How do we Move Beyond Rhetoric?

Consider these two scenarios.

Scenario One: President Obama has just finished his inaugural address, discussing the need for citizens to engage in their government. A poll on one of the major broadcasting network websites asks:

Is [President] Obama’s address a call to collective support in society consistent with the foundations of the country?

A) Yes, this country works better when citizens work together through government

B) No, the country was built on a system of individual responsibility

C) There has to be a happy medium

Scenario Two:  A local branch of a national nonprofit wants to apply for a federal grant. Because the focus of the aid program is local partnerships and place-based development, the nonprofit works eagerly to forge as many local partnerships and procure as many letters of support as possible. As the grant writing proceeds, however, most partners do not see or seem to care to see the grant or its components. What happens when/if the grant is awarded and these supposed collaborators have to sit down to implement the plan with which they are only vaguely familiar?

One might wonder what these two situations have in common. Beginning with the first scenario, this question and its answers refer to one of the basic philosophical debates today, the appropriate reach and role of government. Politicians, the press and many citizens routinely frame this debate dichotomously. On one side, people believe that individuals partnering and collaborating with government can bring about a better society. In contrast, others see government as a too-frequent impediment to personal responsibility and believe that citizens, through their individual work and ingenuity, can assume  accountability for themselves and work to better their, and indirectly society’s, way of life.

This perspective is both false and misleading. The view emphasizing personal responsibility portrays individuals as atoms, independent from everything save the consequences of their own actions. As history, current events and philosophers have shown us, this is simply not the case. Modern-day critical theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Foucault (if one may characterize him as a critical theorist) have illustrated how deeply enmeshed individuals are within their surrounding societies, cultures and power structures. Each of these thinkers has discussed how citizens are influenced by and can potentially influence social constructs.

Consider, for instance, a recent two-part story from Public Radio International’s This American Life ( in which the show’s writers described Harper High School in Chicago, in which all students automatically belong to gangs based on the street block on which their home is located. They have very little choice in such occurring. This scenario illustrates the fact that despite the responsibility one may take for one’s own life, individuals are unavoidably subject to their surroundings. As such, a person’s ability to conceive of life outside social constructs or find a way out of their strictures that does not entail leaving everything and everyone they know, is difficult. Teachers at Harper attempt to mediate this situation by talking with students about their out-of-school activities, offering youths rides to and from school so they do not have to go through other gangs’ territories, and providing after-school space and programming so individuals may stay in school (a safer place as compared to home or traveling home) as long as possible. These actions demonstrate a shift in the definition of individual responsibility from one of self-alone as determinative, to one of self and community, as inescapably essential. As we are inextricably connected to those around us, we often may need to collaborate or help each other in order to maintain or tend to our communities and, indeed, our place within them. Hence government, as the only legitimate democratic representative of citizens and the communities they comprise, should play a part in this collaboration.

Nor does collective support negate the necessity for individual responsibility. If individual responsibility were removed from the process of collaboration, the very nature of partnering would be moot. Scenario Two demonstrates this point nicely. In the example, the federal government is offering support to local communities who wish to build their capacities to reduce crime in targeted areas, emphasizing the use of partnerships to build capacity to do so. The nonprofit organization’s leaders, too, perceive crime as a problem in their community. Upfront financing is needed to initiate a project, and they need to demonstrate community collaboration to receive national support.

So the partnering begins. Some possible collaborators attend a meeting at the beginning of the grant-writing process. Some must give input on the programmatic strategies they are employing to reduce crime. They offer the grant writer names of programs and examples of pertinent literature. Others agree to participate, which one might imagine would imply that they will take a significant part in designing a research and evaluation plan, but they provide little or no input. Others agree to be partners and provide letters of support. Few actually read the grant proposal.

To be fair, many of these organizational representatives and would-be project partners are overworked. They must provide simple and preferably, quantitative measures of their work to justify their legitimacy as organizations, and the more they do so, seemingly the better. They record, at the end of their fiscal years, and often far more frequently, what they have accomplished and their participation in such a grant effort represents an additional data point suggesting they are doing their jobs.

But when does partnering become rhetoric, or simply an action one takes in order to acquire funding (or a good grade in school)? The collaborative governance and nonprofit academic literature highlights the need for quality relationships: ones based on trust, extensive reflection and communication and in which partners share similar goals and a sense of reciprocity for efforts and ideas. Conceiving of levels of engagement and partnering is far subtler, however. Here, I think, is where a citizenry broadly acculturated to an understanding of individual responsibility for self and community may come into play. I do not wish to argue that it is every individual’s responsibility to put 100% of their effort into each partnership in which they or their organization are engaged. That may be neither appropriate nor feasible. Most professionals today are charged with maintaining multiple collaborations in dozens of activities. The strain to act as true team players, and not just partners in name, can be great. However, if we reframe our common popular dichotomy between self and community and reflect on individual responsibility for self and for community, that alternate framing could help us to invest more fully in the quality of partnerships we make individually and collectively. How might this reframing change our approaches to government as a democratic representative of citizens, government’s role in society and citizens’ engagement in the public realm? Such a reframing might just lead Americans to a more realistic and equitable approach to developing their communities.


sarahpicSarah was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. At Beloit College, she double-majored in International Relations and French. In 2006, Sarah moved to Lille, France where she taught primary school English. As a master student in the Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Tech, Sarah specialized in international community development while serving as a graduate assistant in the Office of Economic Development. In conjunction with her master program, Sarah participated in the Masters International Program, spending two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, Northwest Africa. In 2012, she finished her Master degree with a thesis on the decentralized education system in Niger and its effects on local school governance. Now, as a PGG doctoral student, Sarah is interested in alternative approaches to community development. She is currently exploring the use of community-based theatre to empower citizens and cultivate their civic capacity to engage in collaborative governance.

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