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The Good Work
Harry C. Boyte and Nancy Kari
From Rebuilding Civil Society. A Symposium from: The New Democrat, volume 7, number 2 March/April 1995.
The Making of Citizen Politics
Citizenship has many definitions. But in its broadest sense, it is best understood as public work-people from all walks of life contributing to accomplish vital common tasks. Public work connects the community, the workplace, and the home to the larger public stage. It generates pride and civic dignity and develops people's full identity as "citizen."
Public work offers a value-rich alternative to the empty "who wins, who loses" politics of redistribution. It instills feelings of responsibility, reciprocity, civic dignity, and accountability. It allows groups to put aside their differences for the sake of common ends without the need for exhortation or personalized appeals. We can agree to do public work with others whom we do not like, with whom we disagree, and whom we see as very different from ourselves.
In the wake of the Democrats' embarrassment last November, President Clinton has rediscovered the populist themes that figured so prominently in his 1992 campaign. Wisely, he has embraced the notion of public work, an idea that adds a down-to-earth touch to the sacred overtones of his call for the establishment of a new American covenant. Derived from the Latin convenire, to come together for common purpose, covenant means a solemn commitment made by two or more individuals to do something. In contemporary political terms, it is best rendered as practical public work. Thus understood, a covenant suggests to the public a rich, humane view of citizenship.
'Let Us . . . Suffer This Indignity No Longer'
So, just what is public work? Consider East Brooklyn Churches, a community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the national network of community groups founded by Saul Alinsky, the dean of American community organizing. In the early 1980s, the churches made a solemn commitment to build homes designed for low- to middle-income buyers on a scale that dwarfed any other low-income housing effort in the country.
EBC envisioned constructing 5,000 single-family, owner-occupied housing units in the midst of decimated, mostly black East Brooklyn. Drug dealers ruled the streets. Block after block had been bulldozed into rubble, like a vast war zone. Middle-income families had long since fled. EBC had a conviction that home ownership on a large scale was the key to renewing pride in and ridding fear from the community.
EBC named its undertaking the Nehemiah Plan, recalling the Old Testament prophet sent back to Jerusalem by the King of Persia in 446 B.C. to lead the Jews in the rebuilding of their capital following their captivity in Babylon
You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burned down. Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer . . ."Let us start!" they exclaimed."Let us build"; and with willing hands they set about the good work. Nehemiah 2:17- 18
"The story connected our work to something real, not something bogus," explains Mike Gecan, an EBC organizer. "It got it out of the 'housing' field and the idea that you have to have a bureaucracy with 35 consultants to do anything. It made it a 'nonprogram,' something more than housing."
Residents found in the Book of Nehemiah powerful parallels to their own situation. The narrative describes the remarkable democratic public leadership of Nehemiah, who rolled up his sleeves and got to work. It also tells how the people, by means of a collective pledge, a covenant, worked together to restore what was lost. Forty builders are named in the book, including merchants, priests, governors, nobles, the sons of perfumers and goldsmiths, and women. Builders faced discouragement, ridicule, even threats to their lives. Yet they persisted. The builders prayed. They posted guards when warned of conspiracies against them. And the walls rose.
The story vividly illustrates the power of a public stage to discipline and hold accountable various factions and interests. Again and again groups had to be called to account. Thus, when Nehemiah heard the poor complain about the unjust practices of moneylenders, he called for a public assembly
When I heard [the peoples'] complaints . . . I was very angry . . . . Summoning a great assembly to deal with them, I said to them, "To the best of our power we have redeemed our brother Jews . . . and now you in turn are selling our brothers . . . ." They were silent and could find nothing to say . . . . "What you are doing . . . is wrong." They replied, "We will make restitution." Nehemiah 5:6-12
The story also conveys that, even with a divinely inspired leader at the helm, large-scale public projects are messy, complex undertakings. The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was plagued with divisions, doubts, jealousies. At the same time, however, it generated pride and accomplishment as the people of Israel recovered their dignity in full view of their often jealous neighbors
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the walls, he flew into a rage, beside himself with anger . . . . "What are these pathetic Jews trying to do? . . . Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?" Tobiah the Ammonite was standing beside him. "Let them build," he said. "A jackal jumping on the wall will soon knock the stones down again.". . . [Yet the people] worked with all their hearts. Nehemiah 3:33-38
Like its biblical predecessors, East Brooklyn Churches confronted and overcame great obstacles. Although the group had financial commitments from an impressive array of backers, the project's success depended on city funding for a loan pool. When then-Mayor Edward Koch refused to meet with the group, its leaders held a press conference to publicize his indecision. That evening, the local CBS television affiliate broadcast clips of the desolate area, while an announcer read from the Book of Nehemiah: "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace."
Viewers were outraged. The following day, Mayor Koch, declaring himself the new Nehemiah, pledged his full support for the effort. He gave Nehemiah speeches for several months thereafter. Thousands of Poles and Italians and other ethnics from Catholic parishes in Queens joined an interfaith religious celebration at the groundbreaking of the first Nehemiah homes. Nearly 3,000 have been built thus far.
Nehemiah has proven to be a powerful metaphor for inner-city revitalization efforts nationwide. The story suggests a key lesson of successful civic initiative: Public work that is visible, large in import, involves a wide variety of people, and uses government tools but is not dependent upon government services, can change people's sense of themselves and the larger political culture alike.
The Politics of Public Work
In public work, citizens take center stage. The proper role of government, foundations, and related institutions in such undertakings is to equip citizens with tools and resources for problem-solving. This is a far cry from the role that such institutions have increasingly assumed for themselves: that of professing to "solve" our problems for us.
In addition, if public work is going to "work," nonprofit, voluntary, educational, economic, and other groups must come to understand that their long-range interests are embedded in the welfare of society as a whole. Public work creates a larger, nonmoralized, nonhortatory context for discussing self-interests. It reframes them in terms of overarching public purposes, and adds dignity and larger significance to the problem-solving effort. As Gerald Taylor of the IAF's national staff puts it, "Public work gives people the understanding that they are rewriting the history of their cities."
If government and related institutions seriously believe in the value of public work, they will have to change their approach to problem-solving. They must create a climate in which public work can be nurtured.
As family farms gave way to agribusiness and the nation became more urbanized, agricultural extension services began remaking themselves into more diversified outreach operations based in land-grant colleges. They focus on contemporary issues including the environment, delinquency and related issues, and poverty among women. Some of these services are on the cutting edge of the movement to change the way institutions approach problem-solving.
In Calhoun County, Ala., this new approach has meant "letting go of previous methods many agents use in prescribing a 'fix' for a community problem," explains Barbara Mobley, a county cooperative extension agent. Now, she says, agents must "draw interested parties into the field of play. We let go, give up or share the ownership, serve as catalyst. Ordinary people become empowered in establishing solutions to problems."
This citizenship approach to problem-solving in Northern Alabama has had striking results. Dozens of new citizen-based groups have sprung up: a regional health council, for example, that brings consumers and providers together to match up public health needs with resources. The extension service has also provided leadership training to low-income women to enable them to assume a greater role in civic life.
Changing the way institutions view citizens and citizenship is tough but possible; it requires a significant shift in power, patterns of decisionmaking, and problem-solving. Although many voluntary associations see themselves primarily as service providers today, an enormous number are rooted in "civic missions"-a rhetorical dedication to the larger public welfare. In the past, they included churches, ethnic groups, neighborhood schools, settlement houses, local unions, YMCAs and YWCAs, and business leagues. They were the "civic muscle" behind the New Deal.
This muscle was still strong much more recently than historians have generally understood. As late as the 1930s and 1940s, YMCAs across the country had hundreds of community involvement, civic, and public affairs projects-every Y program officer in the country attended a 1939 conference to explore the idea that the Y's central mission was "civic education." Most agreed it was. Ken Peterson, who grew up in a small Minnesota town and is now economic development director for St. Paul, recounts how in the 1950s the visit of the state president of Civitan or Kiwanis used to be a major "political" event. No longer.
Yet there are signs of an incipient sea change. In our own work at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and more recently in our Reinventing Citizenship/ American Civic Forum effort, we have seen the powerful appeal that a "civic renewal" mission has with very different groups. It has had considerable impact, for instance, at the College of St. Catherine, a Catholic women's college in St. Paul, where the idea of citizenship as public work is being incorporated into instruction, outreach, and governance.
Many professional and service groups, meanwhile, have come to recognize that promoting "civic" activities is good for their image, the bottom line, and their effective functioning. Consider the following list of examples:
- Major media groups, such as the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain and the Poynter Institute, the Florida-based professional development academy for journalists, have adopted civic journalism as corporate priorities.
- The theme of the American Association of University Professors' annual conference this year is "the professor as citizen." Likewise, "renewing our civic education mission" is this year's theme for the National Council of Social Studies.
- The American Occupational Therapy Foundation has begun a project to integrate "civic" themes into professional education and practice.
- The Florida Commission on Minority Health has made "citizenship" and public spaces for problem-solving central to its policy recommendations.
Remarkably, these examples of civic ferment within institutions have emerged spontaneously, without any serious national leadership, encouragement, or even media visibility. Presidential and other political leadership that calls us as a nation to public work can have an immense multiplying effect.
Moreover, the idea of citizenship as public work offers progressives a way to cast their most creative initiatives-AmeriCorps, empowerment zones, charter schools, and others-in larger national terms, as emblems of our common tasks and work. Such an approach is rich with possibilities for distinguishing substantial citizenship from simplistic, anti-government rhetoric. Newt Gingrich's attack on AmeriCorps looks petty, indeed, if it is framed as carping about "rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem."
Public work is a unifying theme that draws from the best insights of conservatives and liberals. President Clinton has an opportunity to build on his great moments of public leadership and rise above narrow partisan appeal. Just as Nehemiah once did, the President can call the nation to enter into a new covenant with substance and seriousness: a common agreement to work together to address our problems. Such an undertaking can convey in compelling fashion that we are not "down and out," dispirited, and at the end of the American experiment. Rather, we are just at the beginning.
Harry C. Boyte, senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and co-director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship, coordinates the American Civic Forum. Nancy Kari is director of faculty development at the College of St. Catherine and a senior associate of the center. This article benefits from the research of Carmen Sirianni, research director of the American Civic Forum.
Also see East Brooklyn Congregations Build Nehemiah Homes
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