Harvard Educational Review
  1. Awakening Democracy Through Public Work

    Pedagogies of Empowerment

    Harry C. Boyte, with contributions from Marie Ström, Isak Tranvik, Tami Moore, Susan O’Connor, and Donna Patterson

    Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2018. 210 pp. $59.95 (paper).

    In Awakening Democracy Through Public Work, Harry C. Boyte presents an approach to citizenship that aims to repair the polarized society in which people of opposing ideological spectrums refuse to engage with one another. He conceptualizes this approach as public work in which “citizens are co-creators, builders of the common world . . . , [and democracy] . . . is a way of life . . . built through civic labors in a myriad of settings” (pp. 5–6). Here, “public” conveys three dimensions of this concept: the entity that undertakes the work is “a mix of diverse people,” a public; the work is done in a public fashion through cocreation that relies on building and sustaining relationships; and the work is done for a public purpose, contributing to the commonwealth of local communities (p. 5). Through the everyday labor of citizens in building relationships and working through differences of diversity, public work is conceived as an antidote to the polarization of political life that has been filled with mobilizing tactics of partisan warfare (e.g., villainizing opponents). Moreover, it counters the technocratic view of citizens as either problems to be fixed by bureaucratic management or consumers to be fed by professional services. Rather, citizens are cocreators who collaborate with the government and professionals as civic partners to bring about changes and better the commonwealth.

    Boyte and his colleagues detail the philosophical traditions, a spreading network of educational practices, and the institutional infrastructures that support and advance public work in nine chapters. Chapter 1 introduces Public Achievement (PA), along with its philosophical foundations that later give rise to the concept of public work. PA is an initiative that he and his institutional partners launched in the 1990s to engage “teams of young people . . . [in working] over the school year on issues they choose . . . [that aim to] make a public contribution” (p. 14). Chapter 2 (with Isak Tranvik) critiques the dominance of technocracy in the education field, where policy makers impose top-down agendas and accountability measures preoccupied with efficient and quantifiable outcomes. This singular focus on testing diminishes the voice of teachers and students and erodes the civic function of schools as community centers where human understandings and relationships across difference flourish. The chapter proposes to revive the civic purpose of education through practices of public work, of which PA is an exemplary model.

    Chapters 3–7 illustrate the educational practices of PA in real contexts. Chapter 3 focuses on the origin of PA and the evolution of its core practices in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Partnering with the city and the state education department, the Humphrey Institute launched the first successful PA initiative at Saint Bernard’s Grade School. Coached by college students from the University of Minnesota, students self-organized into teams, with each working on a specific issue, such as sexual harassment, lack of school playground, and drive-by shootings in the neighborhood. Chapters 4 and 5 (with Tami L. Moore and Marie-Lousie Ström) tell the story of PA’s export to other parts of the US and other countries, not in a standardized form but through a network of improvisations on its core conceptual and pedagogical foundations that are detailed in chapter 6 (with Ström). Chapter 7 (with Susan O’Connor and Donna R. Patterson) discusses PA in special education classrooms as an approach to address issues of educational equity, especially the empowerment gap in special education.

    Moving beyond PA as a model of public work, chapters 8 and 9 profile institutional and professional leaders in higher education, government, and other industries who not only build infrastructures that support public work in schools and communities but also transform their own organizational or professional practices into public work.

    Throughout the chapters, three interrelated core themes that define PA as an exemplary model of public work shed light on the potential of public work in remedying the civic damages of polarization and technocracy in education and the larger society. First, PA champions a view of politics as cocreative, which emphasizes negotiation, compromise, and collaboration among diverse citizens who differ from one another in needs, interests, and capacities. This view of politics undergirds two core practices of PA: power mapping and relational one-on-one. During power mapping, young people work on a specific issue as a team to brainstorm and map out the stakeholders who have an interest in this issue, and they try to learn about different perspectives on the issue through one-on-one relational meetings with these individuals. The emphasis on understanding and negotiating different interests has proven essential for PA’s success. In their first failed experiment in Highland Park High School in Saint Paul, for example, PA leaders did not involve students in learning about the cultural norms of their school and neighborhood. When the school principal announced a ban on hats and refused to repeal the rule, students, without knowledge of the principal’s perspective and the views of their neighborhood on this issue, went on an angry strike. It quickly collapsed, however, after the principal, in a press conference, denounced wearing caps as advertising gang activity, and there was a subsequent public outcry against the student strike. In retrospect, PA recognizes the importance of developing participants’ “knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to engage with the actually existing culture of a school and neighborhood to make change” (p. 40) through practices like power mapping and relational one-on-one.

    Second, PA prioritizes a developmental purpose in building civic capacity, efficacy, and responsibility of young people over the achievement of a tactical objective around a specific issue. Boyte contrasts this “developmental” politics with a Manichean politics that mobilizes mass, efficient action by villainizing the enemy and defining “the issue in radically reductionist, good-versus-evil terms” (p. 18). This theme is well illustrated by a case of seventh-grade girls who wanted to address the issue of “sexual harassment” in their Catholic school. When some of their conservative teachers deemed “the issue as inappropriate for a Catholic educational institution” (p. 46), the girls decided to conduct one-on-one meetings with diverse school members to learn about their perspectives on gender relationships in the school. They ultimately reframed the issue as “lack of respect” given the community inputs, which won over the initially skeptical teachers and allowed for their successful action to develop a curriculum and publicize the issue around the school and the city. As a testimony to the success of PA’s developmental approach, it is noteworthy that one of the girls used to have trouble with school and lacked direction in life, yet she made striking academic progress and improved her public leadership through this work.

    The developmental emphasis underpins two other core practices in PA: debriefing and coaching. Debriefing occurs at the end of each team meeting and involves reflecting on the team’s work and commitments and encourages mutual accountability among peers. In addition, each PA team is coached by young adults (usually college students) who “challenge, mentor, and support” (p. 42) the efforts of PA participants.

    Coaches often play a constructive role in enhancing young students’ understanding of their issues and the surrounding politics. For example, a group of elementary school boys wanted to fix the mess in their bathroom (e.g., lack of supplies, full of obscenities). Their coaches “helped them to understand the issue in public terms larger than the bathroom itself”: it is a problem with both “students’ disrespect for common property and the school system’s disrespect for students” (p. 59). With their coaches’ help, the boys mapped out the politics around the issue, allied with key stakeholders of the school community, contacted the school district, and ultimately got their bathroom repaired. While often playing an instrumental role in a project, PA coaches see themselves as facilitators “who help develop leadership skills and encourage the students to take responsibility for their actions” (p. 57) and whose ultimate goal is to enable students’ “initiative and independence” (p. 69) in doing public work. When graffiti reappeared on the bathroom walls the next year, one of the boys took the initiative to readdress this problem. With inputs from many students, his new PA team created a mural that left the bathroom walls not only graffiti-free but that also served as “a symbol of school pride” (p. 59). When sharing about the project with outside visitors, Caesar demonstrated the sense of ownership and responsibility that PA aims to develop, saying, “This is our property. We have to take care of it!” (p. 59).

    Finally, PA is aligned with the commonwealth tradition in American history that values “civic autonomy” and “citizen-centered governance of common pool resources” (p. 24). Boyte distinguishes this tradition from both the political left and right, which favor either the redistributive state or the libertarian market as the essential mechanism for governance. Similarly, he characterizes PA as rejecting a conception of power as “the one-directional ability to get others to do one’s bidding,” which underlies most progressive youth-organizing approaches that assume the elites will not voluntarily concede to the less powerful unless challenged by contentious tactics (p. 73). Nor does PA identify with conservative approaches to citizenship education that either teach students to sustain the current system of government or engage students in merely apolitical, charitable service work. To the contrary, PA locates citizens (including young people) as the primary political agents involving a horizontal partnership, rather than a vertical relationship, with the state. Furthermore, “while citizen politics pays attention to patterns of inequality,” it focuses on “creating the commonwealth . . . across differences of class, race, faith, and partisan belief to co-create solutions and public goods with wide support and ownership” (p. 73).

    By 1998, about half of PA projects focused on commonwealth issues, “creating material goods (playgrounds, recycling programs, and the like) or cultural change (such as working to change norms around bullying) in which all have a role” (p. 77). As the first PA team to build a playground, middle school students at Saint Bernard illustrated their equal and collaborative relationship with both the government and other community members. “They negotiated zoning changes with city officials,” fund-raised from local business groups, and persuaded residents concerned about the playground attracting gang activity by promising “a fence, with the playground closed after certain hours” (p. 15).

    Weaving these themes throughout, Awakening Democracy Through Public Work tells stories of countless young people, teachers, and institutional partners in schools, colleges, government offices, and other sectors engaging in public work around the world, as well as those philosophers and practitioners who have inspired them. It makes a compelling case for public work as a powerful approach to counter the major ills of today’s political and social life. As a unique challenge to polarization and technocracy, public work brings together a diverse public through cocreating a cultural and material commonwealth and developing its civic muscles and mutual responsibility.

    As a pedagogy of empowerment, however, how does PA relate to other youth empowerment pedagogies, such as youth participatory action research that emerges from the Freirean tradition of critical pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade & Morell, 2008)? While it is arguable that the Freirean tradition falls within the left-wing politics that advocate for a struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor and is therefore different from public work (Freire, 1968), Boyte and his colleagues did not put PA in direct dialogue with this influential pedagogical tradition. Nevertheless, the inspiring stories of PA and public work offer today’s citizens and educators additional conceptual and pedagogical tools for the work of youth empowerment and civic reconstruction.

    Liu Jiang

    Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Peter Lang.

    Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.
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    Book Notes

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    Under Pressure
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    Awakening Democracy Through Public Work
    Harry C. Boyte, with contributions from Marie Ström, Isak Tranvik, Tami Moore, Susan O’Connor, and Donna Patterson

    The Privileged Poor
    Anthony Abraham Jack

    The Human Side of Changing Education
    Julie M. Wilson, foreword by Arthur Levine