CAN WE TAKE BACK OUR DEMOCRACY?
Yes, we can, according to Harry Boyte, who spoke at the 20th Conference on the Small City and Regional Community at University of Wisconsin-Marathon County on October 6, 2015. Boyte defined the small city as a population less than 50,000 population. Boyte firmly believes that democracy is being renewed and recovered in small towns across the USA.
He noted that the level of citizen engagement is the lowest in 40 years. However, 70% of the people still believe in local government. People still trust their local governments which can be the incubator for new ideas.
According to Boyte, there are three levels of citizenship: government-centered, community-centered and life-centered.
Citizenship in 2015 is a spectator sport or government-centered. Voting is the extent of our citizen involvement. Politics is partisan. There is struggle over resources. We see that in the limited budget and too many budget cuts. The government holds the power. The role of government is to deliver service: plow snow, build and maintain streets and bridges, and protect people from fire and crime. The government’s role is reduced from what it was in the beginning of our democracy. Citizens don’t feel empowered because they really aren’t empowered.
The next level of democracy is community-centered. Society is civil and citizens volunteer for their community in service projects. People are involved in their community. The power of the government is shared with the people. The local government’s role is to facilitate dialog.
The highest level of citizenship is work-centered. Democracy is viewed as a way of life and people live for democracy through their profession. The way of life is acted out through public works. Citizens are co-creators with government. Politics is viewed as necessary to get things done. The people ARE the power of the government.
In this third level, the role of government is to catalyze and empower people. Imagination is strong and new infrastructure is created. FDR and the New Deal empowered people to build infrastructure and jobs and a viable economy. Eisenhower envisioned the US Highway Project. John F. Kennedy envisioned the man on the moon. This level of citizenship is deep in our history and is not a pipe-dream. However, Boyte explained that it will take hard work to recover this depth of citizen involvement.
The foundation for democracy is public schools and education for all ages. One hundred years ago saw the development of public libraries and adult education. The Chautauqua Movement helped build a democratic understanding of life. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the Farmer-Labor movement empowered local people to develop new programs and education.
“A diverse mix of people in a demanding education setting can achieve great things.” From this belief came Land Grant Colleges, also called Democracy colleges. New York State had free college for all people.
What can we do to reach the third level of citizenship, of the citizen living for democracy?
Quality public schools were built to develop citizens, not just to train a person for a job.
Our education system today relies on tests to find the local star or hero. We need new ways to measure education. In our history, there has always been a natural alliance between small towns and education for democracy.
Pay attention to our stories and history. Know your stories and be part of it. Marathon County History Museum offers wonderful lectures by local citizens of our history. The Museum also offers displays of industry and ethnic groups. We have authentic history and treasure our buildings.
Welcome newcomers. The USA is made up of immigrants and from that diversity comes our strength.
Public spaces and parks are necessary. Harry Boyte praised Marathon Park as a beautiful public space. Wausau’s downtown space, the 400 Block, has strengthened our community. Other strengths are the Boys &Girls Club, the libraries, the Senior Center and the Incubator to create new business.
Get people out of their silo. Don’t demonize blocks of people. Get to know them and learn from them. This can be done through community celebrations and/or projects such as Safe Neighborhood Project.
Institutions can be seen as part of democracy. Universities should be in the trenches with the people and guard democracy. Universities should belong to the people.
Instead of asking college freshmen to be prepared for college, the colleges should be prepared for its students!
Harry Boyte has lived his whole life as a citizen for democracy. He is Senior Fellow in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He also serves as Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.
Boyte’s work with foundations and educational and citizen organizations in the U.S. and abroad has focused on community development, citizenship education, and civic renewal. He has written nine books on citizenship, democracy, and community organizing. In the 1960s, he worked for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
For further action: take a moment to reflect on your citizen involvement. At what level are you? Share Boyte’s ideas with friends. At one time in our national history, we operated as citizens for democracy. If it was done then, it can be done again.