civic relationships (what they are and why they matter)

For about a decade, I have been arguing that the heart of democracy is deliberation plus collaboration–talking, listening, and working together. I have put my position in slogan form: deliberation without collaboration is empty, but collaboration without deliberation is blind.

I am increasingly aware that a third term ought to be added–for theoretical reasons and also because it is explicit and important in the work of practitioners whom I respect. The term is “relationships,” but I would narrow it to specifically civic relationships.

Participants in politics and civic life frequently say that they prize relationships with other participants. Civic relationships generate power, they build communities, they reflect values and principles, and they are intrinsically rewarding.

In 2001, Doble Research Associates conducted focus groups for the Kettering Foundation on the topic of testing and accountability in schools. That year, the No Child Left Behind Act codified the national movement toward regular measurement of students and schools and promised parents choices if their schools were deemed to have failed. In short, the relationship between a public institution (the school) and its citizens was defined in terms of information and consumer choice. But in the Doble focus groups, parents were highly resistant to the idea that testing would improve education. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable, starting with themselves. A Baltimore woman said, “If kids don’t pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That’s not right. I mean where does the support come from? You’re pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them.” Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, “When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children’s learning and staying in touch with teachers.” This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of two-way communication.

Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the Doble report doesn’t quite say this, I suspect they envisioned knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

First woman: People don’t know people in their communities any more.
Second woman: That’s right. I was raised in an area where you knew everyone. That’s just the way it was. But you don’t know your neighbors anymore.
Third woman: I have neighbors that lived next door to me for nine years and they don’t even wave or talk to anybody in the neighborhood.

And so on—the conversation continued in this vein. Note that this was supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: “What we’ve got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community.” I suspect that she envisioned a situation in which school staff and parents knew one another, shared fundamental values, and committed to support one another.

Similar results emerged from focus groups conducted ten years later, after American parents had gained access to a deluge of new data on test scores and school spending. According to the Public Agenda Foundation summary, “Typically, people know almost nothing about specific [accountability] measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. For most people, the best evidence that a system is working is its responsiveness and the personal interactions they have with it. “You can’t even get a human being on the phone” is perhaps the chief indicator of failure.

Implicitly, these citizens understand the concept of “social capital.” In fact, when the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam revived that technical term in his scholarly article entitled “Bowling Alone” (1995), he hit such a chord with the public that he was featured in People Magazine. Depending on one’s theoretical framework, social capital can be understood as a public good or resource that people produce by engaging civically, as a measure of their engagement, or as a precondition of active citizenship. In any case, it means the strength, distribution, and quality of relationships in a community. Thus, in the book version of Bowling Alone, Putnam defines social capital thus:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals [such as their own skills], social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue.’ The difference is that ‘social capital’ calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”

Before Putnam, the most influential scholar of social capital had been James S. Coleman, who had found that young people benefited tangibly from “the social relationships that exist among parents,” the structure of those relationships, and “the parents’ relations with institutions of the community” (Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” 1988). If social capital predicts important outcomes, such as success in school, then enhancing relationships becomes a promising strategy. In keeping with the work of Coleman and Putnam, many grassroots organizing groups now explicitly aim to reform education by strengthening relationships that involve educators, parents, and students themselves.

In traditional issue-based organizing, an organizer “already has an issue such as education reform in mind.” He or she may believe that a particular change in official policy (such as more or less testing) would benefit the students. But “in relational organizing, an organizer builds a one-on-one relationship with individuals, trying to know everything about these leaders and members—even things that might at first seem to be irrelevant to education reform. The ideas for campaigns come about more slowly that way, but some argue that groups engaging in relational organizing can be more successful in the long term.” [Celina Su, Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education reform in the Bronx (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,  2009), p. 16]

Even in Saul Alinsky’s day, community organizing was explicitly concerned with creating and building relationships among diverse residents of poor neighborhoods. Alinksy, however, was skeptical about relationships with the government, which he treated mainly as a distant target of public pressure. His skepticism was evident in his writing and in his daily practices. The Industrial Areas Foundation, which he started, would never take government grants, because Alinsky wanted to retain its fundamental independence. However, in the decades after his death, the IAF has broadened its conception of relationships to include government officials and corporate executives. “IAF ‘accountability nights’ with public officials have undergone a significant shift, from confrontational meetings designed to embarrass and expose leaders in the 1970s to forums designed to consolidate incipient relationships in full public view.” [Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 51] More generally, the modern IAF now teaches a “relational” view of organizing and of power.” Similar ideas pop up in other networks. Helen Johnson, who organizes in Mississippi, observes that “The whole idea of community organizing is really about relationship building.” [Mark R. Warren, Karen L. Mapp, and the Community Engagement and School Reform Project, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 139] Often community organizers say that when they seek new recruits, they are looking for people with a “relational” sense.

This vocabulary is not limited to community organizing but is also seen in kindred fields, such as civic engagement for youth. Sistas and Brothas United in the Bronx works on school reform but devotes time to cultivating relationships among youth and between young people and adults. Nathaniel, a teenage organizer, reports “We have fun things. We do trips. And, on a personal level, we chill with each other … We definitely relate differently.” And one of his colleagues observes that these relationships have made her “able to understand people better, not only personally, but what they’re trying to say when they speak at meetings.” [Su, p. 85]

Of all the strands of civic renewal, formal public deliberation seems the most remote from “relational” politics, because individuals are recruited to talk for a limited time and then disband. But participants in juries and policy deliberations often develop strong emotional ties. Further, the organizers of deliberations tend to believe that their own role is to strengthen relationships among citizens. Thus Harold Saunders describes the West Virginia Center for Public Life, which organizes state-wide deliberations on public issues, as having a “relational paradigm.” [Harold H. Saunderrs, Politics is About Relationships: A Blueprint for the Citizens’ Century (New York: Palgrave, 2005), p. 150]

For democracy, reciprocal relationships of concern and support are not sufficient. A civic relationship has the following specific features.

  1. Unlike a family tie, a deep friendship, or a romantic partnership, a civic relationship is non-exclusive. In fact, a community’s social capital is higher if diverse residents are connected by a broad and dense web of relationships. Citizens ought to expand and diversify their own relationships; exclusion and partiality are problematic in civic life.
  2. Although civic relationships involve identities, interests, private concerns, and personal stories, they are not simply personal. For a relationship to be “civic,” it must involve talking, listening, and working on public issues or problems.
  3. A civic relationship need not be “civil,” if that implies politeness and frequent expressions of positive emotions. It can rather encompass sharp disagreements. But the relationship must be predicated on the value of the other person as a fellow citizen, seen as someone who should be encouraged to participate in the common life. Thus civic relationships are connected to particular civic virtues, including loyalty and hope.
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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.