The Jane Addams School in St. Paul, MN is important to me. In the summer of 2001 (when it was 102 degrees in the Twin Cities), I visited the school. As on most nights, there were scores if not hundreds of people present: mostly college students and neighborhood residents. The majority of people who live in St. Paul’s West Side are new immigrants and refugees (Somalis, Hmong, and Latin Americans). I observed a staff meeting and then participated in a project, the “Hmong Circle.” We tutored Hmong immigrants to take the Federal citizenship test, and in return they told us about Hmong culture. I was so impressed with the buoyant, democratic, creative spirit of the place that I decided I wanted to start something similar in Maryland. When I found partners with similar motivations, we created the Prince George’s Information Commons.
People from the University of Minnesota, the College of St. Catharine’s, and the neighborhood created the Jane Addams School in 1996, after talking at length about how a “settlement house” might function in our era. More than a century earlier, Addams had founded Hull House settlement, moving with several other highly-educated, American-born women into an immigrant ghetto and sharing their knowledge and networks while also learning from the immigrants. The Jane Addams School in St. Paul is a modern equivalent.
I quote: “The mission of Jane Addams School is to free and cultivate the talents, cultures, and interests of people of diverse backgrounds and traditions in order to add their energy and wisdom to the common public wealth of all. The soul of this work is the relationships we build as we engage in learning and collaborative action. The values of the Jane Addams School are: Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. We honor all cultures. Citizenship means making contributions to the community. Adults and children learn together. Changes can happen when people work together.”
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m at a conference on “public work,” which is the idea that politics includes collaborative efforts by citizens to create public goods–to improve the world. Most of the people at the conference are practitioners who conduct concrete projects inspired by the public work idea. Many conduct Public Achievement (PA) programs, of which the Jane Addams School is an example. In PA, young people select public problems to address with the help of college-student coaches. The young people drive these projects, but they are taught to value their own creative capacity. PA has been established in scores or hundreds of schools in the United States and seven other countries.
Public work challenges some forms of modern conservatism, because it suggests that markets don’t give us satisfactory communities and institutions; we must work politically to make the world livable. Nor can we create public goods in standard corporate jobs. But public work is also a powerful critique of mainstream “liberal” ideology. If you listen, for instance, to Al Gore during the 2000 campaign or to John Edwards in 2004, you will hear that ordinary Americans are victimized by powerful elites and need the assistance of government officials and civil lawyers. There’s very little sense that Americans have political capacities that could be unleashed through better federal policy. I would like to hear Democrats borrow the conservative argument that government elites are condescending and that bureaucracies are deadening–but not stop there. If we need to work together to solve public problems, what can government do to help?