Educational Change, Cultural Organizing and Citizen Politics

Deborah Meier, a great democracy educator and a mentor of mine, and I have been discussing the meaning of "citizen politics" in our Bridging Differences blog conversation at Education Week. In the last blog she responds both to me and to Mike Miller, long time community organizer who commented on our exchange (his comments are on the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship blog).

"I'm struggling to picture the alternative form of organizing you are suggesting," says Meier, remarking that she can better understand Miller's description of large coalitions of community groups and trade unions. She adds that Miller has no examples of large-scale successful educational transformation. She also observes that an example which does purport to be about large scale change, the school choice movement, "creates communities separate from the ones we actually live in and vote in."

Then she asks "what's our alternative?"

I agree choice does not equate with "democracy." Citizen politics is the wellspring of democracy as a way of life in American history is citizen politics. Let me elaborate.

Mike Miller's involvement in the conversation illustrates one example, which is fairly widely known these days. In 1983 I wrote about the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP), a broad-based community organization which he was organizing, and attended its founding convention. The chapter, "God's Laboratory," from my book, Community Is Possible, is up on

SFOP was wonderfully diverse. It reminded me of a vivid description of San Francisco in a black newspaper at 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, with 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 key democratic values such as equality, cooperation, and respect -- faith in the public potential of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Overall it was about civic agency, or 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 what will spread it.

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 another model is necessary, "cultural organizing," and we discussed the astonishing spread of Christianity in its early centuries especially among the poor and marginalized. It involved conversion to a different way of seeing themselves and reality, which accorded people 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, in which religious values and of practices are one strand but they form part of a larger public whole.

We're seeing signs of this democratic ferment again, especially around education. Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of the Meritocracy 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," is revealing. In colleges and in schools, there are signs of a fledgling democratic movement.
It 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 fifth 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 seedbed of a movement.

Harry Boyte's most recent book is the edited collection, Democracy's Education (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015).