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Updated 9:30 AM April 9, 2007




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Populism on the rise, says Dewey lecturer

A resurgent wave of populist activism could benefit the common good, a proponent of that movement told a U-M audience of more than 200 March 29 at Palmer Commons.
(Photo by Isabelle Carbonell)

"It's building the capacity and the agency of ordinary people," said Harry Boyte, who presented the 2007 Dewey Lecture, "Populism and John Dewey: Convergences and Contradictions."

The founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, University of Minnesota, Boyte addressed civic engagement in the lecture, an issue embraced in U-M's recent Diversity Blueprints report.

Boyte, who said the 2006 elections have been interpreted as resurgent populism on the Democratic side, defined populism as a movement that champions the people while railing against establishments.

"We are the ones we have been waiting for," Boyte said, quoting a 1960s civil rights movement song. Boyte, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. as a field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said those behind the most effective populist movements develop the habits and skills of power.

While working with King in 1964 in St. Augustine, Fla., Boyte said five men and a woman, all members of the Ku Klux Klan, cornered him and accused him of being a communist and a Yankee.

"I replied, 'I'm no Yankee—my family has been in the South since before the (American) revolution. And I'm not a communist. I'm a populist. I believe that blacks and poor whites should join to do something about the big shots who keep us divided and held down.'

"For a few minutes we talked about what such a movement might look like. Then they let me go," Boyte recalled.

He related the incident to King. "He told me that he identified with the populist tradition and assigned me to organize poor whites."

Boyte said that as a democratic movement and philosophy, populism has three elements: It builds strength to break up unjust concentrations of wealth and power; it advances values of community, liberty and equality; and it is a civic learning movement, developing people's civic identities, imaginations and skills.

He currently is working with state legislators, immigrants and a range of community groups to create Minnesota Works, which seeks to strengthen civic life in that state. Boyte founded Public Achievement, which organizes citizens to do public work for the common good. For several months each year, he lives in South Africa where he works with colleagues to analyze models of citizen democracy across Africa.

He acknowledged John Dewey, who taught at U-M before the turn of the century and for whom the lecture is named, calling him a pivotal figure in educational reform. Boyte also called Dewey "a foundational theorist for the civic engagement movement."

"A populist view has relevance for the 2008 election season," said Boyte, asking, "What candidate do we want to work with the day after the election to create a flourishing democratic society?"

The lecture closed with responses from two U-M faculty and audience questions. One of the faculty discussants, Barry Checkoway, professor of social work and urban planning, noted that some populist movements have not been progressive. "Populism also sustains racial segregation and ethnic cleansing; there is also a dark side to populism," he said, adding populism also contributed to the passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan. "In Proposal 2, organizers catalyzed a large number of voters to oppose a measure which they thought was not in their best interest, as part of a broad popular movement to stop changes in society which appear troublesome to them."

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