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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 52-55



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Issues Raised by a Reading of Civic Innovation in America:
Continuity in Relational Organizing by Community Women, Rightwing Forces Against Democracy, and A Closer Look at On-the-Ground Practices and Strategic Visions

Susan Ostrander


Sirianni and Friedland call themselves "agnostic" on the "ultimate outcomes of civic renewal." Nevertheless they aim to show that real social change is possible in America, and that innovative forms of civic participation now taking shape can make it happen.

Like the authors of Civic Innovation in America, I see many examples of people coming together to struggle for change that will improve their lives and communities. I have been troubled—as these authors seem to be—by a too quick and too uncritical acceptance of claims of a national crisis in active citizenship I have puzzled over why Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000) captured national attention while other important scholarly work that paints a picture where people are more involved has received relatively little (Naples 1998a;Verba, Scholzman and Brady 1995;Wuthnow 1999).

Sirianni and Friedland see an engaged citizenry in America that is learning and practicing new ways to exercise power and gain a better life for communities and for the nation. They argue that a substantial amount of "civic innovation" resulting from a "slow, often invisible and convoluted process of social learning" has arisen since the participatory democratic movements of the 1960's and '70's (p. ix). Their central claim is that this learning is now culminating in a new movement for civic renewal—one that is composed of the stuff of everyday civic politics and that has the potential to "solve practical problems, build long-term relationships based on trust, and produce things of [lasting public] value" (p. 264). Their reading of numerous examples of civic engagement gathered throughout the U.S. goes directly to the heart of the promise of democracy.

Sirianni and Friedland are not alone, nor do they claim to be, in their study of the "everyday politics with a small p" that expands the concept of active citizenship to every aspect of public life. Given the world-wide shift away from the state, the long-standing concept of civil society has been resurrected to bolster new visions of public life. Even political scientists have now turned their attention to "associational life" as a critical foundation for democracy (Warren, M.E. 2001). A number of other works have recently been published which focus on this important form of community and relationally-based civic politics or civic engagement. Indeed, it has perhaps now become the dominant way of thinking about American democracy and public life, so much so that some scholars are beginning to say that we have taken government too much out of political thinking (Skocpol and Fiorina 1999).

Without ignoring the importance of connecting civic engagement to state policy, Sirianni and Friedland give evidence that this promise of democracy can be fulfilled. Their gift to the reader is a context, a rationale, and a compelling text of stories about why active citizenship does—or might—matter. I can sense in their writing a yearning to believe that matches my own.

The aim of my critical review is to raise questions from the perspective of my own thinking, experience, and research. My goal is to challenge some of the main ideas from this book in a way that will advance and further develop them. To that end, I will raise three main issues.

The first concerns the place of long-established women's relationally-based community organizing as it relates to a central claim of Civic Innovation in America: that 1980's and '90's civic renewal movements have developed new and innovative relational forms of organizing. Had grassroots organizing by women of color and working class women been Sirianni's and Friedland's [End Page 52] point of comparison, instead of 1960...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 52-55
Launched on MUSE
2003-12-02
Open Access
No
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