THE BLOG
01/20/2015 04:45 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

Educating for the Work of Democracy -- the Freedom Spirit Then and Now

A national conversation called "The Changing World of Work - What Should We Ask of Higher Education?" will be launched on Wednesday, January 21st, at the National Press Club in an event from 9 am to 12 pm. It will be live streamed.

The conversation is organized by Augsburg College, host of the American Commonwealth Partnership, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Issues Forum. It is supported by groups as diverse as Campus Compact, the American Library Association's Center for Civic Life, and the Service Employees International Union.

Option two in the issue guide to be used as a resource for the conversation proposes that colleges should prepare students to become agents of change: "effective citizen leaders who can promote the kind of individual and societal changes that will bring greater opportunities for all people." Scott London, author of the guide, adds that "This will improve their own career prospects while at the same time changing jobs for the better."

Put differently, this option sees citizenship as more than voting or volunteering. Citizenship is expressed through work that is bigger, more public, more interactive, collaborative, visible, and filled with purpose.

London cites survey data showing that more than 90% of American believe colleges should offer young people opportunities to be involved in work for social change. But work of citizen leaders also goes up against today's trends in work and workplaces. Writing in the New York Times, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath note that "just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work."

Colleges can help change the dynamic of disengagement, and the issue guide gives examples. The forthcoming edited collection, Democracy's Education: Citizenship, Public Work, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, adds many others and can be seen as a companion volume. It is full of case studies of innovative partnerships among colleges, employers, and communities that generate fulfilling jobs that "pay and matter," as Julie Ellison, one of the contributors, puts it.

Working people themselves are the main drivers of change. In Democracy's Education, Lisa Clarke, one of the nation's outstanding teachers, argues that teachers "have the power to remodel our profession and to transform our public education systems." She proposes that this requires organizing for voice - a seat at the table when decisions are being made - and recognition.

How does that happen?

On Martin Luther King Day there are lessons from the freedom movement.

The Freedom Spirit, Then and Now

Often forgotten in the attention given to events like the March on Washington or Selma is that fact that the workers' struggle for voice and work that matters was at the movement's heart. Such struggles were the book ends of Martin Luther King's public career - the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, when thousands of domestic workers walked to their jobs rather than endure humiliations of riding in the back of the bus; the Memphis garbage strike with its unforgettable sign held up by workers, "I Am a Man."

Work with public purpose was also the invisible foundation of the movement - generations of citizen preachers and citizen teachers had shaped the freedom struggle. Miles Horton, founder of Highlander Folk School which trained hundreds of activists (including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King) told me that black beauticians and their workplaces across the south were crucial if invisible leaders. I quoted him in my first book, The Backyard Revolution. "We ran special workshops for black beauticians," Horton said. "We used the shops all over the south as a center for literature and discussions because the beauticians didn't care what white people thought about them."

My father, Harry George Boyte, was on the executive committee of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for which I worked off and on as a field secretary (the picture accompanying this blog, taken by dad when my mother, Janet, were at King's birthday party, is in the Duke Boyte archives).

My most formative experience, however, was with the maids and janitors at Duke.

One chill morning about 50 years ago, in 1965, when I was an undergraduate at Duke, a friend and I made our way across campus in order to find Oliver Harvey, a janitor on the night shift. Harvey, long involved in the black freedom movement, described why maids and janitors needed a union. I didn't need convincing - the maid who cleaned my room was paid something like 50 cents an hour, and I fumed at the slights she suffered from affluent college students on my hall.

Harvey asked us if students from our Duke chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality would organize students to back the workers' effort to affiliate with Local 77 of the American Association of State, County, and Municipal Employees. We did.

Over the next several years, more and more students became active in the support campaign. And organizing generated a myriad of free spaces, highly charged discussions and debates about nonacademic employees and the union, filling classrooms and spilling out of them, into dorms, the student union, the campus quad. The year after my wife and I left for Chicago, more than 1,000 students sat in on the president's lawn to support the union. The trustees chose a new president, Terry Sanford, who recognized Local 77.

I don't think there were longitudinal studies but I am certain that the organizing profoundly shaped the education experiences of my generation of students at Duke. Indeed, Oliver Harvey, invisible according to the customary academic criteria of educator, was my great civic teacher. He told me about union organizing among white and black tobacco and textile workers in Durham in the 1930s, about a campaign in Texas he had been involved in against the poll tax used to keep poor whites as well as blacks off the voting rolls, and about the blues tradition in Durham.

A movement for the public work of democracy and its education is needed, and could again shape generations of young people in the 21st century.

Harry Boyte edits Democracy's Education and coordinated the design team for "The Changing World of Work."