the fight against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages in Minnesota in 2012. Both used relational citizen politics as both message and method. They were concerned about building (or rebuilding) and sustaining civic relationships as well as winning the fight.

We need a vast process of civic repair and new creation of civic sites and mediating institutions. This can take place in fights or in building playgrounds.

The St. Bernard’s playground story can also be a metaphor for being “repairers of the breach,” as the biblical passage (Isaiah 58:12) puts it.

You’re about to come out with a book on democratic assessment. I’d ask, how can we add a strong emphasis on “civic repair” to every playground built, every school democratized, every campaign waged?


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.