Citizens and Professionals

When I go to work, I am a professional. When I go to a community meeting, I am a citizen.

If I go to a community meeting for work, I’m a professional again. If I go to a community meeting representing an organization I serve on an unpaid board for…then I think I’m a citizen again? Unless I’m serving on that board for work…then I’m a professional.

It’s all very confusing.

Everyone wears many hats and has many different roles, but I find this gap between our professional identities and citizen identities particularly interesting.

I don’t strip my soul when I walk into work, nor would I be willing to.

Similarly, I like to think that the knowledge and perspective I’ve gained through my paid work brings value and perspective to my unpaid work as a citizen.

I know for sure that I appreciate it when some one stands up in a public meeting and says, “I live down the street and I’m actually a [fill in the profession], so I think…”

Albert Dzur, political science professor at Bowling Green State University, develops the idea of democratic professionalism. He is interested, as his website explains, in “how collaboration bridges the distance between professionals and the communities they serve.”

In Democratic Professionalism, Dzur frames this in terms of the Dewey-Lippmann debate:

[Walter] Lippmann’s realist argument held that the American public could not make rational contributions to the policy-making process because the time, ability, and interest levels of the average citizen were no match for the complexity of contemporary issues…A realistic view of public capacities would lead to a chastened democratic theory that emphasized the professionalization of policy making.

…[John] Dewey argued that public incompetence is not, as Lippmann thought, simply a matter of a lack of individual intelligence or rationality. True, a large number of citizens are unable to cope with the issues affecting them because they lack the time, information or analytic tools, but Dewey thought the underlying reason for this incompetence was a failure of social organization.

When I read these arguments and discussions about collaboration between professionals and communities, I can’t help but wonder – are the citizens and professionals different people?

It sure sounds like they are.

It seems to me that whether I think professionals are scallywags aiming to wrest¬† power from citizens, or whether I think citizens are incompetent and can’t be trusted with any serious issues…really comes down to a question of whether I think I’m a citizen or whether I think I’m a professional.

And I use the term “professional” broadly – to include so-called white color work and blue color work.

Now, there are some interesting questions around expertise in public settings. Co-founder of the Highlander School Myles Horton professes to have once refused to provide expertise to a community member even when threatened at gun point. His role, he strongly believed, was to educate – but to let people make their own decisions.

But I see expertise as being different from professional.

Expertise is a resource, something that must be cultivated and, in some cases, sustained. It’s something you gain, and generally something that isn’t diminished when someone else gains it at well.

A professional is a person. A person with expertise, no doubt, but a person none the less. And that person is part of communities and holds multiple self-identities. That person is a citizen.

So setting citizens again professionals – or even bringing the two together in collaboration – seems like a false dichotomy. Citizens are professionals. Professionals are citizens.

What we should really be asking ourselves is:
1) How can we help people bring their citizen and professional identities together, strengthening both their “work” work and their community work?

and, importantly:
2) How can we best share expertise? How can we all educate each other, and how can we build a society where people’s professional achievements are driven by their interests and passions, not solely by what doors weren’t closed to them?

If “professional” refers only to a certain class of people – whether driven by income, race, gender, native language or other factors – if “professionals” are a closed, elitist group – well, that is a problem indeed.


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