the power of civic relationships

Two friends have recently published HuffingtonPost articles that testify to the importance of civic relationships. I’ve argued that civic relationships form between people–not close friends or relatives–who talk, listen, and work together on public issues or problems, demonstrating a degree of loyalty (which means a commitment to collaborating with the other person, notwithstanding differences of interests and values).

Dorothy Stoneman, founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA (whose leadership programming we recently evaluated), writes:

Xavier Jennings, a graduate of the YouthBuild program sponsored by Mile High Conservation Corps in Denver, funded by the Department of Labor, vividly described the difficulties of his life living in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food-stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. Surrounded on the streets by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered the lifestyle, got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school. Nobody moved to help him, until a friend told him about YouthBuild, where he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his diploma and preparing for college. A way to earn money, a diploma, and skills, sounded good. He joined.

He described a transformative moment that occurred in the first couple of weeks. He went with a crew of YouthBuild AmeriCorps students to renovate the back yard of a senior citizen. She didn’t welcome them warmly. He was sure their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. But after the young people had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of cookies she had just made for them, thanking them from the bottom of her heart. Xavier also began to tear up, experiencing for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them when they arrived. That moment triggered his decision to seize the opportunity to turn his life around and become a person who helped others.

And Harry Boyte, National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, writes with  graduate student Hunter Gordon:

Grant Stevensen, former president of ISAIAH, a broad-based community organization in the Gamaliel Foundation network for which Obama worked 30 years ago, directs faith-based organizing for MN United. He thinks polarizing politics reflects patterns that are hard to break. “There used to be mediating institutions like union locals, neighborhood schools, PTAs, or congregations where people interacted with a lot of diversity. Now we’ve lost them. People’s public identities are thin. I think that’s why they are held to so strongly.”

But campaign organizers knew polarizing politics had been proven ineffectual by a string of defeats. “There was a lot of soul searching” about changing the approach, said one. Stevensen believes that “just about every aspect of our life drives us away from relationship and deep conversation, but we are very frustrated with being ‘talked at’ by campaigns. For starters, in developing a more people-centered politics, MN United talked to people on the other side to find out why they opposed gay marriage — for the first time in any of the controversies.

They discovered that the language of “rights” and “benefits” and “discrimination” used in earlier efforts had done little to change undecided voters. They also discovered that faith communities were full of diverse views on this issue — and none of the earlier efforts had organized among them.

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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.