The Wisdom and Power of the People

“They” were Doctors Grace Healy and Warren Zeigler,
professors in the Continuing Education Department of the School of Education at
Syracuse University. “Us” was a hundred people who had selected ourselves to
participate in something called a “civic literacy project” using the “Futures
Invention” methodology. We had no idea what that meant when we gathered to spend
three days together in a motel in suburban Syracuse, New York.
We had come
because there were problems in our society and we wanted to do something about
them. No “experts” or “specialists” had been invited. There were no public
officials or academic authorities making major—or even minor—speeches.
and Warren believed in the wisdom and power of the people, so they’d gotten a
bunch of money from the federal government to get the people together. They
called it research, then they rented an entire motel and moved us in.
What we
learned was that “civic literacy” was just a fancy way of saying, “We will do it
ourselves.” We are citizens. It is our job to be knowledgeable about how things
work, and how to fix them when they are broken. “Futures Invention” was a
particular scheme that Warren had created to help groups of people figure out
what the problem was, what the solution could be, and how to accomplish it. His
workbook consisted mainly of blank sheets of paper to be filled in by the
The first thing we each did was write a detailed description of the
problem that concerned us. Warren taught us a simple thing that has been proven
true throughout my career as an activist: you won’t fight for something that
doesn’t belong to you. You have to own the problem. You may be helpful and
supportive to others in pursuit of solutions to their problems but you won’t
fight—won’t really go to the mat and fight—for anything in which you don’t have
a personal stake. So what matters to you? What’s important? What do you really
care about?
The second thing we did was flip the problem on its back and look
at the solution. Warren’s method stipulated that we look forward twenty-five
years to a not-yet-occurred state of affairs. If X is the problem, then what
will society look like twenty-five years from now when the problem no longer is
present? The future does not exist; it is not a given. We are not living out a
pre-programmed script—we are making tomorrow happen with everything we do today.
The decisions we make and the actions we take now create the future.
Up to
this point, we had each been working alone on our statements, and it was
frustrating and boring. Then we began to work in groups. We joined together with
other citizens who had been working independently to articulate their dreams for
the future. The largest group was Life-Long Education. It was a wild and wooly
collection of folks who had some major ideas about rejecting the limited,
lock-step approach to public education and opening it up to all people for all
their lives. There were groups on environment, transportation, energy, parenting
and an assortment of other public concerns.
Our group was called Citizen
Power. We believed that the people could do the job themselves. Citizen Power
included Kate, a curly-haired, freckle-faced young woman of Irish extraction who
was the director of programming at the YMCA. Dick was a bearded radical
architect who owned a community design company. Evelyn, a delicate beauty from
New England, was a graduate student at the university. I was a smart woman
working as a secretary because I somehow couldn’t get it together to get
academic credentialing. There were others of a quieter, less dominant
We got assigned to meet in the bar (which wasn’t serving for the
duration) and we began to work to integrate our various scenarios into a single
statement of our common goal. It wasn’t easy. We talked and laughed and argued
and occasionally threatened to throw a few punches. It was democracy in
action—messy. People from very different backgrounds with very different
expectations using language in very different ways were trying to put into words
what they all wanted for their shared future.
When all the participants came
together a day later to listen to each group’s presentation, Citizen Power’s
goal statement was—
All people share the right and the responsibility
make the decisions that affect their lives together.
Upon hearing that,
someone cried out, “But that’s not a new idea!” No, indeed, it wasn’t. You could
find it expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But
it was a not-yet-occurred state of affairs. The people most certainly were not
making the decisions.
In our goal statement, we said “All people” because we
had tested every case we could think of and we did not identify any group that
should be excluded from the process of governance. We did not exclude
African-Americans, Muslims, felons, developmentally disabled people or any other
class. We said “all people” because we meant it.
“Share”—in the course of our
discussions, we came to the understanding that no single person or group should
ever control the process. No one has exclusive rights; we share the process. I
must act in conjunction with you, and I must never forget that your right is as
great as mine.
“The right”—simply, we believed that self-governance is a
right. It is not a privilege or a gift. It is not dependent on some other person
or group empowering us. It is our right to govern ourselves.
responsibility”—so often, we eagerly proclaim our right to do or be this or
that, but what about our responsibility? It is our job to be responsible for all
things that are decided in our name and for our good. We may enjoy the luxury of
having rights, but we must also carry the responsibility for our
“To make the decisions”—that’s what it’s all about. Governance is
about making decisions. The citizens have the power to decide.
“That affect
our lives”—we’re not messing around here, folks. We’re talking about the basic
issues that affect our lives—taxes, education, communicable diseases, peace,
public property—you name it. Anything that affects our lives is meat for the
grinder of public decision making.
“Together” was our way of recognizing
individual rights. Whether my neighbor has an abortion is none of my business;
whether she shovels the snow off her sidewalk is. We only get to make decisions
about the issues that affect us all. The issues that are particular to the
individual are not the business of the citizenry at large. We do not get to make
decisions about things that don’t affect us.
The Civic Literacy Project was
begun in September 1976 to assist citizens in addressing their concerns
regarding the future. It continues now on this blog, so tell me—what’s your
problem? What do you care about? As a citizen, what is your concern for the
Talk to me. Let’s see what we can do together.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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1 Response to The Wisdom and Power of the People

  1. Bob Allen says:

    ‘Citizen Power’…perfect work group for you Anne!

    Bob Allen

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