One night in 1977 my mother told me that she and my dad had signed up to attend something called the Civic Literacy Project. It sounded good so I signed up, too. The Civic Literacy Project was funded by the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare and was sponsored by Syracuse University’s Adult Continuing Education program. Dr. Grace M. Healy directed the three-day residential workshop for self-selected citizens. Dr. Warren L. Ziegler took us through the steps of his Futures-Invention methodology.
“The Civic Literacy Project was designed to help citizens participate effectively and with wisdom in forming, rather than in reacting to, the conditions within which they live out their lives.” (From Toward the Year 2000: Citizen’s Ownership of the Future.) After the conference, I wrote this essay:
What was it like to do Futures-Invention in the Civic Literacy Project? I had no idea what Civic Literacy meant, and I’d never heard of Futures-Invention when I showed up for the first workshop. We were told we were supposed to end up twenty-five years in the future with a not-yet-occurred state of affairs, but the beginning was hard. All those initial exercises on problems and goals had to be dredged up out of our solitary, individual experience and that wasn’t easy.
It was hard to confront myself and begin to declare what I really cared about. I had to go to that place where the dreams rise, and admit that no matter how crassly “realistic” I’d become, I had ideals. I had hopes for a better world. In the midst of all the pushing and pulling of contemporary life, I had to stand up to myself and say, “Yes, I do believe I can invent a better future.”
I remember sitting at dinner with Warren Zeigler, the Futures-Invention director, that first night and giving him ninety-nine good reasons why we shouldn’t be working alone on the initial exercises. In retrospect I understand that I could not have come as far as I have if I hadn’t started alone. Why? Because I won’t fight for something that isn’t mine. I’ll fight for my freedom, my family, my ideas—but there’s a limit to how far I will fight for something that doesn’t belong to me. So I have to start by knowing what belongs to me and not to somebody else.
But that first night, when I went back to my room, I was distressed. I was frustrated, bored, angry and disgusted. I want to do something but didn’t think that shuttling back and forth for twelve hours between the inside of my head and the three-person clarifying group exactly constituted doing something. Wouldn’t I ever get to work with people who shared my goal? I didn’t even know if anyone shared my goal! Was there any point in staying? Why had I come, anyway? What did I want?
It was a long night’s thinking before I could say, “I want to be able to look out at the world and feel that I have the power to shape my own life, and I want this feeling for everyone. We should be able to feel that we are something other than victims without options. I want people bound together by their desire to affect their own lives. It’s such a vague thing!”
It was vague; it was frustrating. Sleep came hard, and not until 2:00 a.m. But the next day I found that there were people who shared my goal and that I would get to work with them. At some level we all knew what we were saying about our governance: we will do it ourselves. And so we became the Citizen Power group and wrote our unified goal:
All people share the right and the responsibility to make the decisions that affect their lives together.
In the past two years I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working with dozens of groups and scores of citizens in the Civic Literacy Project, yet the night the Citizen Power group wrote its goal stands as the most powerful event in all of that activity.
What was its power? It was the way we worked together to bring a common goal out of our individual goals. That work was based on each of us discovering our own goals and helping others discover their goals.
What I brought into the group discussion was my own clear vision of my individual goal, and my concern for aiding other people in envisioning their goals. I had imagined tomorrow and described what it looked like. I had put into words my moral image of how I really wanted to share my civic life with other citizens. I was secure in my goal, so I wasn’t afraid to toss it out on the table and let other people fool around with it for a while. Being secure in my own goal, and knowing that other citizens had arrived at their goals through the same process that I had made me sure in their goals, too. I didn’t have to wonder if any back-room bargaining had gone into the goal statements. I felt a trust that allowed me to proceed well with others.
We talked half the night about what words would stand for our idea. “All people”—are there some people who are too young to share in the decision-making? If we still have prisons and convicts in the year 2000 (oh, anything’s possible in the future!) do we want the convicts to share in decision-making? Why not just say “people”? We said “All people” after testing every case and discovering that every person we could think of should share in this process. We said “All people” to emphasize that we meant it.
“Share” was another word that was decided upon after a lot of discussion. We could have said “all people have the right,” but we wanted to make clear that our rights and responsibilities are held in conjunction with others. How can I ever stand up, pound my fist on the table and shout, “I have the right—!” after telling you now that “I share the right—?” You and me; I can’t forget you.
We worked and worried about each word we chose to describe what we wanted for the future, yet when we presented our goal to the members of the whole workshop, somebody said, “But that isn’t a new goal!” Quite right. It is a very old one. You can find it in the Declaration of Independence. But what is new is that we invented it. Others have invented it before us but we did not recite their words: we discovered our own words and in discovering them we discovered our commitment to the goal. Though the goal is not new, it is an invention for the future because it does not yet exist.
What does exist is a group of people committed to a very clear goal: democracy.