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Owning Yes We Can

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If this year's election teaches anything about "yes we can," our capacities to work across differences to take hold of our collective destiny, it is that civic agency is the work of all of us.

Hope for "yes we can" can be found, but elsewhere than in the campaign.

Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, with its signature theme of "Yes We Can," touted our collective agency in multiple ways. He declared that it would take "all hands on deck" to address the nation's challenges -- as president he could do little by himself. At the top of the campaign web site was the challenge, "I'm asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I'm asking you to believe in yours."

The campaign field operation taught thousands of people skills of community organizing such as one on one relational meetings, power mapping, collective evaluation, and public narrative. Campaign leaders distinguished such organizing from voluntarism. "We decided that we didn't want to train volunteers," said the campaign field director, Temo Figueros. 'We wanted to train organizers -- folks who can fend for themselves."

It's not only Obama who lost the plot line after the election. The whole society forgot. At a televised town meeting on September 20, 2010, one after another former Obama voters complained that he had failed to "deliver change."

We need to reclaim the words of civic agency from the 2008 election as our own.

The need is pressing.

For many students and young adults, the "American dream" seems a distant mirage. Forty three states have made large cuts to public universities since 2008 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And the student debt burden and job insecurity has continued to climb. In 2010, college seniors that graduated did so with an average of $25,250 in student loan debt, while the unemployment rate for college graduates was 9.1 percent, the highest rate on record, according to the Project on Student Debt.

With immense pressures cascading down on us we can no longer afford to look to large governmental and economic institutions to save us from the wreck. Instead, we must look to the stories of our schools, faith institutions, locally owned businesses, farmers markets, colleges, and universities where everyday citizens are reclaiming their institutions' missions as centers of democratic transformation.

They are showing through word and deed, 'Yes we can.' Students are helping to show the way.

In the American Commonwealth Partnership, a network of colleges and universities dedicated to "We the People," citizen-centered democracy and colleges which help to build it (see here), there are a growing number of examples of students reclaiming the "yes we can" spirit. Between Minnesota, Kentucky, Colorado, D.C., Arizona, and beyond, a network of young people is challenging the idea that the way the world works is the way it has to be -- reclaiming democracy and placing themselves back at its center, not as just another vote, but as co-creators of our communities, schools, and the nation.

In the Twin Cities, Minnesota, a group of education students from Augsburg College have been working as "democracy coaches" for Fridley Middle School special education students, in a program called Public Achievement. In Public Achievement, students, from elementary school through high school, work as teams on an issue of their choice and are coached by college students. Public Achievement is active in hundreds of communities and schools in the U.S. and other countries.

At Fridley, the students involved were labeled as EBD, Emotional and Behavior Disabled. These are the students seen as "troublemakers" and locked away in rooms in schools across the nation.

But at Fridley Middle School, "problem kids" became "problem solvers." As their work on issues became visible, respect for the students from staff, administration, and mainstream students skyrocketed.

Students discussed many possible projects. One proposed action against bullying, which led to a highly successful campaign called "Bully Bosses," featured by Minnesota Public Radio.

Another project idea was a friendship program, championed by a student who had herself been hospitalized multiple times and often felt lonely. She learned that such feelings could lead to lasting problems with depression.

The hospital friendship team called themselves "Above the Clouds." They successfully negotiated with administrators to change hospital rules barring young people under the age of 18 from visiting, and developed many ways to interact with children who were ill, sometimes terminally. The girl with the idea came to see herself as an architect of larger change. Kjerste Hagen, an Augsburg coach with the group, noted the effect. "It connected her story, what happened to her, to larger change in her community."

In Minnesota, change making had a strong personal, one-on-one quality. In Maryland students took large scale public action when the legislature, faced with budget shortfalls, proposed a new budget that included tuition hikes of 10 to 20 percent and a permanent ending to the 'cost of living' adjustments to faculty salaries.

The student government (SGA) at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has become a national model for successfully transforming itself to be a center of student organizing and empowerment. Indeed, UMBC's student government is one of the inspirations for the American Commonwealth Partnership as a whole.

In this case, SGA invited all students to a session on this issue. They developed a unified message for the state legislature: "Put your paws down on the Dooms Day budget." They launched a social media and campus wide organizing campaign.

In the end over 30,000 letters flooded the politicians. And the student campaign proved a key factor in a dramatic turnaround. The final budget raised tuition only 3 percent. Faculty got a 2 percent adjustment for cost of living -- the first one in over five years.

"Many would not have been able to stay in school with 15-20 percent increases in tuition expenses," explained Meghan Carpenter, one of the organizers. "I am so proud of what students from different organizations were able to start. We showed that students can make a change not just at our college, but in our state."

In a season of partisan gridlock and bitter polarizations, the whole nation can take a cue from students in Minnesota and Maryland.

The overall lesson: "Government" is not a political football for campaign ads. Government is neither our savior nor our enemy. "We the people" created it as our instrument and our meeting ground. Its purpose is to help us, the whole citizenry, to advance the general welfare as we create "a more perfect union."

Yes we can, again.

Jason Lowry, recent graduate from the master's program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University, is the Home-School Coordinator at Killip Elementary School, Flagstaff, AZ.

Harry Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.