Making lasting change through public work: Beyond protest and rescue

This piece contains material on public work as a “third path,” that recognizes value in protest and professional intervention but accents young people’s roles as problem solvers and co-creators. It was prepared for a new website on youth activism, youthinfront.

The “I am more than” campaign is a vivid example of how much young people want to be understood as talented, intelligent contributors to public life and communities. The large number of projects on cultural repair show how important it is to see young people themselves as leaders in cultural action around issues like sexual assault, racial prejudice, bullying, violence, depression, and sexual trafficking.  


Making lasting change through public work: Beyond protest and rescue

Guest piece by Harry C. Boyte, March 13, 2018

The two main approaches to solving the problems which young people face in their everyday lives are protest and expert intervention. Both have merit but they neglect the problem-solving capacity of young people themselves. A third way, called public work, has the potential to revive the next generation’s faith in democratic institutions and prepare them to revitalize citizen-centered democracy.

Protest can draw important attention to an issue, but it also has limitations. Solutions to complicated problems come from people working together across differences in their communities, learning from each other, and creating long lasting solutions. Protest usually appeals to only a minority of people who have similar feelings about an issue.

Calls for more mental health resources are widespread after Parkland and other school shootings. More generally, expert intervention on issues like sexual harassment, bullying, and misuse of alcohol is the default approach. EVERFI, an online training resources for colleges, reported that more than 500,000 students were expected to go through its sexual assault tutorial in 2014-15. The company’s training on harassment and discrimination prevention is used by hundreds of campuses. In its courses experts address the problems. Young people are mainly portrayed as victims.

Neither protests nor expert intervention make visible young people’s immense but hidden potential for creative public problem solving and for contributing to change in dysfunctional cultures.

Public Achievement (PA), a youth civic education and empowerment initiative, is an approach based on public work. It involves young people taking action on issues directly. Its philosophy resembles the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which stresses self-help and mutual aid. Harry Boyte founded PA in 1990 as a way to make change beyond protest and polarization. PA teaches young people the skills of grassroots empowerment that he learned in the civil rights movement working for Martin Luther King and doing community organizing with poor whites on King’s assignment.  In the twenty-eight years since it started, Public Achievement has spread to communities and schools across the United States and in more than 20 countries around the globe. Offshoots based on public work take other forms, including citizen professionals who coach young people in becoming civic change agents.

In Public Achievement, young people work as teams on issues they care about which make a public contribution. They are coached by college students and young adults. Young people are problem-solvers and co-creators. They often address cultural issues, from school violence to sexual harassment, bullying prejudice based on gender orientation, drug use, depression, and teen pregnancy. The title for the coaches’ manual, developed by coaches, says it clearly: Building Worlds, Changing Lives, Making History. The forthcoming book, Awakening Democracy through Public Work (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) makes vivid young people’s capacities for co-creation.


To find out more, write Dennis Donovan, the national organizer of Public Achievement,

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