The Civic Politics of Public Work

By Harry C. Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College, and senior fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota; and Blase Scarnati, director of First and Second Year Learning and co-director

Many in higher education have a critical understanding of the forces rapidly changing our institutions. Yet critique does not often lead to productive action. We propose that a politics of public work can generate hope and build our capacity for making change in higher education and beyond.

Today, it is common for public and civic institutions—whether government, schools, colleges, or nonprofits—to conceive of citizens as customers pursuing their own narrow interests. In contrast, the concept of public work highlights what can be called “world building,” to borrow a term coined by the late political theorist Hannah Arendt. World building refers to the role of citizens as cocreators, rather than simply participants, of the world we share in common.

Public work can be defined as self-organized efforts by a mix of people who create goods, material or symbolic, whose civic value is determined through an ongoing process of deliberation. It has roots in communal labor practices around the world that create and sustain “the commons”—shared resources of all kinds, from fisheries to wells, schools to public arts. The public work framework also draws from social movements like the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, public work highlights civic dimensions of many kinds of work, invisible in conventional approaches to civic engagement—citizen teacher, citizen businessperson, citizen health professional, as well as “civil servants” who see themselves as citizens.

Northern Arizona University

In the recent Civic Studies* monograph edited by Peter Levine (Tisch College at Tufts University) and Karol SoÅ‚tan (University of Maryland), we present two case studies of public work, including one on the large scale curricular innovations at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Over the last several years, a group of organizers at NAU has sought to build democratic centers of power—enabling environments—by establishing new coalitions and alliances. Key to the work has been strategies to re-empower faculty through curricular change that develops the democratic agency of faculty and students alike. Two such efforts, the First Year Learning Initiative and the Action Research Teams, are described below.

In three years, the First Year Learning Initiative (FYLI) completed work on nearly sixty courses that enroll 96 percent of first-year students at NAU. These courses have a broad reach across all NAU colleges and disciplines, from the biological sciences to business. Course completion rates of students enrolled in FYLI courses were significantly increased as a result of deep collaborative work with faculty and initiative organizers. Faculty are engaged in deeply dialogic one-on-one meetings to develop the course, and course coordinators in turn collaborate with colleagues to uncover and expand the use of effective pedagogies and practices. (See for more information and assessment results.)

ARTs (Action Research Teams) is one of the largest programs of action research, civic agency, and public work in the country. The teams are grounded in collaborative work among leaders in the Community, Culture, and Environment Program; the First Year Seminar Program, where it connects with FYLI; and the Masters of Arts in Sustainable Communities Program. The program includes faculty from departments as diverse as education, biology, philosophy, and criminology. Each year, over 550 new first-year students join fellow students from previous years to conduct action research in conjunction with local community organizations doing the political work to create more democratic, just, and sustainable communities. They work on many issues, from youth empowerment and school reform to green economic development and immigration (see for more information and assessment results).

Through their civic agency and public work, the ARTs have been effective in increasing retention among key NAU student populations. For instance, the retention rate for minority students who complete First Year Seminars with ARTs (FYSeminar-ARTs) sections with a grade of C or better is 16 percent higher than the retention rate for non-FYSeminar-ARTs minority students.

Agents, not objects, of change

Higher education exercises invisible power in many ways: creating credentialed knowledge; diffusing conceptual frameworks that structure work practices; conveying meanings of citizenship. Indeed, colleges and universities can be seen as anchoring institutions of citizenship. In this time of dramatic change in the educational landscape, some colleges and universities will play key roles in creating a different approach to educational transformation. These will be the “democracy’s colleges” of the twenty-first century, to use a term from land-grant college history to suggest institutions with strong civic identities grounded in the life of places. They will show how educators can move from the defensive to become agents and architects, not objects, of change.

*To download the full Civic Studies monograph (January, 2014) for free, see To purchase copies for $10 (bulk discounts available) see