An action plan for citizens

A conversation with Harry Boyt, author of “The Citizen Solution”

In “The Citizen Solution,” Harry Boyt, a nationally recognized community organizer, calls on people to join the “citizen movement.” He points to examples where engaged citizens
have banded together to take action in their communities. Instead of waiting for politicians to address their concerns, these citizens have mobilized and made meaningful change in their neighborhoods. Boyt, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and co-founder of the institute’s nonpartisan Center of Democracy and Citizenship, recently spoke with the Southwest Journal about the ideas in his new book. Excerpts of the interview follow.

SWJ: What are some of the most useful techniques for people looking to take action in their communities?

Boyt: The most important skill is learning how to work with people when you disagree with them, and when they are different than you — different cultures, different incomes or different partisan backgrounds. And that takes discipline. It’s much easier to stay in our comfort zone and hang out with people we agree with, but that’s not really how you get much serious work done. Given that, the most important single skill is the one-on-one relational meeting, which I describe at the end of the first chapter. It’s not like a normal interview process. It’s getting to know a person, in terms of who they are, what their passion is, what their story is, where they come from. So there’s an intentionality and an art about doing that well. You have to look for the body language — the gleam in the eye, the thing that makes them mad, energized — hopeful.

SWJ: Why is that such an important skill?

Boyt: Because we have lost it. We used to do it much more naturally … We used to have a lot of front porches, or places like the front porch, or the corner drug store, barber shop. We’ve really
lost a lot of places where you get to know people.

SWJ: What other skills are really important?

Boyt: I think the idea of small group meetings or house meetings is really useful. This is another art, but it’s not too daunting. … A good house meeting is being a host and a facilitator of a small group discussion around an important topic. … It’s pretty free flowing. You want to be sure that everybody has a chance to be visible and heard and have their experience told. … You can get a huge amount of information and knowledge from those kind of meetings. If a neighborhood wants to do a campaign around something, holding a variety of house meetings in people’s houses or in familiar comfortable places, there’s nothing like that to really gauge the sentiment of a neighborhood. You get a much richer, deeper sense than if you do a survey.

And the third thing is to do power mapping … The best thing to do is put the issue in the middle of a piece of paper and you just brainstorm with everybody about who has an interest
in this. … You also get a feeling through that process what kind of power people have.  

SWJ: Can you point to an example in the book of a community group that was really effective?

Boyt: Yeah, there are a number of stories. One of the book points that I’ve been emphasizing more is the difference between mobilizing and organizing. Mobilizing is what people are used to, which is somebody has gotten the definition of what the problem is and what they think the solution is and then they try to rally the troops. It can be kind of confrontational. … Organizing is really different … it’s about the group coming together to define what the problem is and how to look it … and then figuring out what to do about it, and then taking action over time.

A simple story is in the chapter, “Everyday Politics.” … It’s a story of young people — 6th, 7th, 8th graders in … St. Paul. The kids didn’t have a place to play in so they wanted a playground. … Adults in the neighborhood a couple of years before had tried to get one but other neighbors had said no, saying it would be too dangerous. … So just imagine what challenges a group of 6th and 7th graders faced. There was general adult hostility or defeat around the idea of a playground. … It took them four years, but over the four years, they turned around a neighborhood, they raised $60,000 from businesses, they negotiated with the neighbors and got their parents involved. They had very good coaching. If you think of all the civic and political skills they had to learn — how to listen to people the kids would normally just think of as mean or scary, how to do interviews, how to be heard and make your case — it’s a great example of organizing.