Training Makes Citizens Movement Gain Momentum
By Mark Lewis
While there are classes to teach immigrants what it means to be a U.S. citizen, many native-born Americans tend to take the concept of citizenship for granted. But now a different notion - that citizens are not so much born as they are made - may be gaining momentum.
In many communities across the nation, leadership training programs are trying to turn passive residents into active participants - citizens in the truest sense of the word.
Among these newly minted citizens is Trudy Janisch, a once quiet and retiring Chicago grandmother who found her voice and then heard it echo in the city's corridors of power.
"I am basically a polite person," Janisch said. So polite that for years she never raised a fuss while her West Side neighborhood was being torn apart by drug-dealing gangs.
"Nobody seemed to be able to do anything about them," she said.
Then one summer day in 1992, Janisch was out cleaning her yard when a neighborhood organizer from the Chicago-based National Training and Information Center walked by and struck up a conversation.
The center was looking for people to train as neighborhood leaders - people open to the suggestion that they are not helpless, that they can bring people together to help solve their own problems rather than wait for distant authority figures to do it all for them. And Janisch signed on.
"To me this is the essence of democracy, to get those people involved," said Joe Mariano, a training coordinator for the center.
Such citizen-training programs have been around for decades, but their sophistication - and their numbers and influence - may be growing. As voters continue to express disappointment in the performance of their elected leaders, these programs are helping some people realize that leadership is not the exclusive province of government officials.
"We've depended too much on those in authority to take care of things," Janisch said.
She has now been through three training programs with Mariano's group, most recently an intensive, weeklong session with other neighborhood leaders from around the nation. The goal is to help participants identify an issue and bring people together to address it through non-violent action, explained Mariano.
The trainees were given the task of organizing themselves to defend an imaginary island. With role-playing, Mariano tried to show them how easily an authority figure can make them fall into line.
"It was really tough," Janisch said. "Nobody was challenging him. They were just following orders."
The exercise was designed to get the trainees to think for themselves and to be assertive, Mariano said, adding that these leaders-to-be are encouraged not to be afraid of conflict, or of using the power their success brings them.
"You can engage in conflict that can be constructive and not destructive," he said. "And it's OK to want power."
Some training programs conducted by other groups also focus on bridge building skills, teaching trainees how to listen carefully to all sides and find common ground.
This wasn't easy in Janisch's changing neighborhood, whose Latino, Polish and black residents did not know each other well, and where poverty's ill effects had broken some of the bonds that tie a community together.
So people like Janisch knocked on doors, got people to talk, got them to listen. And today, things seem to be looking up. Newly trained neighborhood leaders helped form Blocks Together to demand better services. Politicians, police and public-service bureaucrats responded to the pressure. Garbage collection improved, tree-trimming services improved, a rat problem was reduced, an abandoned building frequented by gangs was torn down.
Among the changes Janisch can point to is that the gang selling crack out of a house near hers has been put out of business.
"Each month we make a little more progress," she said.
Similar narratives are unfolding in neighborhoods across the country, including ones more upscale than Janisch's.
"We estimate that there are 800 to 1,000 leadership programs in the country," said DeeDee Sigler of the National Association for Community Leadership, an Indianapolis-based group.
The hundreds of communities linked to the association sponsor programs that involve not just inner-city activists but rural people, urban professionals, business leaders and others, with every element represented.
"People see that you have to take responsibility to do things," Sigler said. "If you just sit around, nothing gets done."
Pat Edwards, who for 18 years has studied leadership training at the C.S. Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., sees a new challenge ahead.
"For a long time training has rewarded folks who could go out and lead a special-interest group," she said. "That's easy because everyone agrees on the issue. What we need now is different - collaborative leaders who know how to bring all the interests together. No one knows exactly how to train for that. We're all going by the seat of our pants."
John Burkhardt of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., which supports a number of citizen-training efforts, views citizen training for leadership as a trend but not yet a movement.
The idea, he said, is to enable democracy to work in a nation of 250 million people, a notion that would have shocked the ancient Greeks and even given pause to this nation's founders.
"Ours is still a democratic experiment," Burkhardt said. "No society ever attempted to take democracy to the scale that people are attempting today."
Leadership-training programs "make citizenship real to people who otherwise might not have become participants," he said.
In Chicago, Trudy Janisch heartily endorses the program that turned her from a passive observer of a deteriorating neighborhood to an active participant in its revival.
Now, she and her neighbors hold the authorities accountable for what happens there.
"If they don't come up with solutions, then we come up with solutions," she said proudly. "We do get results."
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