How Eau Claire Became a Textbook Example of How Citizens Can Work Together

author and activist Harry Boyte talks about Clear Vision Eau Claire

Tom Giffey, photos by Taylor Smith


A view of downtown Eau Claire. (Photo by Taylor Smith)
A view of downtown Eau Claire. (Photo by Taylor Smith)

Eau Claire’s Clear Vision initiative – which is currently working on a new 10-year plan for the community – has not only brought about lasting change and increased civic engagement in the Chippewa Valley. It is also now serving as a model for how other communities can involve citizens of all stripes to make improvements democratically and collaboratively. But don’t take our word for it: Ask scholar and activist Harry Boyte, who has literally written the book – several books, in fact – on civic engagement.

“Eau Claire is an example of the new civic covenant bringing together nonviolence and the work we need to do together as communities and as a nation,” Boyte wrote in a column published by the St. Paul Pioneer Press in January.

Boyte – whose activism began in his youth, when he worked for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference – is Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. There, and in his previous position at the University of Minnesota, Boyte was been involved in public work projects at the school, college, and community level. His latest book, “Awakening Democracy through Public Work,” devotes a chapter to the Clear Vision process, which was launched in 2007 under the leadership of Mike Huggins, who was then Eau Claire’s city manager. Clear Vision’s priority plan, issued in 2008, helped inspire a variety of community initiatives, including the Sculpture Tour Eau Claire, the Safe Routes Bicycle Map, and even the Pablo Center at the Confluence. Clear Vision recently brought Boyte to Eau Claire for a public presentation at the Royal Credit Union Corporate Center. A few days later, Clear Vision held the first session of its “Our Community 2030: Renewing the Vision” effort. The next session will be 6:30-9pm Thursday, March 14, at the Pablo Center. (Learn more about this and the two sessions that will follow at ec.clearvisioneauclaire.org.)

Volume One recently talked with Boyte about how Eau Claire ended up in his book, what he means by “citizen professional,” and how face-to-face interaction can help bridge the nation’s yawning political divide. Below is a condensed version of the conversation.

Volume One: The phrase “public work” is in the title of your book. How do you define the term?

Harry Boyte: Public work is collaborative effort that has public purpose and aims at public impact. It can be paid, it can be unpaid. … There’s another, related concept that’s really important and that’s quite visible in Eau Claire and Clear Vision, which is the idea of citizen professionals who do public work. ... We define citizen professionals, in the simplest terms, as someone who has a public sense of their work. But when you develop talents or capacities as a citizen professional, you are often able to work in a collaborate way with others to turn either your worksite or even the larger community into a more inclusive, empowering, purpose-filled environment. And that can be a classroom teacher, it can be a principal and others in school, it can be a college, it can be a community, a geographic place like Eau Claire. Mike (Huggins), in that sense, is a kind of embodiment of a citizen professional in the public, city manager field.

Does being a “citizen professional” require being in a professional field?

No, it does not. “Citizen professional” sounds like it’s a credentialed definition of professional, but in my experience, for example, in the civil rights movement, the great citizen professionals were beauticians, because they made their beauty parlors into civic centers, community power centers, of the whole movement. They were often the places we would have what we called “citizenship schools.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized 900 citizenship schools across the South, which were really the grassroots training centers for the whole movement, and there would not have been a movement like there was without those. ...

You can do it as a professional. I think actually most professionals at this point, because professional training tends to be very narrowly disciplinary, you’ve got to unlearn some things and learn other things if you’re really going to be a citizen professional. You don’t have the answers by yourself. You’ve got to learn to appreciate other people’s talents.

Harry Boyte (via Augsburg University)
Harry Boyte (via Augsburg University)

Part of the whole narrative of Clear Vision coming about is the public sector can’t do everything on its own, and there are many things that the community at large could probably do more efficiently, more creatively.

More creatively, I would say, not necessarily efficiently. More creatively and more powerfully. I think there’s a certain problem with the way we think about the logic of systems these days which is kind of idolatry of efficiency principles.
Why is Eau Claire a good example of public work and citizen professionalism?
We first encountered Mike (in the 1990s) when he was assistant city manager in a project around teenage alcohol use that we were doing, that the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota contracted with us to help with. … It occurred to him that the way city managers are trained is a lot like the way epidemiologists are trained. they’re trained to be the fixers, and if you want any community involvement, you rally the people to get what you think is the solution. And he said that’s not going to solve the problems of small cities in the 21st century. ... When the budget crunch came in 2006 and ’07, he saw an opportunity. …

A couple of things marked (Clear Vision) from the beginning as very different than most community engagement projects. For one thing, Mike obviously was working for the city government. But he didn’t think of it as a city government-driven project. ... And the second piece that was really interesting – and this goes to kind of deepening the history of Eau Claire – Mike knew there was a history in Eau Claire and the county, too, of collaboration. For example, the health department was a joint county-city endeavor, which is very unusual. Mike had a good sense that actually, this public work approach is about not only enlisting the expected players, but creating a much more diverse collaboration. So as you know the visioning process (included) the Hmong community, and Latinos, labor unions, a whole range of partners who are not normally part of the conversation. I think they had 500 people at the first meeting, but the 130 who stayed throughout the planning and discussion process were very diverse, and the initiating committee was very diverse. … The third key piece was very sustained, you could call it civic capacity building. These (are) public work skills, like power mapping, reflection, thinking strategically, getting a mix of different people at the table, not having a pre-set outcome, but keeping things open so it’s not a public hearing where people from government want –

Like a meeting where you have a rigid agenda and two minutes to speak.

It’s like therapy for the public. There has been a lot of sustained effort, both through Clear Vision and also through JONAH, which uses some of the same practices. Those organizations very rarely think about community-wide efforts that, for example, see government as a partner. They generally think about government as a target. JONAH does that kind of training, and then UW-Eau Claire has done a lot of training like that. Recently, (so have) Cooperative Extension and Royal Credit Union. Those skills are now spread by a lot of different groups, but that level of capacity building – how do you work across differences, how do you understand people who may be from a different political party or race or culture – the level of that in Eau Claire is very unusual, and it may even be unique for this size of town. I can estimate somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people have learned a lot of these public work skills.

Eau Claire is an example in your book. What has been done right here that can be used as a lesson in other communities?

Thinking about the work of community revitalization is also the work of creating and telling and communicating and claiming a story, a public story. So even this visioning process that Clear Vision has embarked on is updating the story. Where do we want to be? Who do we want to be in 15 or 20 years? Every healthy community has a story, and the more inclusive the players in creating that story and the more that stories of working across differences are buttressed by learning how to do it – the skills, not simply good intentions – the more powerful and compelling the story is going to be. And, again, there’s a lot of evidence that this simple capacity of the community to name and claim and articulate its story makes a huge difference to the life of a community.

It’s distinctive, because most people don’t usually think of, “Well, what’s our story?” A lot of people can’t say it very well. But if you find a community where people are not able to talk about what is the story of this community, it is not a strong and vital community. … Communicating is a public act. There are a lot of things that go into that in the case of Clear Vision and its partners, like developing the skills for working across differences. That builds civic muscle.

And then one of the interesting things I didn’t really imagine that’s very important about Eau Claire and the Clear Vision work, its ripple effects that are not visible on the surface, is that when I talk to people like Vicky (Hoehn, of RCU) and Catherine (Emmanuelle, of the Eau Claire City Council), they said the cultures of our institutions have changed somewhat. There’s not be a revolution, but Vicky had very good stories about how the credit union has learned to engage communities and neighborhoods wherever they start a new project. She said we didn’t used to do that. … And then Catherine, she is just passionate about public work skills, and so she brought that to regional extension.

You’ve referenced a number of times working across political divides. It would seem that we are in a national era that is very polarized, the most polarized it’s been for a while.

No, it’s worse. And it’s worse for identifiable reasons.

What are those reasons, and how does your approach mitigate some of those divides?

That’s a really important crisis of our time. My diagnosis of the problem with the political system would point to things like the NBC’s Chuck Todd’s study of the campaigns for Senate from 2006 to 2016. It showed campaigns increasingly spoke to base voters and ignored the middle. So they’re very inflammatory. They're about riling up the base against the other side. And people despair of that.

But actually there are identifiable dynamics. It’s always been partly true that people demonize. I grew up in the South. My dad was a very rare outspoken critic of segregation. He was manager of the Atlanta Red Cross. And then he started a group to keep public schools open in Georgia. He was vilified. We had 150 phone calls threatening to kill us when I was a kid in a week. And then he was almost killed, actually, by the American Nazi Party, and then he went to work for King in ’63. I would say nonviolence and the kind of nonviolent politics, which is the root of public work, not understood as civil disobedience but understood as a different kind of politics where you learn your opponents are not evil, your opponents may be doing things you think are evil – segregationists – but that doesn’t mean that that’s the totality of who they are, and they also have – in most cases – people have enormous potential to change, depending on context, depending on learning about other people. That’s the heart of nonviolence.

What are practical things that people can learn, especially people who might not have time – or think they don’t have time – for civic engagement? I think about people in my own age bracket. I’m a parent of young children. I work full-time, my wife works full-time, we like to be engaged in the community, but there’s not a lot of bandwidth to do that.

The best thing to do, and the way this is going to spread, is to integrate public work approaches into existing activities. So for example, as parents, there are a lot of ways you can do that. You can say, do our kids make, and do they understand themselves to be making, productive contributions to the life of the family. Are they helping to tell the story of the family? Are they learning to be citizens? Do we even use that language? Is it simply, get a job, or go to school. The most important thing about education is actually learning to be a good citizen. Do we talk about that?

 Learn more about Harry Boyte from his Augsburg University bio and find out about his new book at Amazon