bringing loyalty back

I understand “citizens” as members of communities (of any size) who take responsibility for building and improving those communities, along with the other members. In his short, classic book entitled Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman argued that we have two basic options when we are dissatisfied with any institution or group, whether it is a restaurant, a church, a municipality, or a nation-state. We can leave it and join a different institution (“exit”), or we can try to persuade our fellow members to change it (“voice”).

Exit is a human right: except in extraordinary situations, people should not be trapped in institutions. Besides, exit can improve the world, because institutions that lose members are forced to reform. That is the logic of market competition, and it works.

But voice is also valuable, and it is the harder path. When a city is de-industrializing or a school system is failing, exit will simply strip it of members and resources. It will not die completely–American Rust Belt cities and their school systems are not going to vanish like ancient Carthage and Thebes–but it will suffer from shrinking. Those who are left behind will be the weakest and the most vulnerable. These communities need internal reform and rebirth, and that requires voice. As Hirshman argued, loyalty is what causes people to exercise voice when exit is an option.

It would be difficult to measure the ratio of exit to voice in modern America, especially if one tried to assess the quality as well as the mere frequency of voice. Since I do not know how to measure this ratio, I cannot demonstrate that we are substituting exit for the voice and loyalty that we once had. But problematic examples of exit are widely visible.

Wealthy parents exit public school systems, and middle-class families exit cities for suburbs. Partisans exit politically heterogeneous communities in favor of homogeneous ones so that they do not have to persuade fellow citizens to agree with them. (Bill Bishop argues in The Big Sort that Americans now live in counties—and other fixed geographical jurisdictions—that are far more politically homogeneous than they were in previous generations, because we “vote with our feet.” ) During the last third of the twentieth century, the composition of American civil society changed profoundly as people exited associations that were diverse in terms of occupation, social class, and ideology (but rooted locally) and instead joined single-issue organizations that advanced causes they favored. You don’t have to use voice within a single-issue organization: it speaks for you. You can exit as soon as you cease to agree with its agenda. Finally, millions of Americans have exited public life altogether in favor of purely private concerns and networks.

Overall, it is my impression that we are substituting exit for voice. That may be a natural (although undesirable) process, because voice is the more difficult mode. But there are counter-trends, particular efforts to enhance voice. Three efforts exemplify the moral consequences of loyalty.

Positive Youth Development: The traditional way of thinking about adolescence (ever since G. Stanley Hall coined the word in 1904) has been in terms of risk and potential failure. An “adolescent” is becoming an adult—that is what the word means—but crises and tragedies can interfere along the way. Thus society’s obligation is to monitor adolescents for signs of delinquency, academic failure, risky behavior, and depression and to intervene whenever such problems loom. The intervention may be punitive or supportive, but it is always aimed at preventing a deficit state and returning the teenager to the normal path, which leads out of adolescence and into adulthood. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about being a teenager.

In the 1990s, strong evidence emerged that this model was counterproductive. Prevention programs generally proved unsuccessful in rigorous evaluations. Constantly monitoring adolescents for signs of failure conveyed the message that they were problems and encouraged them to feel alienated. This approach set a low bar, allowing many teenagers to evade adult guidance as long as they obeyed the law and did their homework. And for those who broke the law or dropped out of school, the interventions were usually unsuccessful.

Thus Positive Youth Development (PYD) arose as a theory that adolescents would “flourish” or “thrive” better if they were treated as assets and given opportunities to contribute through community service, the arts, or spirituality. Young people had distinctive assets, such as enthusiasm, creativity, and flexibility, that could be tapped to improve communities and to give them a sense of purpose and belonging. Evaluations of programs that used a PYD framework showed strongly positive results, as participating teenagers were less likely to drop out of school, become pregnant, and otherwise cause damage to themselves and others.

Most of the literature on PYD concerns its impact, which inevitably varies from one program to another and from one young person to another. Much evaluation research still remains to be done. One could also debate (with empirical evidence) how prevalent are various assets and deficits in our young people–for example, how many have musical talents versus how many are abusing drugs. But what interests me here is not the empirical evidence, which can cut either way; it is rather the desire of PYD scholars and practitioners to find models that treat young people as assets and that promote their thriving. Why should they hope that PYD works, when surveillance and intervention might be cheaper and more reliable? Why, when particular PYD programs do not work, do they look for improvements rather than drop the whole approach in favor of prevention and remediation?

The answer, I suspect, is a fundamental moral commitment. We should strive to treat the other people who inhabit our communities as fellow citizens, not as threats or problems. We should use voice to engage them, which means both talking to them and genuinely listening. We should invest in their civic skills: leadership, effective speaking, and organizing. Those premises apply even if our fellow citizens happen to be younger than 20. Thus PYD is fundamentally a manifestation of civic loyalty.

Asset-Based Community Development: Just as the standard model of adolescents emphasizes their problems and threats, so the standard view of poor urban or rural communities stresses their pathologies and lack of resources. In both cases, these assumptions have an empirical basis: teenagers actually get into trouble (sometimes fatally), and poor neighborhoods really do have problems.

Just to mention one example, in the 53206 zip code of Milwaukee, WI, during the pre-recession year of 2007, 62 percent of the men in their early thirties were in–or had been in–state prisons. Due to premature death and incarceration, women in their 30s outnumbered men by three to two. The average income of tax-filers (a small proportion of the population) was just $17,547, and 90 percent of these individuals were single parents. (Data thanks to Lois M. Quinn.)

It is easy and appropriate to catalog the deficits of this place. But the net effects of a “deficit model” of urban development can be harmful. It suggests that indigenous people and their networks have little capacity, so outside agencies must provide resources. But resources that simply flow from outside tend to be misallocated or otherwise wasted. Consider, for example, that 90 percent of the people who declared any income from working within Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code in 2007 lived outside it, and 56 percent of these filers were white (even though 97 percent of the zip code’s residents were African American). Welfare, police, and health funds intended for this community subsidized public employees who lived elsewhere. A deficit approach also encourages authorities literally to bulldoze buildings and other assets that have value, and it may motivate residents to try to exit.

Hence John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann have developed a model called “Asset-Based Community Development” (ABCD), which begins with making an elaborate public inventory of the assets, both tangible and intangible, of any community. Outside resources, such as funds, experts, and volunteers, are not supposed to flow until the community has assessed and discussed its own strengths. ABCD and Positive Youth Development come together in “community youth development” (CYD), which typically involves teenagers in assessing their communities’ assets. CYD is an alternative to the kinds of programs that remove “at-risk” teenagers from dangerous settings to work or study apart. Instead, CYD treats their relationships with their home communities as potentially positive for both. Again, there is a strong emphasis on developing the voice and skills of participants.

Like PYD, ABCD raises empirical questions: How many assets do our poorest communities possess? Does it “work” to emphasize their assets rather than their liabilities? Does this approach lead to better policies and outcomes? Once again, I think these issues are important and should cause us to refine and improve any specific ABCD program. But the underlying commitment is moral and immune to empirical evidence (short of a proof that ABCD always fails). The moral commitment is loyalty.

Relational Organizing: Survey data show that most Americans have no idea what “community organizing” means, but presumably the most famous example is ACORN, the large and controversial community-organizing group that now faces bankruptcy. ACORN exemplifies strategic organizing, which always starts with some kind of policy agenda, such as saving civilization by reducing carbon emissions or saving unborn children by ending abortion. Strategic organizers need to recruit and motivate strong supporters, find non-supporters who might be persuadable, and mobilize people who have special assets to contribute to the cause (e.g., money, skills, serious commitment, network ties, or fame).

In contrast, relational organizing does not start with a cause, but rather with a set of people–for instance, all the residents of a neighborhood or all members of a congregation. Relational organization groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas or the PICO and Gamaliel Networks usually recommend a long initial process of listening and discussing to decide what the common cause should be. Because their commitment is to relationships, not to predetermined outcomes, their organizers do not select which individuals to mobilize because of what they can contribute to the cause. There is an ethical commitment to the relationship itself that can survive differences of opinion or failure to contribute effectively to the cause.

Relational organizing can occur within a homogeneous group, but it is related to “broad-based” organizing, in which there is a commitment to connect and listen to all sectors or perspectives within a geographical community. A broad-based organizer will want to make sure that liberals, conservatives, industries, environmentalists, religious and secular people are all “at the table.” In this case, as in the cases of PYD and ABCD, the fundamental commitments are loyalty and voice.

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