Albert Dzur and democracy inside institutions

Albert Dzur, author of Democratic Professionalism and Punishment, Participatory Democracy, and the Jury, is writing a series in the Boston Review entitled “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.”

When we think of democratic reform, our minds usually turn to explicitly political upheavals: the Civil Rights Movement, the Arab Spring. In such cases, masses of people put aside their ordinary lives of family and work to press for a new government–or at least for new laws.

That definition of reform hides a different kind of democratic politics that is more sustained, less state-centric, and less obvious to reporters and average citizens. It is what Dzur calls “the public work of self-directing community groups that band together to secure affordable housing, welcome new immigrant groups, and repair common areas like parks and playgrounds.”

I am aware of this kind of public work and have put it at the center of my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. I argue that about one million Americans are engaged in “self-directing community groups” in particular places and issue areas. But they do not yet see themselves as part of a civic movement that is larger than their particular projects and causes. So we must organize them to advocate in their common interest–for funds to support civic processes, rights to public participation, education policies that support high-quality civic education, and news coverage of citizens’ work.

In developing this strategy and counting my one million civic activists, I did not pay sufficient attention to the layer of politics and reform that Dzur investigates. I describe leaders and members of civic groups, but his main topic is the everyday pro-democratic work of professionals within mainstream organizations:

[T]hey take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals.We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.

Though they belong to practitioner networks and engage in ongoing streams of print, online, and face-to-face dialogue, the democratic professionals I have met do not form a typical social movement. Rather than mobilizing fellow travelers and putting pressure on government office holders to make new laws or rules, or convening temporary participatory processes such as citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, and citizens’ assemblies, democratic professionals are making real-world changes in their domains piece by piece, practice by practice. In the trenches all around us they are renovating and reconstructing schools, clinics, prisons, and other seemingly inert bodies.

The rest of Dzur’s series will explore examples of this work, using his own interviews with committed democratic professionals. These professionals must be part of a movement for civic reform. The first step is to learn who they are and what they are striving for. Dzur’s work is indispensable for that purpose.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Andrea Morisette Grazzini

    This is great to see — and I could not agree more.

    My own effort involves the start-up of WetheP, Inc. a new media civic engagement company. It was founded on my own frustration with just what you’re getting at here. I got a chuckle out of Dzur’s “they make it up as they go along,” so true for me–though along the way I’ve stumbled into some great advisers, who’ve helped me form my efforts in somewhat more concrete ways.

    I’ve been lucky–though still often feel isolated (and stumbling) in my work. But there are many people working on important causes, who are even more outside the circles of ‘fellow travelers’ of the civic engagement path — their groups and efforts operating in even greater isolation. Without the critical connections required for scalable and sustainable transformations. I can relate, having been involved in my share. This can be a deflating inflection point. There is the sense that we could do so much more, if only we knew what else was ‘out there,’ where to learn more and amplify our efforts and with whom to partner energies/efforts/outcomes.

    Which is what WetheP hopes to help, too. Our plans are to serve as a social media platform for change agents–open to all. Featuring Thought Leaders (perhaps like you and Dzur), Knowledge Centers and relational Action Group processes that can serve as adjuncts to in-person groups and efforts.

    We’ll proactively network people and groups together who might not otherwise be aware of each other and/or how their efforts might be maximized through connection.

    Beyond that, we’ll ‘market’ civic engagement to ‘the masses’—through out reach to non-self-identified activists and advocates, like those Dzur refers to. A colleague/coach of mine, Bill Doherty PhD characterizes our strategy as a little like taking some of the organizing models that are taught in academia and grassroots training organizations and introducing them to people and groups (including businesspeople) who don’t normally see themselves as political. And, finally, we’ll be set up to capture much “Big Data” that will help illuminate the diverse and distributed civic engagement efforts–provided we can get a majority to show up.

    The biggest challenge we face–go figure–is seeking funding to launch the comprehensive site. We’ve chosen an equity model, in hopes this will elicit the significant investments we’ll need to make it work (with a conscious capitalist or social enterprise measurement model with success criteria balanced between shareholder and stakeholder outcomes.) The further benefit, in my mind, is that this model might help legitimize the thinking to for-profit professionals. Though we’re well aware of the slippery slope and hope to navigate it without the model being so monetized it defeats the democractic mission!

    If we can find the supports, we think we will (and much want to) be an important part of this solution Dzur and you suggest.

    Andrea Morisette Grazzini

    Founder & CEO WetheP, Inc.