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Public Achievement: A Vehicle to Renew Civic Life

Today's entry is a guest blog by Dennis Donovan, National Organizer for Public Achievement, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

“Ideas are great, but relationships get things done,� said Russell Lyons. “We must do democracy differently if we are to create a better world,� said Samantha Rydzik. In reading these words, one might assume that Russ is a seasoned activist and that Samantha is articulating an idea developed over years of grassroots organizing. In fact, they’re young leaders in a Public Achievement team at the University of Minnesota who wanted to make a difference. This spring, they and other students formed the Student Committee on Public Engagement in order to work on issues that are important to them. As a first step, they held a Civic Summit on March 31 attended by students, faculty, staff and members of the Dean’s cabinet.

What is Public Achievement?
Public Achievement is an international democracy movement that is grounded in the theory and practice of ordinary people doing public work. The program was created in 1990 by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to give people a process and the skills to become co-creators of their world.

At Public Achievement sites, participants work in teams with a coach. They choose a public issue that is important to them, then develop and carry out an action plan that addresses some aspect of that issue. Coaches help the team members develop civic skills such as public speaking, running a meeting, and interacting with public officials. By working with people of different values and perspectives, participants learn how to work together in a democratic group. They learn the complexities of serious public issues, and how evaluation and self-reflection can turn mistakes and setbacks into learning opportunities. They learn how to get things done.

Public Achievement Success Stories – from the West Bank of the University of Minnesota to the West Bank and Gaza
The Public Achievement model is now being used by individuals and institutions around the world.

At the University of Minnesota, students in the Leadership Minor Program, in Professor James Farr’s course on Practicing Democratic Education, and at the Humphrey Institute do Public Achievement. In the 3000-level Leadership Minor class, students have worked on issues including bike theft on campus, affordable housing, and transportation. For over 12 years, students in Professor Farr’s course have been coaching Public Achievement teams at St. Bernard School in St. Paul. Currently, public affairs graduate students at the Humphrey Institute are organizing and facilitating community dialogues on civic values as part of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship’s Minnesota Works Together initiative.

At Colgate University in New York, Dean of the College Adam Weinberg is using Public Achievement to transform the “Club Med-like atmosphere� of his campus into a laboratory for public problem solvers. Students in the Urban Teacher Program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College are using Public Achievement to learn community organizing and public leadership skills, so they can effectively model active citizenship for their future students.

Internationally, the American Friends Service Committee has used Public Achievement with over 2,000 young people in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Public Achievement teams have worked successfully to get electric street lights, build bus shelters, add computer centers in schools, and find resources to provide ambulance service to villages where there is no emergency medical care.

Public Achievement is also used in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Turkey, Israel, and Eastern Europe. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship is currently exploring ways to create citizen to citizen learning experiences between groups in the United States and abroad.

Renewing Civic Life
Ordinary people have used the theory and practice of Public Achievement to take action to improve our world. They have informed and educated the public about important issues using videos, books, marches, murals and forums. They have changed policies in schools and communities, and influenced legislation. Public Achievement teams have built playgrounds, parks and community gardens. Through their public work, people like Russ and Samantha have developed confidence, built powerful relationships, and learned that politics is not only something politicians do, but something we can all do. This is how we renew civic life.