A look to the revival of public-spirited work as a key to the rebirth of democracy
The Democratic Promise of Public Work
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Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari
Throughout history, work has always been the taproot of American democracy, enabling diverse people to forge connections with each other and to address the nation's problems. Through work, people gain greater visibility, authority, and a larger intellectual horizon. They come to see themselves as creators of their communities, stakeholders in the country, and guardians of the commonwealth.
Building America, in a pathbreaking analysis of diverse civic practices, argues that work is the center of effective citizenship. As late as the New Deal Era, Abraham Lincoln's idea of work-centered government remained vibrant and fueled reform movements like union organizing. Many jobs, local schools, community groups, the Civilian Conservation Corp., and other settings provided rich experiences in public work. Images of work filled popular cultureWill Rogers movies, Langston Hughes's poetry, post office art. But today, work has lost its larger meaning, and government has become largely a service provider.
From low income communities to colleges, high-tech newspapers to government agencies and schools, Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari look to the revival of public-spirited work as a key to the rebirth of democracy in our time. Their exploration of the larger meanings of work leads to provocatively different approaches to change. These include many examples of citizen-government partnership in solving problems. By working on school reform and economic development in Baltimore, the mainly black group BUILD created a public space for overcoming searing racial divisions. Boyte and Kari explore new initiatives like the public journalism movement aimed at strengthening journalists' responsibilities to improve democracy. They offer lessons for turning jobs into public work in our changing economy. Building America concludes with a call for national action to renew the idea of "government by the people" through public work.
"Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari make an invaluable contribution by reminding us that democracy is about action, solving problems, and all that is implied in 'public work.'"
"Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari have captured the words and music of Americans doing the serious work of democracy. They show us the path to restoring vitality to the American experience."
"...a thoughtful perspective to contemporary debates over the problems facing democracies and attempts to build stronger communities.... Boyte and Kari bring forward a sweeping and fascinating range of historical examples."
"This book argues powerfully that public workwork that makes things of value and importance in cooperation with othersis the taproot of American democracy. Public work occurs in businesses, schools, government services, and voluntary groups, and engages people with diverse interests and values. Boyle and Karl analyze this theme across American history and point to many examples of the revival of public work today."
Nancy N. Kari is Associate Professor and director of faculty development at the College of St. Catherine, and senior associate at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota.