Distinguished Lecturer Harry Boyte

ASU lecturer encourages students to become strong citizens at the New American University


Lauren Whitby

In schools and community centers across the country, Harry Boyte notices a need.

“We see a huge hunger among young people for what we would call a different kind of politics,” said Boyte, an affiliate faculty member at the University of Minnesota and the founder of Public Achievement, a theory-based practice of citizen organizing to do public work for the common good. “It’s not polarizing. It’s not demonizing. But it’s effective and it’s clear and sophisticated enough in thinking about power, and different interests and the world as it is.”

Boyte visited Arizona State University March 20 as the 2019 Distinguished Lecturer for the ASU Institute for Humanities Research.

He spoke to the audience about agency, or “the capacity to act.” He has taught this concept to young adults across the country by asking them two key questions. 

First: “Are there issues? Problems you worry about? Things you’d like to change? Things that make you mad?”

Second: “What are you going to do about it?”

When young people hear this second question, they understand that they have power — that regardless of age or circumstance, they have the capacity to act. 

Boyte recently witnessed the transformative power of this new understanding at a recent effort at the University of Minnesota. A student athlete expressed her frustration about a sexual harassment presentation she had attended.

“She said it had been horrible,” Boyte said. “It was like some old guy reading something from 1948 about a code of honor, and he didn’t even talk about sexual harassment. She said everyone was bored to death and it was ridiculous.”

Dennis Donovan, a professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the original organizers of Boyte’s Public Achievement initiative, responded to her frustration with a question: “What are you going to do about it?”

Under Donovan’s mentorship, the student and one of her peers put together a student training on sexual harassment. They facilitated open, deliberative discussions among peers and addressed the sexual harassment issues that the 650 athletes at the university faced. They discovered a different way of seeing these issues beyond reiterating abstract information on the topic.

Boyte has asked hundreds of young people, “What are you going to do about it?” and he has consistently been met with surprise. To many students, the idea that they have the ability to shape the world around them is foreign — but not at ASU.

“It’s really significant that ASU is committed to becoming a New American University able to act on public problems,” Boyte said, referencing ASU’s commitment to a sustainable future.

“Today I want to invite ASU to develop a comparable commitment to engaging the problems of democracy and argue that the problems and the crises of democracy are inextricably linked to the crisis of climate and the work of sustainability,” he said.

Educators can empower their students to take on the problems they see in the current state of American democracy by asking, “Are there issues?” and “What are you going to do about it?”

As Boyte said, “Strong citizens are not born — they are developed.”