The New Nonviolence -- Stories of Civic Creation

09/30/2017 10:17 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

Adapted from Harry Boyte and Marie-Louise Ström, “Nonviolent Civic Life” January 24, 2017

While recognizing the continuing need for resistance to bigotry and authoritarianism, the New Nonviolence joins public love and public work to promote civic creation.

What is nonviolence?

Though it has ancient roots in religions and earlier struggles, nonviolence as a method of large scale change was first developed by Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues in South Africa in the early 20th century to challenge bigotry against Indians. Gandhi called it “soul force,” Satyagraha, in contrast to violence. Taken up by the Indian movement struggling for independence from Great Britain, nonviolent dignity and discipline inspired the world, including Martin Luther King and others in the American civil rights movement. Since then nonviolence has animated many others including the work of Desmond Tutu, Black Sash, and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa in the South African anti-apartheid movement, the “Velvet Revolution” which overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia, “Mass Action for Peace” by Christian and Muslim women which ended the civil war in Liberia, and the “Arab Spring.”

Nonviolence is not simply a “tactic,” refusal to be violent. Nor is it “pacifism,” refusal to use physical force under any circumstances. Nonviolence is a set of spiritual and emotional disciplines that refuse to demonize opponents. It can be expressed positively as public love, love infused with power, respecting the productive potential even of one’s enemies. In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King outlines principles including:

· Nonviolence is struggle, not inaction, refraining from aggression but “strongly active spiritually.”

· Nonviolent practitioners seek to understand opponents, not to defeat or humiliate them.

· Nonviolence distinguishes evil actions and the persons who commit the actions.

· Nonviolent practitioners believe that refraining from hate in response to violence, whether physical, emotional, or verbal creates a kind of power. King wrote, “The nonviolent approach…first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

· Nonviolence instills hope and battles fatalism and cynicism.

· Finally, nonviolence cultivates a kind of love which King called agape, from the Greeks, meaning, “a neighborly concern for others” whether friend or enemy. I believe this is best rendered as “public love.”

Our divided society badly needs public love.

Most nonviolent movements have been resistance movements, struggling against oppression. While recognizing the continuing importance of resistance, the New Nonviolence also emphasizes civic creation, building the commonwealth of communities through public work.

What is public work?

Public work is a nonviolent approach to citizenship which sees citizens as co-creators, not simply those defined by their relationship to government as voters or those with legal rights. It emphasizes the public possibilities of all forms of work. Public work is effort by citizens working across differences to solve problems and create community wealth, from community schools and local businesses to public gardens, the commonwealth. It develops civic muscle. It draws on ancient traditions across the world of self-organizing cooperative labor.

For 30 years a network of engaged scholars and practitioners has been developing public work concepts and practices. Pedagogy of the Empowered, by Harry Boyte and colleagues (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018), tells many stories of nonviolent public work which reframe usual approaches in ways that unleash civic energies, build public relationships across often great differences, and expand the meaning of democracy. For instance:

Ø Youth civic education as public work: In the northwest corner of Missouri and adjacent areas of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, the Heartland Foundation turned the international civic education initiative Public Achievement based on public work into a program called EmpowerU. It has involved more than 20,000 young people, created a new sense of young people’s stake in their communities, and significantly impacted their intention to stay in the region.

Ø Transforming special education through public work: Augsburg University’s special education program, working with Twin Cities schools, has adapted Public Achievement to change from the medical model now dominating special education pedagogies to an empowering approach. In the process, “problem children” become “problem solvers” and creators of community wealth. Their hidden talents and intelligence come to the surface.

Ø Government as civic catalyst through public work: In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, city manager Mike Huggins initiated Eau Claire Clear Vision, in which government supports public work by teams of citizens. Clear Vision has helped to improve relations with immigrants, generated a large performing arts center, created community gardens, and is now working on poverty issues. Clear Vision has helped to repair the citizen-government divide, and won a prestigious Harvard Kennedy School Ash Innovation in Government award.

Ø Colleges growing citizens through public work: Denison University in Granville, Ohio, has redefined residential halls as diverse residential communities where students learn to live as neighbors and citizens of a place using public work and conversation to work through conflicts, from drinking and dirty dishes to race relations.

Ø Professional practice as public work: The Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota, founded by Bill Doherty, a leading family social scientist, builds on the public work concept to recast professional roles in family and health professions by creating catalytic, empowering practices and professional identities as citizens. It has gained wide attention for its approaches that help to reweave the social fabric. The work points to citizen professionals such as citizen nurse, citizen teacher, citizen politician, citizen faculty, citizen businessperson.

Ø Development as public work: In villages in Burundi, Marie Ström and other seasoned adult educators reframed development efforts from rights holders demanding resources to citizens as co-creators, solving problems and creating stronger communities. In the process, views of democracy, politics, and identities of citizens radically expanded, and an initiative emerged to create productive public relationships between police and villagers.

A practice for the New Nonviolence

Nonviolent movements of any kind develop everyday practices. “If you want to work through nonviolence you have to proceed with small things,” said Gandhi.

In the Montgomery bus boycott which launched the civil rights movement, domestic workers walked to work rather than take segregated buses. They became an inspiring symbol. A driver offered an elderly woman a ride. She refused. “I’m not walking for myself,” she explained “I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

In our polarized, inflamed public culture, where do we start?

Action Idea: Have a meeting with someone you disagree with. Refrain from judging what is wrong with their views. What’s their story? Why do they feel strongly? Are there things you can learn?

Is there common ground for public work?

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