Interview with Theda Skocpol

The Civic Honors Project had the good fortune of being able to interview Theda Skocpol who is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, and Director of the Center for American Political Studies, at Harvard University. Skocpol served on the Editorial Board of the American Political Science Review, she is the current president of the American Political Science Association and co-edits a book series on American politics for Princeton University Press. She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Social Insurance, and has held fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. During 1996, Skocpol was the President of the Social Science History Association.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to talk with Theda Skocpol about the Civic Honors Project and the different ways that volunteerisms impact civil society. The discussion initially turned to looking at what the Civic Honors Project is designed to accomplish. A simple explanation of the target goal is developing a recognition program aimed at recognizing students, with ?graduation with civic honors? as part of a movement to get colleges to motivate students to participate. Theda Skocpol believes that democratic governance and civic volunteerism developed together and that the current separation between politics and participation is predicated on the notion that, ?Young people think politics are dirty, somehow, that action within the community can be accomplished apart from politics. That is why young people are withdrawing from politics.? I was curious as to what caused the current divide between action and politics within society and the answer turned out to be based on professionally managed associations and non-profit groups that have distanced themselves from politics.

Thinking about how the historical context enhances our understanding of history, it became apparent that the real evidence coming out of this discussion was of a structural dynamic that showed that the best practice for organizing groups that have a large impact is to base them on strong local participation with national leadership and representation. Looking at that dynamic is the key to understanding how voluntary organizations change social and political conditions within civil society. Skocpol discusses the reality of bringing diverse groups of people together within society with the goal to learn and understand and relate with all people. That said, the breakdown of class and stereotype is accomplished through organizations that are structured so that they not only bring people together but also perpetuate civic education.

Skocpol made several interesting arguments about organizations and how they are structured that are well documented in her book, Diminished Democracy, ?In the past in America there were membership organizations that gave millions of people a chance to learn civic skills and become involved in community problems. Past associations at the local, state, and national level was a common place for communities to develop leadership skills. Millions of people learned about what governmental organization looked like.? It is an interesting relationship to look at the education function of organizations. ?Today there are more non-profit organizations and social service agencies. This is not the same as attending meetings. This form of participation does not offer as much training in how to be a citizen.? Volunteering is a good way to get people involved in action over short periods of time but it is not a perfect substitute for organizations because it does not train leaders within the framework of governance or provide that larger context of national involvement.

Volunteering occasionally is good, but organizations that allow people to meet and allow leadership roles are better in making people democratic citizens. ?The best part of the past historical model is the use of education, being able to bring people together across colleges might interest people to lobby for building up and expanding Americorp. Public service within college is a part of increasing engagement but needs to be developed with care to increase education. How to do this through colleges is a challenge. Opportunities for people to get together across colleges to talk and lobby, such as an organization like Americorps, would be good. College public service could offer a chance to get involved in politics and as active citizens.? The idea that government is bad and that individuals should stay away and work on ambivalent volunteer projects is one of the major devise drives occurring. The mentality of sitting back and letting other people get involved needs to be refocused on the idea of getting personally involved and making a difference.

Now that more people don’t vote, they think government is bad. But government still has an impact on everything, on families, etc. Letting other people be involved while we are not leads to cynicism. ?Organizational dynamics is an important part of identifying how to get individuals within the community to work together despite economics and ethnic lines. The idea is to build a strong coalition of different races and classes on a local and national level.? Public service at Harvard gets students involved in groups that also involve politics. ?We should broaden the definition of public service that students can get involved in. Since 9/11 there has been new interest. Social movements in America today try to combine lobbying in Washington with getting involved in local projects. For example, the environmental movement and labor movement have local involvement as well as legislative campaigning.? Movements and organizations that tie people together across localities are important. Americans believe in building ties across racial lines now, but I don?t know how successful we are in doing it. We all aspire to build these bridges, but are we successful? It would be good to have partnership between public service organizations and white colleges and black colleges.

She posits that there are not as many grassroots organizations as some imagine. It is hard for purely spontaneous things to pop up. There are examples of grassroots organizations that have funding that make a difference. ?Reestablishing the ideal of civic organizers that reach out to people from different backgrounds is important. That?s how it used to be and this should be encouraged again. This will probably happen through new ways now, such as the Internet. We will not have organizations again like those prior to the 1960s.? There should be organizations that are not just professionals talking to other professionals. If you are interested in a comprehensive breakdown of these issues the Civic Honors Project strongly encourages you to read and purchase the book Diminished Democracy: From membership to management in American civic life. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press this year.

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