Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Civic Organizing and the Renewal of Public Education


Tony Massengale and Peg Michels

Imagine that a major public school district has a new superintendent who knows the current system must change. This is a common scenario around the nation. Expectations are high that a change at the top will create what is needed to make the system work. By that, people mean creating a system that meets the call for greater accountability. Acccountability, in turn, means different things to different stakeholders. But this leader has concrete strategies and targeted goals, and is actively seeking partnerships with the internal and external stakeholders of her system. The internal stakeholders include principals, teachers, administrators, pre-school and after-school care professionals, union leaders, parents and students within the system. She promises to reach out to partner with business and government leaders, university presidents, and leaders in the faith community. She promises to use her job, her position, and her leadership to address the need for change in public education.

The chances that the superindentent will succeed without a common vision for public education and a sustainable approach to engaging stakeholders in that vision, beyond each of their individual needs, are slim.

How would she behave if she called herself an active citizen—not just the “new superintendent”? Suppose she took the position that she and her stakeholders should embrace the idea of the education of students for good citizenship as their common vision for public education. Suppose she promoted links between schools, government, local businesses, community organizations and other institutions that were designed to advance the practice of citizenship.

For those who promote democratic citizenship, this raises the driving question for the millennium: If I am a citizen first, does that change the way I work, parent, and neighbor, how I participate in meetings and practice my faith, and the way I learn, mentor and teach? How do we make every environment a place to practice the art of active citizenship? Active citizens are concerned about how decisions get made, how resources are produced and distributed, and how rewards are created to support leadership for the common good.

Although people pay lip service everywhere to the ideal of good citizenship, our society is not at present organized along lines that promote the practice of good citizenship. Individuals are not required by the institutions to which they belong to be good citizens, nor are they rewarded for being good citizens. Instead, at work, they are rewarded for being managers, educators, accountants, directors, service providers, specialists. If they called themselves citizens, they would be seen as irrelevant at best. Citizenship is something one does as a volunteer, on off-hours, during free time; it is not prime time work. This separation of the role of citizen from the role of work and from the power and resources of institutions diminishes its status and effectiveness.

Achieving success in our current institutions requires the acceptance of systems of fragmentation that keep people extremely busy yet incapable of solving far-reaching problems. Fragmentation creates pieces of turf that individuals claim to control, even as they experience an increasing sense of incompetence in dealing with other, larger issues. Their successful control of turf is rewarded through salaries, promotions, and evaluations based on narrowly defined job descriptions.

Leaders in most institutions have withdrawn from an interest in public politics and have become more interested in personal and career development. The result has been the creation of a personalized, narrowly competitive politics in the places where we spend our time. This personal politics that exists within fragmented systems keeps leaders frustrated and cynical, while rewarding dishonesty, fragmentation, and crisis management. It punishes experimentation, risk taking and strategies for holistic public accountability. This kind of politics is subtle, it is petty, it stifles open argument, it wears out the spirit of potential civic leadership and it effectively stops change.

We believe that the first step in civic renewal is to assume that professionals and practitioners can be civic leaders. We reject the idea that career ambitions and the profit drive are so dominant in our society that mainstream professional institutions, businesses, government agencies, educational establishments and other organizations are unreceptive to the promotion of citizenship. Enlightened business people, for example, are aware that there is no private wealth without public wealth. A free market cannot function, nor can commerce function, without appropriate infrastructures in place that will help establish an ethical, aesthetic and efficient context for business. This context includes the quality of streets, water, courts, schools, libraries, museums, and general ethical behavior (both private and public) by citizens, including businesspeople. A high quality of infrastructure is the essential element for both democracy and capitalism.

Actions that all institutions can take to promote the practice of citizenship include a commitment to public ethics, environmentally sound practices, ethical leadership, an investment in human capacity, and the infusion of ideals of citizenship into the discourse and activities of their organizations.

All institutions need to renew their commitment to democratic citizenship. The educational system has yet to fully integrate the task of creating and sustaining citizens capable of governing in a democracy as part of its central purpose. Instead, education has narrowed its purpose to focus on preparing learners for work, thus reducing its role to being the handmaiden of a service economy that simply requires the creation and delivery of expert programs and services.

In the rise of this economy, we have become invested in a modern form of aristocracy in which “the people” are perceived as, and therefore often are, powerless and incapable of solving society’s complex problems.

We consume information almost as a drug. One colleague compares the experience of attending educational conferences to a feeding frenzy. Interactive formats are dumbed down so that practitioners who may have something to teach are given only five minutes to allow others not steeped in practice to have their five minutes of fame. People pronounce rather than deliberate, pick up as much information as they can on “models and best practices,” demand how-to-do-it knowledge in 30-second sound bites, and move on to the next session if presenters are not entertaining. These habits are the antithesis of civic practice, which requires deliberation, critical thinking, working with differences, the formation of judgments, and public problem solving.

We are currently engaged in civic organizing initiatives in both California and Minnesota (“Civic Investment California” and the “Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative”) whose aim is to establish a network of leaders committed to the promotion of active citizenship in their institutions—schools and other educational establishments, places of work, places of worship, community organizations and other institutions. As part of the initiative, these leaders are encouraged to identify specific goals and strategies for the promotion of citizenship in their institutions, and to suggest linkages that they could make with leaders in other sectors for broad-based initiatives.

For instance, a member of community education in one school district identifies and convenes school board members, parents, teachers, seniors, and business people in the district to ask the question: How can education build democracy for the 21st century? What are barriers in the way of that happening? How can we work together to overcome the barriers to achieving that end. What are we already doing that we can build upon? What existing resources can be restructured before we seek additional external funding? In one case, a pilot school has been identified to implement a civic organizing approach as a concrete experiment. Participants in the initiative know they are members of a much larger base of leadership that is doing the same thing in business settings, government, faith based institutions, higher education, and neighborhoods in both Minnesota and California.

We will continue to organize these kind of civic initiatives throughout the nation, building upon existing reform efforts, and linking leadership and outcomes together around a new civic agenda for the 21st century. In our meetings, we spend time on identifying critical resources that everybody can contribute. Critical resources include (in this order) time, leadership, other people, knowledge and money. One important insight: if money is used before developing the more primary resources of time, leadership and other people, the money is wasted.


Civic Investment California is the working name for a multi-year civic organizing initiative intended to build a statewide base of civic leaders, organizations, and networks and a new basis for democratic collaborative citizen action for social change. The initiative targets practitioners, professionals and their constituencies that are linked to business, corporate, public, educational, philanthropic, faith and community based institutions. Tony Massengale, conceptualizer of the “Civic Organizing Framework,” with colleague Peg Michels, is lead organizer for the California initiative’s Community CAN*DO and the Center for Civic Capacity Building. Michels is president of Civic Organizing, Inc. in St. Paul and lead organizer of the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative. Massengale and Michels are co-chief executives of the Civic Organizing Foundation.