Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

Teaching the Skills of Citizenship

By Hahrie Han

Tagged activismcitizenship

How can we help people understand the ways that we need one another? Winning and protecting progressive policy gains—environmental protections, universal health-care access, civil rights for diverse constituencies, investments in a social safety net—depends on people believing that we are somehow dependent on one another to protect the dignity of ourselves and our world. Without a sense of investment in our common purpose, the state becomes nothing more than an inefficient alternative to private-market solutions.

Yet the social, economic, and cultural institutions that shape people’s everyday lives often preach just the opposite. Conservative churches preach a gospel of self-help. Gun clubs, which are more numerous than grocery stores in the United States, teach people to protect themselves. And, in new research, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez finds that one in four American workers reports getting mobilized for political activity by their employer—usually around an ethos of free-market individualism. In the places where we work, worship, and play, we learn to rely on ourselves, not one another.

To counteract this, we need an independent organization that provides employer-based civic and political education around values of interdependence.

Imagine an organization that blends nonpartisan garden-club-type civic activity with basic civics education about our political system. Students would develop a deeper understanding of how local, state, and national government works, but by becoming enmeshed in civic experiences in their communities, they would also develop the practical skills of citizenship—learning how to work with others to develop a shared agenda, and then work together to enact changes they want in their communities.

How could this possibly work?

First, employers need incentives to implement such programs. Firms consistently receive billions of dollars in government benefits, ranging from corporate tax benefits to government contracts to free access to public resources like broadband or drilling rights to tax relief for philanthropic donations. To ensure that employers will provide these programs for their workers, the programs should be tied to access to such public benefits. Corporations that take advantage of corporate tax benefits, for instance, should be required to give their employees time to attend these classes. Firms that take government contracts should similarly be required. By tying these programs to public benefits, we can reach millions of American workers a year.

Second, it should be an employer-based program. It is no secret that people live in increasingly homogenous communities; we mostly live and socialize with people who are just like us. One of the few places where people still come together across lines of difference and social class is in the workplace. Thus, focusing on the workplace ensures that people will develop a sense of common purpose with people who are not always like them, and do not always believe the same things they believe.

Third, at the same time, the organization that provides this civic education should be independent so that the curriculum is developed by an outside organization and thus not tied to the political agenda of any one company or political party. This independent organization can go into workplaces to conduct seminars, workshops, and the like.

Fourth, the curriculum has to be experiential. People learn more powerfully through actions than words. So the organization has to structure experiences that enable people to understand the value of interdependence. When Frances E. Willard, the suffragist and former president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, was organizing around the temperance movement in the late nineteenth century, she asked all of her adherents to join with others in their community to shut down a bar—not because shutting down random bars across the country made a constitutional amendment easier to pass, but because it taught people the power of working with others. In these workshops, workers from diverse backgrounds would have to identify a problem in their community they would like to jointly solve. The workshop would then teach them a set of practical skills they can use to work together to address it. Although the exact nature of the activity might vary from firm to firm, or locality to locality, the program should focus on cultivating experiences through which people realize the power of working with others.

Fifth, it has to include reflection. Learning comes not only through what we do but also how we make meaning of what we experience. People have to be given the opportunity to reflect on what they have done, to reflect on the ways they achieved their purpose. The “civic” aspect of this education should link these reflections back to people’s understanding about democracy and the state in our lives.

Employer-based civic education will not lead to immediate progressive policy wins. But it paves the way for other campaigns and policies. As Jee Kim of the Narrative Initiative, a project dedicated to understanding and deploying the power of narrative to build more just and more inclusive societies, put it, “We can keep figuring out better ways to push the boulder up the hill, or we can try changing the shape of the hill itself.” By creating spaces where people learn to value our commitments to one another, perhaps we can do just that.

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Hahrie Han is the Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century.

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