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The SABO Center for Democracy and Citizenship: Bridging the Citizen-Government

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By Harry C Boyte

Martin Olav Sabo, who served as a Democratic Congressman from Minneapolis for 28 years and became chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee and died on March 16 from respiratory ailments, is well known as a masterful legislative leader and craftsman. But it was his wider vision, as bridging the gap between government and citizens, which led to the merger of his center at Augsburg with our Center for Democracy and Citizenship, for many years at the University of Minnesota. 

I first met Martin Sabo when I was beginning the Reinventing Citizenship initiative in 1993 with the White House Domestic Policy Council, just after Bill Clinton had become president. Barb Rohde, Washington liaison from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute where I directed civic engagement efforts, took me around to meet the Minnesota Congressional delegation. I was excited about the meeting.

The Reinventing Citizenship effort built on Bill Clinton’s campaign speech to the National Bar Association in July 1992, arguing that “America needs to restore the old spirit of partnership.” Clinton had called for “visionary leaders throughout this nation, willing to work in their communities to end the long years of denial and neglect and divisiveness and blame.”

I had interacted several times with the campaign and knew that President Clinton was serious about a renewed spirit of partnership between citizen leaders outside of government and as well as across departments and party divides within government. Martin Sabo embodied what I would call a politics of respect. “I’ve tried to treat my colleagues with respect,” he said. “I don’t recall ever making a public statement critical of my colleague, whether it’s Democrat or Republican.” The New York Times described Sabo as a man of “quiet Scandinavian demeanor [who] conveyed a sense of civility during increasingly partisan times.”

Respect included respect for citizens outside of government as well as “civil servants” and politicians of different parties.

This spirit of democratic respect infused his family background in the Norwegian farmer cooperative movements of North Dakota that birthed the Nonpartisan League which reshaped Midwestern politics. It also reflected the culture of Augsburg College, where he had graduated. With roots in the Norwegian free church and Scandinavian folk schools, Augsburg’s founding statement challenged university education which held up “the cultivated gentlemen” as the ideal type, disputed pedagogies which produced professionals separated from the people, and argued, in a folk school vein, that learning should be connected with living experience rather than preoccupied with “glossaries, citations, and crammed memories.”

Sabo’s work to create the Sabo Center at Augsburg was a major incentive for our moving the Center for Democracy and Citizenship to the college in 2009. He was enthusiastic about our work, including K-12 initiatives like Public Achievement, a youth civic and political initiative we launched from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute (now Humphrey School) in 1990, to bring to young people the experiences of empowerment I had seen among young people in the civil rights movement as a young man. Schools in Phillips such as Anderson Elementary, Anderson Open, and now Augsburg Fairview Academy have been part of the Public Achievement movement. PA has spread to more than 20 countries including Zimbabwe, the Palestinian territories, Poland, and Japan. Sabo, believing in the positive role of government, also saw the need for government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

For these reasons, it made sense to merge our two centers. The two centers are now merged in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship. I would say Martin Sabo embodied the spirit of democracy, never more needed in our communities and the country than today.

Harry C. Boyte, founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute, is now Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College.

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