enlisting the Y for civic renewal

(en route to Claremont, CA) I am on my way to eastern Los Angeles County to meet with directors of YMCA’s from across the country, who are gathering for their Leadership Symposium. In my forthcoming book, We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For:┬áThe Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, fall 2013 catalog), I argue that we cannot solve our most serious national problems without rebuilding a civic infrastructure that enlists Americans for the fundamental civic tasks of:

  • deliberating (discussing and defining common problems),
  • collaboration (actual work that addresses those problems, whether paid or unpaid, in the public or private sectors), and
  • building civic relationships, which are relationships characterized by loyalty, trust, and hope.

When we look back at the civic infrastructure of the mid-20th century–which was very far from perfect, but better, I argue, than the one we have today–the Y played a significant role. There were YMCAs everywhere, and they were sites of deliberation, collaboration, and relationship-building. Just for example, the YMCA of Allentown, PA appears in Sean Safford’s network-analysis of that city’s civil society ca. 1975.

I am sure Y’s still play those roles in some cases. I look forward to learning more about their work, and will listen in an appreciate spirit. But I begin with the premise that Y’s have basically evolved from grassroots civic centers that defined and addressed local problems to highly professional and efficient providers of a single service: after-school programming for youth. There is nothing wrong with nonprofit service-delivery, and it should be done professionally. But if that model takes over an institution like the Y, we have lost an ally for civic renewal. My goal is to call the Y’s leaders back to that mission.

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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.