THE BLOG
08/17/2015 09:47 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2016

Hope and Higher Education -- The Role of Citizen Professionals

There are new resources for a "long march through the institutions and professions" of modern society that works democratizing change. That was my argument in a talk the other day at the University of Cape Town (UCT), "Democratizing Universities and the Future of Democracy - The role of citizen professionals."

Citizen professionals will be key architects of such work, in collaboration with self-organizing lay citizens.

One can see early intimations in places like Augsburg College, where their commitments to preparing "citizen nurses" and "citizen teachers" as change agents in systems. Many faculty and staff also have begun to think of themselves as "citizen professionals." The Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota has gained international visibility for similar work. Albert Dzur chronicles hidden democratizing professional and institutional changes, across many fields, in "Trench Democracy," a blog for the Boston Review.

At UCT, I told the story of my first encounter with South African university students in 2002. Dr. Mzwanele Mayekeso, a lecturer in planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who knew of my work on community organizing and democratic change, invited me to speak to his class.

The class, all black, about 30, mostly came from nearby townships like Soweto and Alexandra. I described traditions of empowering professional practices that the Center for Democracy and Citizenship seeks to renew, which I had seen across the South in the civil rights movement. These involved "citizen professionals," civic leaders with a large sense of public purpose who know how to work as equals in public problem solving, with their specialized knowledge "on tap not on top." Citizen teachers, citizen doctors, citizen nurses, citizen clergy, citizen city planners are examples.

The students were furious. "Why haven't we heard anything about this?" they asked. "This is why we came to the university - to learn how to go back to our communities, not to leave them, and work in an empowering way."

"If we were learning this in university, there wouldn't be the brain drain we see today." This is a story of young people's aspiration to be "world-creators," through work that is socially useful.

The student aspirations furnished a counterpoint to Ethan Zuckerman's keynote address last May to Re:Publica, the European Internet and Society conference, which Mary Hess, a friend at Luther Seminary, had drawn my attention to. The address, "The System's Broken - That's the Good News," is a skillful overview of recent change efforts in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Zuckerman's "third way" strategy is also deeply pessimistic about any possibilities for changes such as the Wits students wanted.

Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, brought together a significant body of research which suggests that while protests can play crucial roles in highlighting injustices, and while elections are important ways to affect public policy, neither alone makes substantial social change. He analyzes movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Arab Spring, the Turkish protests in 2013 which brought more than 3 million people into the streets, and the anti-government protests in Brazil, as well as the experiences of insurgent parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

Such movements, he concludes, "throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it's hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place." Zukerman suggests a number of reasons -- protests are different than fixing problems. The internet is good at getting people out in the streets, but internet mobilizations short-circuit the relational, face to face organizing that went into earlier large movements.

The structural constraints of the global economy are increasingly severe. "We can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the rights things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want."

But the challenges he outlines dwarf his strategies for change. He said that his students at MIT distrust all sorts of institutions -- schools, banks, businesses, nonprofits, churches - not simply government, and proposes that the world is dividing between "institutionalists" who work in institutions and "insurrectionists" who "believe we need to abandon these broken institutions and replace them with new, less corrupted ones or with nothing at all." Zuckerman's "third path" beyond elections and protests includes monitoring institutions from outside to holding them accountable; starting new institutions from scratch; and abandoning the idea of institutions altogether.

Such strategies may have impact. But they are not going to significantly affect the power relations of modern societies. The Wits students were hoping for something else. They wanted to change the world through their actual professions, in institutions as well as beyond them.

But why, many ask, is there reason to believe this is possible? As Aaron Schutz has observed, scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings (especially in her marvelous book Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children), have described teachers who are highly effective in motivating African Americans and other disadvantaged students by working with the unique strengths and backgrounds each child can bring to their learning. But they despair about changing the educational system.

At UCT, I outlined three resources which hold potential to crack what Max Weber called "the iron cage" of growing bureaucratization:

• New understandings of the ways technocracy has replaced relational cultures with informational cultures, brilliantly illuminated in Pope Francis' new climate encyclical, and new practices for reversing the process;
• Understandings of politics that focus on self-interests and power rather than ideology, growing from broad-based community organizing methods. There is growing evidence that these can be translated into professions and systems;
• The concept and practices of "free spaces," where people develop civic agency.

My talk summarized the argument, and my academia.edu site is reorganized to highlight these resources. They are not exhaustive but all are important. The book collection Democracy's Education is full of other examples.

I believe the discussion is just beginning.

Harry Boyte edits Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt, 2015)