Oral history reveals a citizen solution

In his new book, The Citizen Solution, Harry Boyte writes of the power in defining citizenship as public work:

It means a move from seeing most citizens as voters, volunteers, clients, consumers, or aggrieved and powerless outsiders to seeing all people as potential problem solvers and co-creators of public goods… Overall, it entails a change in the framework of the meaning of democracy, shifting from a focus on elections to a focus on democratic society. It involves shifting from a reliance on groups of experts to broad collaborations that tap diverse energies and skills.(15)

Harry reveals that citizenship is defined individually and that, ultimately, we choose to engage in public work that suits our individual self-interests. In The Citizen Solution, we learn that when we bring our varied interests and talents into the public realm, we enhance the democracy that we live in.

The lessons of Harry's book are coming to life in another project at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. As a part of the Warrior to Citizen Campaign, veterans from around the state have been bringing their powerful voices and skills to bear in Minnesota. The Oral History Project is recording their stories in order to develop a greater sense of how our state has been shaped by the contributions of its veterans.

Recently, I interviewed an Army veteran who completed two tours of duty as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He told the story of joining the Army right after September 11th, as a young man who had “disliked social studies in high school, and didn’t pay attention to national politics.? He went on to share his experiences in Iraq in 2003 and 2005, talking about the patrols he did, the men and women he worked with, and his struggle to fight a war that he had begun to personally question.

Upon returning to the United States after his second deployment, he “understood more about the role of a citizen? and began paying attention to the politics of the war. After he was discharged from the Army, and “was in the right place,? he began researching anti-war groups. Soon, however, he realized that reading was not enough. He wanted to help inform Minnesotans about the impact of the war in Iraq. He helped co-found an anti-war group in the Twin Cities and now spends much of his time traveling around to schools, church groups, and protests sharing his story.

He told me that each time he shares his story, “dredging up those old memories gets easier.? He hopes that by sharing his story he is making a difference in the way that “even one person thinks about the war.? He marveled that now he is “fighting a much different war? in a much different way. Towards the end of the interview, he pointed out that part of his journey has been a greater understanding of what role a citizen can play in their community.

Throughout this vet’s story, I was spellbound, and at the same time challenged and inspired, by his personal story of public work. As with every veteran I’ve interviewed, it’s been an honor to be able to listen to the stories of the men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan as they explore the notion of contributing to their communities back home. They bring a powerful voice to what it means to be a citizen, especially when they return more motivated to engage in public work and to strengthen the democracy they gave time to protect.

If you would like to get involved in the Oral History Project contact Kristin Farrell at or 612-625-0142.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs