Harry Boyte - Reinspiring Citizenship

I drove into the Weisman Art Museum last night to listen to Harry Boyte and Don Shelby talk about re-inspiring citizenship in the 21st century. Boyte just released a book called the Citizen Solution about the growing movement to reconnect ourselves to politics and the communities we inhabit.

Shelby started things off by recapping an anecdote about his third grade teacher from the forward to the book. He speculated about Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg address - especially the emphasis on the famous phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Did Lincoln emphasize the noun or the prepositions? Is it about the people or the functions of people?

Boyte stood up to tell us about his book and work. He’s seen all of the stories and complaints about the contemporary American loss of citizenship: Bellah, et.al. Habits of the Heart, Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the claims that we are being siloed into partisan and information niches (True Enough by Manjoo), that there has been a decline in mutual trust. (Some of those references are mine.) The Civic Health Index, produced by the National Conference on Citizenship showed an uptick in charitable giving after 9-11 but since then has noticed declines in trust in other people and charity.

Boyte believes there is another story to be told in parallel to the declension narrative. This is the story of self-organized citizens working together to create civic agency, working together to create something outside of, or beyond, predetermined solutions. It’s an emergent phenomenon of people coming together to accomplish something.

Amir Pinnix concluded with his story of becoming a citizen athlete. He spoke about growing up as an only child with his mother in Newark, New Jersey. When he moved to the University of Minnesota he felt that something was missing on campus so he and a friend started SCOPE, Student Committee on Public Engagement. He told us to never give up and never stop trying to improve the world. I particularly liked two quotes “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “you can’t lead folks unless you love folks, you can’t save folks unless you serve folks” (from Cornel West). Pinnix was an impressive speaker so I expect he’ll go far in the future. Google suggest this Star Tribune profile for further reading.

After this we broke into small group discussions at our tables. There were about 8 or 9 tables of 5-10 people. At the tables a staff member or student from the Humphrey Institute posed three question to us.

  1. What responsibilities accompany being a citizen?
  2. What do we believe is meant by the idea of grassroots politics?
  3. What is your dream for the future of our country?

The discussion at my table focused on local community building, reaching out to our neighbors both in person and via technology, trying to create an environment in which we can be open to the possibilities inside ourselves and others.

I was impressed by a story from one my tablemates about her experience moving to a new community. She was initially wary of some of her neighbors asking question about her life. But she realized later that they were the local leaders of the community neighborhood and were asking so they could include her in the community. I thought this summed up the risk and fear that we all face when acting as a citizen? It’s hard to reveal ourselves to others and discouraging when our revelations are met with silence.

I didn’t get to pose my final question to the larger group because time ran out. But I wanted to ask Harry Boyte what if we act and nothing happens, then what?