On Civic Humility

Monday, October 5, 2020 - 17:45

The esteemed thinker Michael J. Sandel wrote recently in an op-ed piece for the New York Times about the importance of humility in public life. Speaking of the American meritocratic impulse to value advanced degrees and to quickly put down those who haven’t earned them, Sandel said that overcoming our discriminatory ways “requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.” He goes on to note:

It also requires reconsidering the meaning of success and questioning our meritocratic hubris: Is it my doing that I have the talents that society happens to prize — or is it my good luck? Appreciating the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility: There, but for an accident of birth, or the grace of God, or the mystery of fate, go I. This spirit of humility is the civic virtue we need now. It is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

I received a good chunk of my early public affairs training back in 1979-80 through the good offices of Coro Southern California. I assembled my modest accomplishments and erratic educational trajectory in a written application, met my competition for the twelve coveted Coro slots during a rigorous daylong screening process and waited eagerly through several months of anticipation for word on the selection outcome. A few weeks before the program was scheduled to commence, I learned that, indeed, I had secured a place in what became a nine-month-long journey of immersion in the vast Southern California landscape of civic, business, labor, media and community institutions.

I was a kid in my mid-twenties raised into young adulthood in the semi-rural, socially and economically conservative reaches of the Antelope Valley. For years, the soft glow at night of city lights “down south,” as we would say, illuminated the low mountain horizon that I could see from my family’s modest Genoa Street home in Lancaster. That glow was a good metaphor for my imagination. Brought to me through daily headlines in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the newspaper I delivered to my neighborhood’s subscribers, and through occasional trips to Altadena for visits to my cousins and grandparents, Los Angeles pulsed with an aura of adventure quite appealing to my hungry soul. Such were my flights of fantasy that I longed to harness the reins of my untamed, untrained ambition to a wild frontier like Los Angeles – or, perhaps, to a career as a plant scientist, or, maybe, to defending nature and the outdoors as a forest ranger. As wide-ranging as my musings ran, they had one primary goal: escape what felt like a backwater, boring place and find a perch from which to make a difference.

Fast forward to 2006. That year, I wrote a short essay for the Community Partners annual report describing a phenomenon I labeled “civic humility.” I noted in the essay: “Ask anyone who has made…a commitment to [public] service and they will generally tell a story of an event or experience that blew some illusion they had about society to bits and moved them from a period of despair or intense self-reflection to a state of…civic humility.” Those nine months of Coro training inflamed that phenomenon in me. Upon finishing the program just shy of my 28th birthday, I found myself more confounded – and hungrier than ever for discovery and understanding – than when I entered the program the year before. It dawned on me that Coro merely offered a starting point, a boot camp, for testing and acquiring inquiry skills and ground-level intimacy with business, politics and social change. The real campaign to bring greater mastery to my insights and heft to my sparse qualifications had only just begun.

It’s possible that to the word humility, you may associate another term – humiliation – connoting something darker, in the vein of diminishment and shameful abjection. That’s not at all what civic humility means to me. Rather, the Coro experience helped me see civic humility as living in a state of continually searching for clarity by distinguishing episodic issues from the deeper context that routinely gives rise to them. Civic culture equates to the surrounding local, societal context. Learning how issues bubble up from civic culture lays bare the fundamental challenges facing those people who choose to entangle themselves as a life’s work in the burgeoning dynamics of places like the Southern California region where we live.

Many routes beyond training programs like Coro exist to activism, social engagement and meaningful, change-making service careers. I feel lucky to have been part of Coro’s continuing contribution to the unfinished project of making Los Angeles a fitter, fairer place for all who live here and all of those who will come. Did I mention, by the way, that I was in the “alternate” pool of candidates and that’s what made for the long wait to learn my program participation fate? I got in because someone else dropped out or chose not to accept the invitation. At the time, that felt like a complete windfall, a lucky break. Perhaps a second-place finish contributed to my own sense of civic humility. Not succeeding on the first try certainly stoked my hunger and tamped any cockiness I had about my abilities. It also felt like an opportunity not to be treated lightly.

I think admiringly and often of the many and varied journey stories of Community Partners project leaders, giving little thought to their degrees and other academic accomplishments. Those who describe achieving something akin to civic humility make clear the transformative power of no longer solely thinking in terms of “I” but of having instead established a healthy alliance with a meaningful, always restive “we.” They act from a well-founded sense of self, tied to valuing the rights and concerns of others. That sense only grows keener and stronger with exercise regardless of any – or no – letters denoting advanced degrees after their names. They serve without subservience. And they do good better than they ever could alone. They live – and lead – more generous public lives that produce ever-greater good in every life they touch.