College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Signs of Hope in Discouraged Times—a New Citizenship Movement?

By Harry C. Boyte — September 06, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues,

It’s good to resume this conversation after the summer. I’ve been in South Africa. The view from abroad highlights dangers and opportunities.

I agree that the signs you point to are worrying, such as the decline in democratic purpose in CPE after 40 years; and shrinking numbers of school boards. And of course the context of these is the troubling election. The Pew Center reports that for the first time in a generation, most Americans are unhappy with their choices for president.

But it’s also important to identify positive trends. I see them in stirrings of citizenship.

The Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College is coordinating a book project on Public Achievement, the civic empowerment and citizen education initiative which is now 25 years old. I’ve been listening to interviews of participants - young people, teachers, PA team “coaches.” They are full of hope, stories of people who learned to see themselves as “co-creators” of communities and effective agents of change. Such hope is different than facile optimism. “I found a lot of empowerment through PA,” said Tamisha Anderson, an African American student at St. Bernard’s. Anderson was involved in many projects over the years, from changing school uniforms and building a playground to educating about the danger of land mines in conflict areas. “It was empowering to know that your voice matters regardless of what color or size or age.”

I worked with a team to launch Public Achievement in 1990 to bring the spirit and practices I had seen in the southern civil rights movement, where I worked as young man, to today’s youth. Public Achievement is based on the idea of citizens as co-creators. Students doing Public Achievement are citizens today, not future citizens waiting to vote. PA is active in communities across America, as well as in other countries.

In PA, young people work as teams coached by adults (often college students), learning skills to make change on public issues they choose. From Minnesota and Colorado to New York, Texas, and Georgia, young people fight demeaning depictions of blacks and Latinos and Asians. They champion the dignity of women, LGBTQ people, poor people and those with disabilities. They campaign for immigrant rights and against bullying. They create videos, songs and plays that convey the overlooked talents of our youth. They take care of existing public resources and build new ones, from playgrounds to recycling centers. In the process they gain a sense of power and citizenship.

Alyssa Blood did her master’s thesis in education at Augsburg about Public Achievement in FridleyMiddle School, where it has reshaped the Special Education curriculum. Students worked on issues such as bullying, healthy life styles, homelessness, solar energy, and cruelty to animals. In the process, students developed habits and skills of negotiation, compromise, initiative, planning, organizing, and public speaking. According to school officials, Public Achievement deepened connections between the school and the community. In the process students grew what Blood calls “a public persona,” civic identity. Blood and Michael Ricci, the lead teacher there, are convinced these skills and identities will shape the students all their lives.

As young people build the shared public world, they develop the “public persona,” civic identity, described by Blood. The public world in America historically was the commonwealth, vision of civic leaders and radical change agents alike, meaning shared public things in government and civic life. Four states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia) are officially commonwealths. The concept of “citizen as co-creator” was also foundational in the black freedom movement (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” as the freedom song puts it). A sense of an inclusive commonwealth, “realizing the promise of democracy,” infused the movement.

Today, the idea of citizens as co-creators of communities is central to the transdisciplinary field of “Civic Studies,” which Tufts University describes as the “intellectual component of...the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.” The recent $15 million endowment to the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University suggests growing authority behind the idea of citizen as co-creator, a far more substantial idea of citizen than simply voter or volunteer.

Tisch College has also been central to the movement for civic education. Working with the White House Domestic Policy Council, it hosted a conference for higher education leaders in 2014. Last July, it supported a meeting of social studies teachers in the White House. The House 2017 Appropriations bill includes the first funding for civics and American history in years. The bill includes $6.5 million in competitive grants to improve instruction in American history, civics and geography, with a particular emphasis on schools in under-served rural and urban communities.

I see these as signs of civic hope past the election. But I’m very interested in your views on citizenship. How did you all treat the concept in CPE and Mission Hill (either explicitly or implicitly)? What’s the role of citizenship in your view of democracy?


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.