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From service to citizen power

As a member of the cross-partisan November 5th Coalition, I was invited to co-chair the Obama Campaign's civic engagement group and build a team to flesh out Obama's “yes we can" message. The public work framework of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship provided a useful foundation for expressing an organizing approach beyond the traditional language of service.

The civic engagement group argued that public work highlights the efforts and talents of all citizens in addressing large public problems and building thriving communities. The public work concept also addresses the “politics of knowledge" -- the invisible hierarchies of power that have weakened civic life and civic engagement in our society. In recent times, credentialed knowledge has tended to push out other kinds of knowledge, undermining the standing and confidence of those without credentials. “Service" language can too easily turn people into clients, consumers and, at worst, victims. Public work conveys the mix of different interests, views, and energies that need to be unleashed through sustained organizing in order to solve public problems and rebuild the nation. President Obama gave his own eloquence and twist to such ideas, including his call in the Inaugural Address for the work of rebuilding the nation.

With this history in mind, I was delighted to see this excellent piece in the January 19 Huffington Post by Frances Moore Lappe, a leading democracy activist and thinker (From a National Day of Service to the Promise of Citizen Power).

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs