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.

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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.