Interviews

  1. H. George Frederickson
  2. Theda Skocpol
  3. Andrew R. Cline
  4. Jean Bethke Elshtain
  5. Peter Levine

August 12, 2003

Interview with H. George Frederickson

The Civic Honors Project had a chance to interview H. George Frederickson who served as President of the American Society for Public Administration and has been honored on numerous occasions for distinguished research and professional service by the American Society for Public Administration and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. H. George Frederickson was appointed Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas in 1987. Professor Frederickson has served as President of Eastern Washington University, faculty at Syracuse University in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In 1990 he served as a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in South Korea.

1. Being involved in several journals such as the Journal of public administration research and theory must give you a chance to read about a wide range of interesting ideas, how many of those ideas are focused on building a stronger community?

Yes, I do read a good bit of the current research. I would estimate that less than 25 percent of it has anything to do with civil society, social capital, citizenship, volunteerism, and the like. There is a group of folks in public administration who work on these subjects but it is by no means the majority.

2. How important is volunteering to the community and to the management of a city? Where does organizing volunteering fit into intergovernmental relations?

Volunteerism is probably fairly important to the development and maintenance of the community. It is only a minor factor in the management of the city, however. Most cities have full time professional staff members and most citizens are accustomed to dealing with city officials. When you see citizens collectively taking responsibility for some project or activity, it is the exception rather than the rule.

3. What are the best ways to deliver information to the community? Do you think a technology based delivery mechanism will be effective? What kind of vision does it take at the community level of leadership to be able to motivate individuals to volunteer?

We are just now doing a big study of this subject in Kansas City. In a nutshell, we are attempting to demonstrate that the general media (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, etc.) are usually of little relevance to community groups and organizations. Because of this, community groups develop their own ?media?. We call this ?Democratic Journalism? or ?Journalism without Journalists.? This is group created media that is group specific. A good bit of it, we think, is based on modern information technology.

Another aspect of our thesis is very Putnam Like ? we claim there is a disconnect between the media and the community. In response, the community simply invents and uses its own media ? often, we think, based on modern information technology.

4. What role do movements like the civic honors project play in developing community engagement?

I do not know. Certainly it helps the students to learn about how the community groups work. It often helps the groups. But I am beyond what I really know about here.

5. In the future do you think technology will be able to bring people in the community together or cause a new series of divides?

Based on our research project, we guess that technology will help bring people tighter in specific groups and hold them together. Technology should strengthen groups. But, with stronger groups, there is likely to be more or less overall community cohesion, communication, searching together for the public interest, ETC.? I do not know.

6. Do the current trends of declining social capital paint a grim picture for the future of volunteering? Readings on engagement and civil society often talk about the changes that are occurring within society, what are the best alternatives suggested to increase engagement in civil society?

On the contrary. Volunteerism is increasing. But, it is increasing in group specific ways. People give time to their church, their neighborhood group, their hobby or interest group. Some things like big groups raising funds to fight diseases (cancer, MS, etc.) get good volunteerism. There is a lot of engagement, but in narrow rather than broad terms.

7. Is it possible to nurture trends in volunteering at the national level or do will it take the vision of regional and local organizations?

Yes, certainly Peace Corps, Teach for America, and its like are good examples. This is actually a form of modified volunteerism (some pay for living expenses or later taxes, or tuition breaks). But these programs have great appeal. They are national in their organization but very local in their application. All volunteers have to be done their work in a specific school, community, town, etc. There is something important to people who volunteer to be associated with some bigger thing, such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America, even though they know that their actual volunteering will be in some specific place.

8. How important is volunteering to a community as a whole in the long term?

Probably somewhat important. But, serous community problems often require serious governmental responses. Where volunteering can help is dealing with family issues (Big Brothers and Big Sisters, for example). What government cannot seem to get at are problems with the family as an institution, and volunteer groups can be very helpful here. So can philanthropies.

9. How does civic participation change the dynamics of the community?

In theory, at least, civic participation engenders a sense of belonging and identification. It engenders a sense of collective responsibility. It probably slows down the machinery of government because civic participation takes time and is often inefficient in administrative terms.

10. Can programs like graduating with civic honors help change the level of civic participation in the community?

Yes, so long as we recognize that the community belongs to the community in the long run, if the person who graduates with civic honors, becomes an example of civic engagement, a volunteer and a leader of volunteers, a local problem solver, etc., then the civic honors program will have been a success.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank H. George Frederickson for his time and more importantly, the ideas that his writing has inspired. All of his books are recommended and a list can be found online here.

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May 27, 2003

Interview with Theda Skocpol

The Civic Honors Project had the good fortune of being able to interview Theda Skocpol who is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, and Director of the Center for American Political Studies, at Harvard University. Skocpol served on the Editorial Board of the American Political Science Review, she is the current president of the American Political Science Association and co-edits a book series on American politics for Princeton University Press. She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Social Insurance, and has held fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. During 1996, Skocpol was the President of the Social Science History Association.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to talk with Theda Skocpol about the Civic Honors Project and the different ways that volunteerisms impact civil society. The discussion initially turned to looking at what the Civic Honors Project is designed to accomplish. A simple explanation of the target goal is developing a recognition program aimed at recognizing students, with ?graduation with civic honors? as part of a movement to get colleges to motivate students to participate. Theda Skocpol believes that democratic governance and civic volunteerism developed together and that the current separation between politics and participation is predicated on the notion that, ?Young people think politics are dirty, somehow, that action within the community can be accomplished apart from politics. That is why young people are withdrawing from politics.? I was curious as to what caused the current divide between action and politics within society and the answer turned out to be based on professionally managed associations and non-profit groups that have distanced themselves from politics.

Thinking about how the historical context enhances our understanding of history, it became apparent that the real evidence coming out of this discussion was of a structural dynamic that showed that the best practice for organizing groups that have a large impact is to base them on strong local participation with national leadership and representation. Looking at that dynamic is the key to understanding how voluntary organizations change social and political conditions within civil society. Skocpol discusses the reality of bringing diverse groups of people together within society with the goal to learn and understand and relate with all people. That said, the breakdown of class and stereotype is accomplished through organizations that are structured so that they not only bring people together but also perpetuate civic education.

Skocpol made several interesting arguments about organizations and how they are structured that are well documented in her book, Diminished Democracy, ?In the past in America there were membership organizations that gave millions of people a chance to learn civic skills and become involved in community problems. Past associations at the local, state, and national level was a common place for communities to develop leadership skills. Millions of people learned about what governmental organization looked like.? It is an interesting relationship to look at the education function of organizations. ?Today there are more non-profit organizations and social service agencies. This is not the same as attending meetings. This form of participation does not offer as much training in how to be a citizen.? Volunteering is a good way to get people involved in action over short periods of time but it is not a perfect substitute for organizations because it does not train leaders within the framework of governance or provide that larger context of national involvement.

Volunteering occasionally is good, but organizations that allow people to meet and allow leadership roles are better in making people democratic citizens. ?The best part of the past historical model is the use of education, being able to bring people together across colleges might interest people to lobby for building up and expanding Americorp. Public service within college is a part of increasing engagement but needs to be developed with care to increase education. How to do this through colleges is a challenge. Opportunities for people to get together across colleges to talk and lobby, such as an organization like Americorps, would be good. College public service could offer a chance to get involved in politics and as active citizens.? The idea that government is bad and that individuals should stay away and work on ambivalent volunteer projects is one of the major devise drives occurring. The mentality of sitting back and letting other people get involved needs to be refocused on the idea of getting personally involved and making a difference.

Now that more people don't vote, they think government is bad. But government still has an impact on everything, on families, etc. Letting other people be involved while we are not leads to cynicism. ?Organizational dynamics is an important part of identifying how to get individuals within the community to work together despite economics and ethnic lines. The idea is to build a strong coalition of different races and classes on a local and national level.? Public service at Harvard gets students involved in groups that also involve politics. ?We should broaden the definition of public service that students can get involved in. Since 9/11 there has been new interest. Social movements in America today try to combine lobbying in Washington with getting involved in local projects. For example, the environmental movement and labor movement have local involvement as well as legislative campaigning.? Movements and organizations that tie people together across localities are important. Americans believe in building ties across racial lines now, but I don?t know how successful we are in doing it. We all aspire to build these bridges, but are we successful? It would be good to have partnership between public service organizations and white colleges and black colleges.

She posits that there are not as many grassroots organizations as some imagine. It is hard for purely spontaneous things to pop up. There are examples of grassroots organizations that have funding that make a difference. ?Reestablishing the ideal of civic organizers that reach out to people from different backgrounds is important. That?s how it used to be and this should be encouraged again. This will probably happen through new ways now, such as the Internet. We will not have organizations again like those prior to the 1960s.? There should be organizations that are not just professionals talking to other professionals. If you are interested in a comprehensive breakdown of these issues the Civic Honors Project strongly encourages you to read and purchase the book Diminished Democracy: From membership to management in American civic life. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press this year.

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April 29, 2003

Interview with Andrew R. Cline

The Civic Honors Project got to interview Andrew R. Cline who is a former journalist. Andrew R. Cline is a rhetoric scholar and adjunct professor of English at Park University near Kansas City, Missouri. If you are a frequent vaster of The Rhetorica Network you know of its unique perspective that comes from the interdisciplinary focus on both English (Rhetoric) and Political Science. If you have a chance to look around Rhetorica make sure to check out the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004 and the Critical Meter.

1. Looking at idea criticism and how issues are compared and deconstructed, do you think the ideas of civic engagement and participation within civil society are only compared and not deconstructed?

Deconstruction is a scary word for some people because is suggests to them a kind of post-modern relativism. Instead, we may think of it as a method of critical thinking--specifically of looking at the historical situations, power relationships, and contradictions, of a message. We might also use the term "breaking down" as a catch-all description for any deep analysis of how something--a text, an idea--works.

That "works' part is where rhetoric comes in. An idea or message must be accepted in some way in order to work as the speaker intends.

Okay, now let me consider the question. For the most part, yes, discourse in the public sphere about civic issues mostly engages in comparison. Such discourse compares the ideology of an idea so that it may be classified in a particular socio-political slot that is acceptable to the culture, e.g. "Civil unions for gays is a moral issue" versus "Civil unions for gays is an economic issue." Or the discourse may compare an idea to expected socio-political outcomes, e.g. "A tax cut will stimulate the economy" versus "A tax cut will hamper the economy." Such comparisons can be mapped to standardized ideological positions, i.e. liberal versus conservative.

Rarely, however, do we find discourse in the public sphere that attempts to break down ideas, i.e. to get at the heart of social/political/cultural assumptions and questions them. We take it for granted, for example, that people of other cultures will embrace our form of economy and government if only they have the chance to try it.

2. How is rhetoric important in talking about an issue like graduation with civic honors, does the presentation of the message really matter?

Any change you want to make in the world has to be sold. For the idea of civic honors to mean anything--to students, to faculty, to employers, to civic leaders--the value of it will have to be created and then sold. So the presentation means everything because it is part of both creation and persuasion.

3. Does using rhetoric techniques enhance the ability to communicate a message to the masses on a topic like volunteerism and should that message be focused at the volunteer or the media?

I'm detecting in this question a couple of misconceptions about rhetoric. First, there is no zero-grade rhetoric. In other words, all human messages carry at least some minimum rhetorical energy. I would argue from that assertion that all human utterances are fundamentally rhetorical in that some persuasive intent exists in all messages.

Second, too often rhetoric is thought of merely as style, i.e. the dress (tropes and schemes) one uses to make and present a message well. Rhetoric is so much more than that. There are five canons to rhetoric according to the ancient system, and style is just one of those five.

The focus of a message, in terms of the audience to be reached, must be determined based on the persuasive intent. So there is no way to choose a volunteer audience versus a media audience until one knows what one wants to achieve.

I think it's safe to say that both audiences are important and will require message crafted to specifically for each.

4. Can programs aimed at benefiting society present a message that resonates with individuals within the community or have such messages, crafted to spur volunteerism or generate support for programs, been desensitized through overuse?

Well, that's one way to state the problem all PR and advertising professionals face: How do we make the same old thing seem new? Actually, I think selling the idea of civic honors benefits from our current political situation. We're hypersensitive about patriotism right now. What better way to sell a beneficial program than link it to civic pride, patriotism, and enduring values/symbols?

5. How important is the community advocate in spreading the message of a program to the community? Without a strong advocate can the message still get out?

This is a question about ethos--the appeal to character. This will remain a strong appeal in American society as long as we look up to heroes. It would be impossible to sell $200 sneakers without Michael Jorden. I think it's difficult to sell a program without a balance of appeals, including ethos. So, yes, I'd say a strong community advocate--someone well-known and respected--is essential to any such message.

In the absence of such an advocate, such a message can certainly get out. We should be speaking in terms of messages, i.e. multiple appeals to multiple audiences.

6. With revolutions in technology bringing people together every day will this technology increase civic participation or simply contribute to fragmentation of it?

I think the most accurate answer to the question of the impact of technology on civic participation is: We don't know yet. We do know that the introduction of a technological advance in moving information creates a space that needs to be filled. When the first telegraph wire was strung between Baltimore and Washington D. C., no one was sure what to do with it. By the end of the first week, news was traveling at light speed between the two cities.

We can see now how radio and television have changed the way we get and use information.

As for the internet, we're just at the early stages.

I think there is some evidence that the internet increases civic participation. These include:

1- Collecting campaign contributions and soliciting volunteers.
2- Vote swapping.
3- Blogs and other forms of online talk.
4- Government sites that offer once hard-to-get information.
5- Inter-active government sites ("Ask the White House" for example)
6- E-mail lists.
7- Grass roots organizing.

Will such things fragment participation? Almost surely. But I'm not sure that's saying much. Fragmentation is a phenomenon of our post-modern age. It's difficult to imagine how we might operate today in a homogeneous environment.

7. What is the best way to measure the change a program makes within the community?

Good ol' fashioned policy analysis and performance auditing.

8. Is it important to have a positive message when dealing with the topics of volunteerism and civic engagement?

That depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

For example, the North Kansas City School District just lost another tax levy. I contend they lost, and have lost several times, because the campaigns they run are too nice. Their opponents run "dirty" campaigns and win most of the time. By "dirty" I mean they are not shy about sticking it to the opposition, spinning facts to suit their needs, and using emotional appeals to scare their constituents into voting against further taxes. To counter this, the NKCSD has to get tough--run a hardball campaign. But they won't do it. I've actually had members of the Citizens Committee in charge of the campaign tell me that they don't want to make anyone angry. Sheesh!

In this case, civic engagement means getting your people to the polls and, if possible, suppressing the opposition's vote. You can't do that with positive message alone.

As for volunteerism, I think the great example of how to use a positive message well is the Kennedy administration's selling of the Peace Corps.
Get them to feel good about themselves. Get them to feel patriotic. Great tactic.

But I can see how a negative message could work, too--one aimed at some evil force that needs to be thwarted by volunteer action. Many of the Save-The-Children type programs operate this way--with veiled bad guys and emotional appeals to help before disaster strikes.

9. Do you think allowing students to graduate with civic honors for volunteering in the community is a good idea?

I think it's an excellent idea. My only reservation is this: What percentage of students will merely see this as a resume-building opportunity? Not that there's anything wrong with resume-building. But it seems to me that such a program should aim for higher goals in results, i.e. encourage volunteerism and community service as life-long activities and positive values in their own right.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Andrew R. Cline for bringing persepctive to the issue and more importantly, the ideas that The Rhetorica Network has inspired.

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April 27, 2003

Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain

Recently the Civic Honors Project had the opportunity to interview Jean Bethke Elshtain who is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and is the author of Democracy on Trial.

1. Is civic engagement declining in modern American society, and does it matter?

It appears to be, if we can trust the empirical data. It matters because the American democracy has been so uniquely dependent on citizen engagement. Toqueville here.

2. How important is volunteering to a community as a whole in the long term?

Without the hands-on efforts of platoons of volunteers, community life in all its aspects would be immensely poorer and more isolating. I don't think we can even measure it--it is so significant in so many ways, many not entirely visible to us--all those tendrils reaching out and attaching us to one another.

3. How does civic participation change the dynamics of the community?

The more participation there is, the more there is, so to speak. That is, civic participation becomes a developed habit. When people do it, they not only get the habit of it, they help to form others in this way of being a community citizen.

4. Can programs like graduating with civic honors help change the level of civic participation in the community?

I actually doubt that. Civic engagement -- by that I don't mean mobilizing people for a narrowly partisan purpose, I don't think that should be part of a curriculum, but teaching civic habits, yes--should be recognized and certainly informally honored. But once you grind it up and put it in a curricular structure in a formal sense, it loses much of its authentic character, becomes more 'professionalized.'

5. Readings on engagement and civil society often talk about the changes that are occurring within society, what are the best alternatives suggested to increase engagement in civil society?

To form children in civic knowledge and habits. This formation must take place early on--in grade school, middle school, high school. Really getting at this dimensions of the passing on of a civic tradition is what we need most desperately.

6. What kind of vision does it take at the community level of leadership to be able to motivate individuals to volunteer?

A vision that understands that we can come to know a good in common we cannot know alone; that it is vital to engage with others in a variety of contexts. It doesn't require any comprehensive 'public philosophy',.just a rough and ready civic disposition.

7. Is it possible to nurture trends in volunteering at the national level or do will it take the vision of regional and local organizations?

The smaller the better. Mostly the government shouldn't get in the way. But the government contributes by helping to lift up politics as the way a free people does the people's business. And a clearer animation of the polity by our most enduring principles--that, too, helps. I think more of that has been done and is being done since 9/11. Too bad we needed that plenary jolt to think again about the necessity of civic transmission.

8. If you were thinking about what is possible within communities what is the one thing that would stick out as being most important to try to accomplish?

I refer back to my question about civic education.

9. How does collaboration at the national and local level impact volunteering efforts?

It helps to strengthen it, so long as one doesn't get highly professionalized NGOs trying to run the show.

10. How can programs be designed to take into account both large and small communities while still building models that will be successful nationally?

Reading Catholic Social Thought would help! It's all there in the so-called doctrine of subsidiarity. Try JPII's encyclical, "Centesimus Annus". I'm serious! This is uncannily apt to our situation.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Jean Bethke Elshtain for the interview and more importantly, the ideas that Jean's writing has inspired.

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April 26, 2003

Interview with Peter Levine

The Civic Honors Project had a chance to interview Peter Levine who is a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and deputy director of CIRCLE: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. Peter Levine is also involved in several online projects, which have caught our attention, especially the Weblog.

1. Can locating information and discussion about ideas related to civic engagement on the Internet help strengthen voluntary nonprofit organizations like the civic honors project?

To a limited extent, yes. Today, the best scholarly work is still found in books, and to a lesser extent in peer-reviewed journal articles than tend not to be posted online. So if you want scholarly information and analysis, there is still no substitute for a library. But it depends on what questions you are trying to answer. You may be able to get a good project together without much research at all.

2. How important is encouraging civic engagement of young Americans to developing long term changes within society?

If we do not reverse declines in civic engagement among young people, those who are least advantaged will continue to drop out, leading to an electorate than more and more perfectly reflects the values and interests of the wealthy and best educated in our society. That will be a "change"--but not a good one, in my view.

3. Are organizations like the National Alliance for Civic Education?s online presence the future of discussion on civil society?

Almost all the best conversations I am involved with are face-to-face. Websites and weblogs tend not to be visited and re-visited often enough to sustain good discussions. Email exchanges and listservs are OK, although the amount of text involved tends to be small. Meetings, conferences, and conference calls remain essential.

4. Will programs like graduation with civic honors help to enhance a beneficial commons for civil society that helps motivate citizens to be involved?

(I'm not sure what "commons" means here.) Will the program motivate citizens to be involved?--I hope so. Since we already have a cadre of highly involved young people, the question is whether the uninvolved and alienated will be motivated by a new honors program. It's worth trying.

5. How will civil society moving toward the Internet change the way information is exchanged and organizations try to encourage volunteerism?

This is a complex question, and the answer is uncertain. My argument has been that volunteers are motivated by face-to-face, human ties and community membership. The Internet sometimes substitutes distant and ad hoc relationships for such ties. Thus I would tend to predict that the Internet will reduce the level of volunteerism, all else being equal. Clearly, it is nice to have online databases of local volunteer opportunities. However, the most common barrier to volunteering is not a lack of information about opportunities; it is a lack of motivation. I don't think that websites are usually very motivating.

6. Does your background in philosophy help define your perspective on how volunteerism benefits civil society?

My philosophical position would be something like this: (1) Volunteerism is an inadequate form of civic engagement, because it replaces political action with service, which does not address the root cause of problems or tap the political capacities of the volunteers. (2) Civic engagement should be cultivated for two reasons. First, if we don't deliberately teach it, the least advantaged among us will be the first to disengage, leading to political inequality later on. Second, civic participation is a good human activity. It is not the only or highest good activity: theoretical reflection, spiritual contemplation, appreciation of nature, creation of art, and care for family members are some of the other activities that are inherently good. All of these ends or projects are preferable to the forms of life that are more frequently advertised to young people: consumerism, athletics, and sexual gratification. Moreover, we cannot teach activities connected to spirituality or care for family in public schools. Therefore, we ought to teach civic engagement (along with art and science) so that it is an option available to young people.

7. Has your path through higher education motivated your work in developing creative commons environments and working to strengthen civic engagement?

The commons idea is a fairly sophisticated concept that I probably would not have encountered outside of the academy (at this early point in the history of the idea). Moreover, universities at their best are creative commons, so I suppose I have been inspired by academic ideals.

I have been consistently interested in civic engagement since my years in college, when I helped start a financial program to encourage volunteering and also interned for the Kettering Foundation.

8. Can programs that reward volunteerism like graduating with civic honors make a long-term difference within society?

Again, I am not thrilled about volunteerism, which often substitutes for political engagement or community problem-solving, and which often has a patronizing aspect. Programs that increase civic engagement (more broadly defined) could change both the nature of the electorate and their styles of participation for a long time to come. This is because habits of engagement or disengagement tend to be set in the years between 15 and 25.

9. Looking at the development of the Internet and the changes in ways people communicate what is the next step for online volunteerism?

It would be good to see people in local communities creating high-end public goods online, such as video documentaries, databases of local assets, oral history projects, news sources, and structured deliberative forums. This is what we are trying to do here: www.princegeorges.org. We also need to encourage people to create and give away open-source software of public value.

10. Why do you think volunteerism and civic engagement transcend modern politics as issues that bring people together?

Do you mean, "Why do people volunteer together, even when they disagree?" That's because volunteering is often non-controversial, whereas politics is the method we use to solve disagreements. Or do you mean, "Why do people across the ideological spectrum come together to support volunteerism and civic engagement?" I think the answer to that question is that there is usually more agreement about the processes and requirements of democracy than there is about any particular issue that politicians debate. Furthermore, volunteerism is "soft" and unthreatening. Note, however, that the Corporation for National Service was highly controversial during the years of the Clinton administration, when many Congressional Republicans attacked federal promotion of volunteering as an inappropriate use of public money.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Peter Levin for his time and more importantly, the ideas that his writing has inspired.

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