Civic Agency

Civic agency is a political concept that refers to the capacity of diverse people to self-organize to effect change, solve problems, create common resources, and negotiate a shared democratic way of life. Nourished by American civic traditions, civic agency has been developed since the late twentieth century through institutional initiatives that integrate practices and concepts from community organizing and the theory of free spaces where people have the freedom to self-organize ( Evans and Boyte 1992 ). The Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC) and CDC partners in several states and more than two dozen countries have been instrumental in furthering such initiatives ( Boyte 2004 ).


Nineteenth-century Americans responded as a society of self-organizing citizens to the daunting practical challenges of national development. As the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his 1835 work Democracy in America, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations … but they also have a thousand other kinds…” ( 2000, 489 )—by which he meant a vibrant self-organizing civic culture of barn raisings, quilting bees, voluntary fire departments, cooperatives, antislavery leagues, labor groups, immigrant mutual aid societies, and so on. Many kinds of public work were associated with self-organized collective civic action. As David Mathews observes, “settlers on the frontier … had to join forces to build forts, roads, and libraries. They formed associations to combat alcoholism and care for the poor as well as to elect representatives. They also established the first public schools. Their efforts were examples of ‘public work,’ meaning work done by not just for the public” ( 2006, vii ).

Nineteenth-century Americans also organized themselves to respond to injustices, from slavery to second-class status for women, the poor, immigrants and others. As America changed to a more urban, industrialized society, traditions of public work and free spaces for citizen-organizing shifted to reflect new needs, for example in settlement houses, such as Jane Addams's Hull House; black colleges and universities; self-help efforts of Native Americans to regain sovereignty over land, language, and education; and the rural cooperative extension system of land-grant colleges, which often generated free spaces and a public work approach ( Peters 2013 ).


America's fame as a nation of organizers did not come easily. Developing capacities for self-organized collective work was met with powerful forces that eroded communal relations. America was seen as an escape from settled ties and commitments. “Forget your past, your customs and your ideals. Run, work, do and keep your own good in mind. That's the way to get ahead in America,” counseled an immigrant advice manual ( Gutman 1976, 69 ). America's rootless individualism could lead, ironically, to conformity and acquiescence even in the face of brutal injustice. In 1849 the writer Henry David Thoreau ( 1817–1862 ) argued that there were “nine hundred ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man” ; he challenged contemporaries who agreed with his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War but “sit with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do and do nothing” ( 1983, 391 ).

Thoreau anticipated the dynamics that constrain agency today. Thus, for instance, children of the middle and upper-middle classes who grow up immersed in hypercompetitive activities to further individualized accomplishment—both in and outside of school—may not develop the initiative for self-directed activity or for collective action. Such children, not experiencing the benefits of free, unstructured time, may also become dependent on authority to guide their actions. The twentieth-century growth of positivism—a view of knowledge that singularly promotes scientific forms of inquiry—devalued common sense, local knowledge, cultural traditions, and craft and practical knowledge mediated through everyday life experiences. This dynamic has been a key force in turning civic sites in communities— schools, congregations, businesses, and public agencies— into service providers for clients who are seen as needy and dependent ( Boyte 2009 ).

The habituation of citizens to see everything through a consumerist mindset has changed the very definitions of democracy and citizenship. In his famous “kitchen debate” with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon described consumer choices as the essence of American democracy. In the 1990s government agencies redefined citizens as “customers” of government services ( Boyte and Kari 1996 ). Modern information technology, which generates powerful tools for social networking among young people, can also substitute its own logic for theirs, divert young people from building substantial interpersonal relationships, and create environments of titillating but trivial pursuits ( Hoffman 2013 ). Dynamics such as technocracy, meritocracy, and consumer identities can operate invisibly to constrain self-organized collective action.


2006 ) has shown. Such initiatives involve what Elinor Ostrom ( 1999 ) calls “polycentric governance,” with complex authority structures but strong roles for the ordinary citizen in setting rules and developing and applying sanctions. These initiatives also involve “reciprocal accountability,” in the words of Carmen Sirianni, “among a complex array of democratic actors, from ordinary citizens and organized stakeholders to elected officials and public administrators” ( 2009, 61 ). Sirianni calls this pattern government acting as catalyst for “citizens as civic agents” ( 2012 ).

Professions. In the professional sphere, as Albert Dzur ( 2013 ) notes, new patterns of democratic or “citizen professional practice” are emerging in which professionals become engaged citizens who help organize wider civic action. For instance, the Family Education Diabetes Series (FEDS) initiative, a supplement to standard care for members of the American Indian community in Minneapolis and St. Paul, has been created by native leaders and family social scientists at the University of Minnesota's Citizen Professional Center. A deep process of self-organizing collaborative public work has informed every stage of the effort over the last ten years. Evaluations have found significant improvement in objective measures such as weight and metabolic control. The communitydriven nature of the initiative has been shown to be the main source of its success ( Mendenhall et. al. 2012 ). Such efforts work from the premise that “the greatest untapped resource for improving health and social well-being [is] the knowledge, wisdom, and energy of individuals, families, and communities who face challenging issues in their everyday lives” ( Doherty et al. 2010 ).

Higher Education. In 2008 the Civic Agency Initiative formed as a partnership between the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (then at the University of Minnesota, now at Augsburg College in Minneapolis) and the American Democracy Project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It developed and disseminated Public Achievement, a civic agency youth initiative based on free spaces and public work, to other colleges and universities. The Civic Agency Initiative also created opportunities for developing new ideas about civic agency through large organizing experiments. At Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, the First Year Learning Initiative strives not only to ensure academic success for first-year students but to develop students' civic agency. Faculty members collaborate across disciplines to enrich courses through active learning methods. In another program, known as CRAFTS (Civic Engagement for Arizona Families, Transitions, and Communities), more than nine hundred freshmen each year undertake action research projects in conjunction with local community organizations, and engage in public work on a variety of issues, from energy conservation and school reform to immigration and bullying. Such efforts have proven highly effective in increasing student retention at NAU, especially among minorities and women ( Boyte and Scarnati 2014 ).

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), coached by student life professionals, students organized and transformed student government into a center for student empowerment, having a broad impact on student culture and providing insights into the worlds in which young people grow up today. In his in-depth study of undergraduates' civic agency efforts at UMBC, David Hoffman describes student experiences as occurring in “an everyday world that often seems fundamentally synthetic, structured around falsehoods, hidden agendas, or scripts” (157). As students learned how to be effective change agents through their new student government, they recounted a new sense of authenticity, consequentiality, and democratic possibility.


Internationally, rich civic agency practices in South Africa and elsewhere suggest that empowerment can take place outside of entrenched political divisions. A new interdisciplinary field of civic studies is organizing around themes of citizens as cocreators and civic agency ( Levine and Soltan 2014 ). Finally, the idea of civic science, in which scientists come to see themselves as engaged citizens working with fellow citizens on large challenges, furthers the role of science as a resource for empowering human action. Civic science reinvigorates once widespread understandings of science as a wellspring of democratic energy and a constellation of democratic practices and habits ( Jewett 2012; Abbott et al. 2014 ).

SEE ALSO Civic Associations ; Civic Education ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Participation ; Civil Society ; Collective Action ; Governance ; Self-Governance .


Abbott, Sherburne, Harry C. Boyte, Nicholas Jordan, Gwen Ottinger, Scott Peters, and John P. Spencer, in collaboration with Clancy Blair, Stephanie Carlson, William Doherty, Tai Mendenhall, Cybele Raver, Larissa Samuelson, and Phil Zelazo. “A Call to Action: Civic Science and the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century.” White Paper for the National

Science Foundation Workshop, Civic Science: Re-framing the Role of Science in Society, October 2–3, 2014, Arlington, Virginia. .

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Boyte, Harry C. “Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert.” Kettering Foundation, 2009. .

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Hoffman, David. Becoming Real: Undergraduates' Civic Agency Journeys. PhD diss., University of Maryland Baltimore County, 2013.

Jewett, Andrew. Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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Alfred BrownOwl. “The Family Education Diabetes Series: Improving Health in an Urban-Dwelling American Indian Community.” Qualitative Health Research, August 21, 2012. .

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Harry C. Boyte
Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship
Augsburg College