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Soul of a Citizen
Classroom Study Questions

These questions have been developed by faculty teaching Soul of a Citizen in various disciplines and at diverse academic levels. They’ve been used extensively to foster both classroom discussion and individual reflection, offering perspectives for journals, essays, study groups, and discussion of community service experiences.


If you're teaching the book and think of additional questions or approaches that have sparked useful reflection, please email them to Loeb@soulofacitizen.org. Because I do keep adding new questions, please check this page periodically. If you'd like to combine teaching the book with outside community service projects, please see my service learning links for how diverse faculty have done this. And again, feel free to suggest approaches that have worked well for you.


If you're teaching a relevant course and would like a free examination copy, you can get the details here. And click here to see some of the wonderful faculty comments.


Most faculty have assigned the entire book, with terrific responses. But if you’re particularly pressed for time and want to assign only part, Soul breaks down into three main sections. Chapters one through five explore why it matters for us to get involved and what we get back. Chapters six through nine examine how we can reach out and engage others through telling the stories that give flesh to abstract issues, working through existing communities, building bridges with people we may often disagree with, and balancing the day-to-day challenges of work and family. Chapters ten through twelve explore the visions that engage people, how to avoid burning out, and how to keep on for the long haul. I know faculty who’ve gotten great reactions, for instance, assigning just the first six chapters in one-credit first-year classes, while making the remainder optional, although most get wonderful responses assigning the entire book. Another approach if classroom time is short is to just teach selected sections, as when the Texas HBCU Prairie View A&M, assigned Soul to all the students in its summer ACCESS program. For the best single overview, you could also assign the updated version of the excerpt that appeared in Utne Reader, but of course it's not nearly as rich and comprensive as using the entire book.


I’ve clustered the following questions by chapter: Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, though many apply to the entire book. I've also included a quiz developed for a freshman composition class, some particularly thoughtful questions asked of me by students in a senior capstone course, links to campus-based advocacy groups, and suggestions [in brackets] for approaching classroom discussion.

 

INTRODUCTION

Did you know the full Rosa Parks story before you read it here? If not, what parts are new to you? Does knowing the full story change your view of how citizens act to create social change?  Does knowing the real story make it seem easier or harder to act on what you believe? Explain.


What barriers does Loeb find to individuals’ involvement in efforts to make society better? What comes to mind when you hear the term "social activist"?  


"It takes energy to act," says fisherman and environmental activist Pete Knutson. "But it’s more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you’re powerless, and swallow whatever’s handed to you. The times I’ve compromised my integrity and accepted something I shouldn’t, the ghosts of my choices have haunted me. When you get involved in something meaningful, you make your life count." Do you agree with Pete’s statement? Why, or why not? Were you surprised that he and his friends were able to defeat the powerful wealthy interests that sought to drive them out of business?


Loeb says we don’t know the stories of how ordinary Americans have acted together to change our society. Have you been taught how your actions as a citizen can matter? What have you learned about citizen involvement from your classes, your family, the media, and your religious institutions? What role should discussing citizen activism play in high school and college education? Were you involved in any recent elections, on either side? Have you been involved in any other issues or causes? What got you involved, or what stopped you? If you were involved, what was your experience like and what kind of impact do you think you made?


 


CHAPTER 1: MAKING OUR LIVES COUNT

[Discussion tip: The next few chapters explore how ordinary and seemingly powerless individuals can create powerful social change. That's a hard concept for many students to grasp, because it cuts against the grain of our culture. They may even distance themselves from the people whose stories I present by saying they could never do anything comparable. It helps, therefore, to focus on the humble beginnings of the individuals I profile, and stress that they started out just as apprehensive as--and perhaps more powerless than--the students now reading their stories.]


"When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too," writes Loeb. Do you agree with this quote?  Explain.  Are there times when you have stayed silent over a public issue?  Do you think it’s always better to speak out?


"America’s prevailing culture," Loeb writes, "insists that nothing we do can matter.  It teaches us not to get involved in shaping the world we’ll pass on to our children."  Do you agree with Loeb’s characterization of our culture as teaching resignation and withdrawal? Do you recognize his description in people you know or in yourself?

 

Discuss the following quote: "We become human only in the company of other human beings." What’s your reaction?  

 

Why does Loeb tell the story of Virginia Ramirez?  Why does her husband tell her, "That’s not your role"? Have you ever been told that you shouldn’t do something because it’s not your role or place? Did it surprise you that someone who started in a situation so seemingly powerless could help create so much change? Why do you think she said she was more intimidated talking to her neighbors the first time than to a group of U.S. Senators?

 

Was Derrick Bell foolish to resign his tenured position at Harvard Law School? Were the results worth the cost?

 

Did it surprise you that a born-again evangelical like Rich Cizik is so involved in climate change? Did it challenge any of your stereotypes about evangelicals or climate change activists? Cizik says the climate change issue “shook my theology to its core.” Have you ever felt shaken to the core by something you've learned or a project to which you've committed yourself? Could you imagine approaching a community of which you're part to engage them in this profoundly challenging issue?

 

Ask your parents or older people in your community whether they've noticed impacts on the local habitat/ecosystem from climate change, like if they're hunters or fishermen or spend lots of outdoors outdoors. Do plants bloom at different times. Do wild animals have different pattenrs. Is there less snow or more or less rain. What do they notice? See this link to some terrific regional maps from the National Climate Assessment report. And follow this link to see how hot your city is projected to be by 2100 if we continue on our current course.

 

What did Martin Luther King mean by saying, about social involvement, "Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”? What would it take for you to "take the first step"?


CHAPTER 2: WE DON’T HAVE TO BE SAINTS


We "wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment" to get involved, Loeb writes. What do you think?  Has the "perfect standard" discouraged you from getting involved in your community? If so, how?  Did it surprise you that Gandhi was literally tongue-tied when he first started out and that Martin Luther King was initially reluctant to act? Why do you think Loeb included these details?

Consider this quote: "Contrary to expectation, we’re most effective when we realize that there is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions.  What each of us faces instead is a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what to stand for." What argument is Loeb making here?  Do you agree?  Explain. Are we ever too busy to get involved? What do you think the key difference is between those who find time in busy lives to get involved in their communities and those who have no more free time but do not?  


Loeb states that "change is the product of deliberate, incremental action whereby we join together to try to shape a better world." Have you ever considered yourself to be a social activist? Have you ever taken a stand on an issue or been involved in some sort of social action? Explain. If you answered no to these questions, what do you think stops you from becoming more involved? (Be sure and include the reasons Loeb gives for why people are often reluctant to get engaged in their communities or larger issues.)

 

 

Can you think of an issue that you believe you should be speaking out on? What is one small thing you would be willing to do to participate, like writing a letter to a legislator, to the campus or community paper, going to a meeting of an active student group, or joining a related Facebook group? Try to do that one small action, and then write about what it felt like. Feel free to do it together with someone else in or outside of the class.

Former Emory student Sonya Tinsley created a powerful project to bring people together across racial lines through music. How much do people from different racial backgrounds mix much at the cultural events that you attend? Could you imagine yourself creating a similar effort to Sonya's to make this happen more?


According to Loeb, does social change come about by the single act of a great person? If not, how? Please elaborate and give examples. How could ordinary citizens work on the problems you've seen in your experience with community involvement?


Do you have "a willingness to live with ambiguity"? What might this mean?  How important is it to be consistent as a citizen?  How much are you deterred from involving yourself in important issues because of the ambiguities?


CHAPTER 3: ONE STEP AT A TIME
When Los Angeles activist Suzy Marks hid behind her peace sign, did this evoke a familiar feeling for you? Have you ever felt like hiding and becoming invisible while participating in some new kind of activity?


This chapter looks at what in our lives has held us back from social activism and also what encourages us to try to get socially involved. Think about the messages you got from your community, your family, and your religious tradition (if you have one) about how important it is or isn't to take try on larger public issues. Discuss these messages. The chapter also talks about how each of us have particular abilities or passions that we can apply to our social involvement, such as artistic talent, writing abilities, leadership skills, or being able to give inspiring speeches. What abilities, interests, or skills do you have that you might be able to use to help causes you believe in?


Do you view social involvement as something for particular kinds of people or as something that all of us can partake in, drawing on our particular passions and strengths? If the latter, what are your core passions and strengths, and how might you apply them to social involvement?

What kind of leaps of faith did Meredith Segal require to begin organizing Students for Obama on Facebook before Obama had even decided to run? Does it seem surprising that a future president might be influenced and elected by the actions of ordinary students? What do you think kept Meredith going when people scoffed at her efforts and dismissed her chances of success? Can you conceive of taking a similar leap of faith for a candidate or cause you believe in? How much do you think Meredith's successes were based in her earlier community involvement? If you can't imagine an effort as ambitious as Meredith's, can you think of more modest ways that you might be able to start getting involved, then see where it leads?

 

 

Meredith also describes working to elect candidates as only one step in a process of change: “Your candidate gets elected,” she says, “Obama or anyone else. People think, ‘Here’s their platform, here are their policies. They’ll magically become law.’  But that’s never the way things change. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep working. You have to keep building that engaged community. You can never expect any elected official to do it all on their own, no matter how much you admire them or how hard you worked to help them win. Your election night victory is just the beginning of the process.” Do you agree with this quote? What do you think the relationship is between electoral campaigns and non-electoral organizing? have you ever been involved with either approach?

 

Did you know about Maine’s Clean Elections initiative, or the similarly successful efforts in Arizona and Vermont? Did you know about Adam Werbach becoming national president of the Sierra Club at age 23 or the role of Students for Obama in helping get him elected? If you didn’t, what does this say about our media culture, and about the potential of any of us to make an impact? Does this new knowledge give you hope?


CHAPTER 4: THE CYNICAL SMIRK
Have you ever been subjected to "the cynical smirk" when you’ve tried to do something worthwhile? Or even when you've just mentioned some issue you care about? Has this deterred you from acting?

 

Stephen Colbert calls cynicism "a self-imposed blindness," saying it's "a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Oscar Wilde called a cynic, "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Do you agree with Wilde and Colbert? Have you ever held back from voicing your convictions because you're afraid you'll be disappointed or hurt?

 

Would you consider yourself cynical in personal life—consistently questioning the sincerity and goodness of people’s motives and actions? What about in political life? Why do think some people withdraw entirely from public life, or don't even vote, while others continue slogging away in working for change?

 

Does what you've read so far about people from Rosa Parks to Virginia Ramirez, Adam Werbach, and Meredith Segal make you feel less cynical?

 

Were Hanford's nuclear weapons workers right to defer to "the men who know best'? If not, how can we learn when to question authority and when to trust it? Who do you trust? What messages about trust have you learned from our culture? Is there a way to question authority without becoming cynical?

 

Do you think that companies like Enron, Exxon, Lockheed Martin, and Goldman Sachs have deformed America's politics? If so how? Does Maine's campaign finance reform effort offer possible solutions?

 

Loeb talks about how the cynicism of our society encourages us to distance ourselves from the suffering of others; how the gap between rich and poor in this country has widened substantially, and how we use cynicism to convince ourselves that there's no point in getting involved. "If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don't have to risk acting on our dreams." How has this concept affected you?

 

What is Loeb trying to convey in his comparison of the young soldier on the train and the RAND corporation strategist? When you think of human destructiveness, do you tend to think of it in individual or institutional terms? Is one easier to solve than the other? Can you pick an issue you care about and come up with you can think of to address both?

Were you surprised by the change in the student Mark, who started out saying "buddy buzz off" and ended up making a career out of doing important environmental work? Do you know anyone that cynical now, or who once was equally cynical but has changed? What do you think was at the core of Mark's transformation?

 

Why do you think the media continues to compare all citizen activists to those of the Sixties, especially student activists? Do these comparisons make it easier or harder for you to get involved? How could our society encourage more idealism in your generation?


 


CHAPTER 5: UNFORESEEN FRUITS
This chapter talks about how, throughout history, movements have sprung up to promote social justice. People in these movements have often had to wait many years to see signficant changes. How do you think they kept going?

 

Loeb quotes Sonya Vetra Tinsley: "So much needs to be done to educate people on how the freedoms and rights we take for granted didn't come about through chance, coincidence, or benevolence, but through struggle and intention. There's very little of worth in our society that someone didn't fight for." Do you agree or disagree, and why?


Think about the movements for social justice that have made a difference in your life and in the lives of your family members. For example, without the women's suffrage movement, the women in this class would still not be able to vote. Without the civil rights movement, many of America's schools would still be all white. Think about about specific rights and privileges that you enjoy that were secured by the efforts of engaged citizens. Try to list at least five of these rights, privileges, and gains in human dignity that grew out of specific movements--for instance the 40-hour work week and laws against child labor.



Were you surprised that addressing the problems of battered women was once so controversial and politically marginal? How does an issue shift from the margins to the mainstream?

Did you know about America's student anti-apartheid movement before you read this chapter? What recent and current student movements have you heard about?

 

Did you know that Barack Obama got his political start as a student activist, influenced by the actions of students who he never met, like the former Green Beret, Gary Chapman. Whatever you think of Obama, how would it change your actions if you knew that by starting or joining a campus group, you could help engage a future U.S. President or a future Nobel Peace Prize winner like Wangaari Matthai?

 

How do you think the Friendship Nine would have felt to learn that they'd influenced Harry Taylor's polite but firm challenge to George Bush, and all the media coverage it achieved? Have you ever been inspired to take a difficult action by the courage of someone else?

 

The Nixon example and the story of Loeb's friend Lisa Peattie suggest that sometimes we don't always know the affect we're having when we act--we may have a critical impact even when we think we're being ignored. Is that knowledge helpful for keeping on when our heart-felt efforts don't seem to get traction on the issues we care about?


As Loeb describes, a Wesleyan student registered 300 voters on her campus—in an election her Congressman won by 21 votes. And Loeb's own election-day volunteering got three additional voters to the polls in a Washington State governor's race decided by 133 votes. Do these examples, or the closeness of the 2000 presidential election or the 312-vote margin of the 2008 Minnesota Senate race, or 165-vote 2013 Virginia Attorney General's race make you more likely to vote or volunteer for candidates you support?

 

Did the stories and examples in this chapter and in the book so far give you more of a sense that your efforts at change can matter? What kind of results do you expect when you do try to work for change? Could you do this work if you couldn't see the fruits of your efforts right away?


CHAPTER 6: THE CALL OF STORIES

 

This chapter focuses on stories. Do you have a favorite story from this chapter, or from the book? How might this story influence your life or engage others? Has Loeb persuaded you that telling stories about our commitments is an effective way to communicate them to others?


What stories might you tell about the key events in your own life? What stories shaped your views of  community involvement? How would you write your political autobiography, exploring how your personal views were shaped?


What does the author mean when he states that, "other people's stories can expand our view of the world"? Discuss the importance of listening to other people's stories. Why are other people's stories important to hear, even if we're not victims of social injustice?

 

Are there issues where you've held back because the information seems too abstract and confusing? Have you ever had the experience of advocating for something you believed in and having people respond as if you're speaking an incomprehensible language? If an issue has stirred your soul, has it been through a story, through hard data, or through a combination of the two?


How do you learn to distinguish true stories from false? Were you surprised that "For the Sake of the Children" turned out to be a morally dubious effort by the coal company Massey Energy to reverse a West Virginia Supreme Court decision that went against it? Can you think of other cases where corporations have lied about critical public issues and distorted public dialogue? How should we address such deceptions?

 

Does Loeb offer lessons about how to reconcile stories that seem to conflict, as in Sister Helen Prejean’s work with Death Row inmates and with the families of their victims? Have you ever encountered a situation where the lessons of people affected seem to conflict?


How is it different to take a stand for your own community, like Virginia Ramirez, or to win humane treatment for a different community, like Carol McNulty’s involvement challenging the sweatshop practices of the Gap?

 

Have you read any self-help books? Are they a force for social change or for withdrawal? Explain?


Why does our culture place more stress on the latest celebrity gossip than on the 16,000 children who die each day of hunger-related causes? Is it because the celebrity stories pose no challenge for us to act? What would help us pay more attention to the important buried stories of our time? And how can we best explore difficult and troubling questions or situations without being dragged down into despair?

 

What role has people telling their story played in the gay rights movement? Are the lessons applicable to other movements? For extra credit, explore where the movement was 25 years ago versus today and why it has made such progress. For instance, watch the PBS documentary Gay Pioneers.


Does the story of David Lewis change your perception of how we should approach crime and rehabilitation? What do you think could have headed him down a different path from the beginning? Do you know anyone who's been in prison or jail? Were there key points where they could have or did change their course?

 

This chapter also addresses the relationship between one-on-one volunteer work and efforts at long-term change. What is the lesson in the story where the Stanford student says he hopes his grandchildren will get to volunteer in the same homeless shelter as he has? What would it take to create a society where people didn't have to sleep in shelters or in the streets? Do you think we could make this happen by the time your grandchildren come along?


Loeb writes about "the politics of witness" as a bridge from one-on-one service to broader social change. Explain this concept. Have you noticed anything in your community service projects about which kinds of governmental and institutional choices we need to change? How could you draw on your experiences to get involved in larger issues? Try visiting a local group that works to change policies on these issues, and interviewing participants. Or write a letter (to the campus paper, a local paper, or an elected official). Or develop a class presentation where you talk about what you've learned, and how to help the communities you've worked with change their own situation for the better.

 

[Discussion tip: These last questions and the related sections of this chapter deal explicitly with the relationship between volunteerism and advocacy, which weaves throughout the book. Our culture encourages students to be volunteers, and many have had powerful high school volunteer experiences. Although they may feel apprehensive getting out into the community for one-one-one projects, working with Habitat or Boys and Girls Clubs may well seem at least a little bit familar. The harder challenge is for them to address the roots of issues that come up while they're volunteering for these excellent groups. I'd suggest encouraging them to develop their commitments one step at a time. If it pushes their comfort zone just to get out into the community, that's fine for a start. Ideally, we can then help them reflect on their experiences, drawing on them to ask larger questions about the roots of the social ills they've been trying orking to address in a personal fashion]

 

 

CHAPTER 7: VALUES, WORK, AND FAMILY
This chapter deals with work and family issues. What thoughts came up for you as you read this chapter about the models of involvement you got or didn't get from your family, the relationship of your parents to their work--and your relationship to your outside work now, and to children that you have or hopt to have after you graduate.?

 

Do you think that businesses need to concern themselves with "the larger social good"?  How might you be able to incorporate social responsibility in your future workplace?

 

Do you know any students who've been homeless, like Chaim Eliyah, or who are homeless while they're going to school, perhaps sleeping in their car? Were you surprised that Chaim's student health insurance wouldn't cover his most significant health problems because they called them "preexisting conditions?" Do you know anyone who has lacked needed medical care because of finances?

 

Shortly after Soul's new edition was completed, Chaim and his University of Washington United Students Against Sweatshops group were part of a major victory that forced the Russell Athletic sportswear company to reopen Honduran factories they'd closed when workers had unionized. What's the lesson of someone like Chaim, who himself is on the economic edge, helping bring justice to people who are even more precarious?

 

Were you surprised that Loeb and most students were able to easily work their way through school in the 1970s, and that Pell Grants originally covered most of the cost for public colleges? How many hours do most students you know work, and what kind of debt do they expect when they graduate? What level of outside work and debt seems fair for the benefits of higher education? Is there any group on your campus that works on changing federal or state policies to make it easier for students to get through school?

 

Discussing Yvon Chouinard, head of the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, Loeb says, "Chouinard’s participation in environmental activism was even more deeply gratifying than his corporate success, because it produced results well beyond what he could achieve personally."  Do you find this example convincing?  Why, or why not? What about the examples of people like Chris Kim and Deborah Prothrow-Stith expanding the definitions of their jobs to take on larger issues?

If you plan to go into the corporate world and hope to make change there, what's your expectation about how you'll make an impact with your values? Through speaking your mind on difficult issues? Through working with other employees to achieve specific goals? Through supporting the efforts of citizen groups who are pressuring your company from the outside? What does the Inland Steel example teach us about the relation between individual and collective actions for change within a corporate context?

Has anyone you know worked in a unionized workplace? Is there a difference from a non-unionized workplace in terms of their ability to speak out on work-related issues without fear of retribution?

 

Loeb suggests that our society lacks a concept of "enough"—that we’re taught to never be satisfied unless we consume more. What level of material comfort do you think you need to be happy? Can you achieve this while also being involved in your community? Are there goals you can think of to replace "whoever dies with the most toys wins"?


A growing number of schools are promoting public graduation pledges, where, as part of their ceremony, students pledge "to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work." See the Graduation Pledge Alliance for more information.  Would you feel comfortable taking such a pledge, or organizing one at your school? How would such a pledge shape your choices?


"Our most fundamental responsibility as citizens," Loeb writes, "is to love not only our own children, but other people’s as well—including children we will never meet, who grow up in situations we’d prefer to ignore." In other words, focusing beyond our families is fundamental to our public lives and commitments. If you repeated this quote in one of your classes, or to a group of your friends hanging out for the evening, or to your family, what kinds of responses do you think you would receive? How would you interpret their reaction? (You might actually do this as an experiment.)


Loeb suggests parents set models of community involvement or withdrawal for their children. What models would you like to exemplify for your children?

 

Growing up, did you learn mostly what Natalia Ginsburg calls "the little virtues," or the more challenging virtues that she calls "the great ones"? What role do these larger and more challenging virtues play in our common future? If it's an important one, how can our society teach them when most of us are focused on simply getting by?


How do you hope to balance work, family, and community involvement after you graduate? Do you know any people who’ve managed to do justice to all three? Is the example of former student activist Sonya Tinsley useful? What do you think of her statement that if she thinks her responsibilties to her mother or her daughter " are just obstacles or inconveniences getting in the way of my real work, then I’m probably missing the point.”


CHAPTER 8: VILLAGE POLITICS

Do you know anyone like Angie DeSoto before she got involved in environmental issues, or were you ever like her in just wanting to party? Did Angie’s journey surprise you? What do you think was at the core of her change and why do you think she was so effective? Are there lessons for how you might enlist others for causes you believe in?


This chapter talks about how working through existing community institutions can help us further the causes we believe in. Think of a social problem or issue that interests you. It can be one that affects you or others within or outside your community. It can be a campus, city, state, or even national or global issue. What issue have you chosen, and why? What would you like to see happen with this issue?  After you reflect on why you've chosen this issue, think of groups you could connect with or with whom you are already connected, that could help you  achieve your goal. These could It could be groups of friends, your church/synagogue/mosque, your college classes, campus clubs, your dorm or local neighborhood. Why did you choose the specific groups you listed and how do you think they could help?


Taking an issue that you have identified, what are some ways you and your "village" could help people directly dealing with this issue help create social change? For instance, if you're concerned with battered women, you might volunteer at a battered women's shelter and recruit others to do the same, by speaking at your church or synagogue about domestic violence. At the same time, to get more services for battered women, you might ask your "village" to meet with your state representatives and talk about the importance of getting more services for battered women. That would help change the situation of many battered women, rather than just helping one at a time.

 

Loeb quotes Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam’s finding that over the past several decades more Americans have been bowling, while league bowling has steadily declined. More Americans now bowl in a typical year than vote in Congressional elections, but Americans are, in Putnam’s phrase, "bowling alone," instead of in groups. Should we be concerned about such statistics? Are we losing a sense of community, or does the community created by new social networking technologies simply replace the older more face-to-face forms? How do these shifts affect our ability to get involved in larger public issues?

 

Have you ever used technologies like Facebook, email, or texting for a community project? Have you ever been approached about public issues through online technologies,  or signed an online petition or letter? Is it easier or harder to do than getting involved face-to-face?  What do you think the right relationship is between virtual activism and more traditional forms?


Communities can also have their limits. Loeb entitles one of his sections, "Let’s not talk about the bad things." Do you think many of us are afflicted with "misplaced politeness"? Use examples from the text and your own experiences.

 

How did Paul Loeb draw on his own lessons in the Campus Election Engagement Project that he founded? Which were most applicable and how did they facilitate his success? Were you surprised that he stepped out of his role as author to act as a citizen?

 

Class project: Suggest the class use Campus Election Engagement Project resources like Six Key Ways to Engage Your Campus, to help get their fellow students engaged in the next election


CHAPTER 9: WIDENING THE CIRCLE

Were you surprised that the leaders MoveOn and the Christian Coalition became friends and ended up working together?  Did this increase their impact in ways that would have been harder on their own? Can you think of other examples of unlikely political bedfellows that successfully worked together? Georgia's Green Tea Coalition, for instance, brought together the Sierra Club and the major local Tea Party affiliate on some common issues.

 

This chapter explores the importance of seeking out people whose points of view and experiences may be radically different from your own. Loeb also talks about the importance of involving diverse groups to work on social action issues. What does he mean when he states, "The more we listen to those whose experiences and perspectives are unfamiliar, the more we realize what draws us together"? Give an example from the chapter of how people who generally might seem to have nothing in common worked together to make a positive change. Think about your own life, and ask how often you expose yourself to people who may have very different ideas or lead very different lives than your own. Have you ever worked or become friends with someone who had radically different values or perspectives? Describe that experience?

 

If you have strong feelings on the issue of abortion, could you imagine having extended heart-felt conversations where you do your best to listen to someone on the other side?  What about some other issue where you have strong convictions? Is there a value in hearing diametrically opposed perspectives even if your own will remain the same?

 

Have you ever been in a group that became too insular? What was that like, and did they manage to solve it?

How does the journey of former Klansman C.P. Ellis relate to our earlier discussion of the politics of story? What was it in his story and those he encountered that helped him change?

 

Have you ever been intimidated by the language or knowledge of people who are involved in activist causes? What would have made you feel more welcome? If you’re already involved, how could you reach out to people hesitant to take their first step?

 

Have you ever asked forgiveness of someone you’ve wounded—beyond the quick apologies that all of us make routinely?  What the process like for you, and what was the result? You might also want to read about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which institutionalized this process on a national scale.

 

What’s the lesson of the Mitsubishi executive and Rainforest Action Network leader Randy Hayes ’s encounter in the hot tub? How would their conversation have differed if Rainforest Action Network had never launched their campaign? Have you ever bonded with someone after raising some difficult truth and forcing them to change their actions?

What’s your judgment about Adam Werbach’s decision to work with Wal-Mart? When is it appropriate to work with an institution that you believe has done damaging work if they do good work in other areas? If an institution does good in some areas, how do you balance that against other actions that you consider morally problematic? How would you draw the appropriate lines?


Loeb also talks about the dangers of holding onto anger. What does he mean when he states, "To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation"?


CHAPTER 10: PIECES OF A VISION
Loeb talks about envisioning a world that incorporates principles of social justice. He specifically talks about how we might create a more just economy while acting to preserve our environment and address threats like global climate change. What are your thoughts about the examples and ideas suggested by Loeb and by people like Virginia Ramirez, Pete Knutson, Meredith Segal, Angie De Soto, Rich Cizik, and David Lewis? What ideas from the text would you incorporate into your own personal vision for a better world?


Explain Marian Wright Edelman’s statement, "We are going to have to develop a concept of enough at the top and the bottom." Do you agree? Why or why not?


What does it say about America that we've been the most affluent nation on earth, yet have the highest poverty and violence rates in the industrialized world? How would we change this situation?

 

What is Ken Kesey saying about the hidden trade-offs in how we allocate our common resources? Do you agree? Do you think the Goldman Sachs bonuses and cuts at public university systems like CUNY are indeed connected. If so, should the Goldman Sachs partners keep less of their earnings so the CUNY system can get more financial support?

 

What could we do differently so that slow-burn crises don't become full-fedged catastrophes, as happened with the Katrina disaster?

 

What's the most important thing we could do now to create a better future 50 or 100 years from now?

What does Loeb mean by "An Ethic of Connection"? Do you think such an ethic is important? Explain. Why do we allow the environment to get destroyed or our fellow human beings to be demeaned when most of us know this is wrong?


What is your vision of a just society? What would it take to achieve it? What are the most important social problems that you think need to be solved? As you read the book, did the issues taken on by the people Loeb profiled make you think of areas where you'd like to take action?

 

How do we deal with ways that financial greed deforms our society? Do the kinds of corporate actions that caused the 2008 crash present a challenge to the belief that if we just let market forces operate freely everything will work out ok?  Does the model represented by Maine's campaign finance reform offer one partial solution to the corrupting influence of money on politics? Could you see joining such an effort on your campus or in your state? [See www.democracymatters.org for a student group working on this issue]

 

Do you find Loeb's example of the Sonicare toothbrush company troubling? Is his example of his US-made high efficiency furnace hopeful? If you think it's important that the U.S. support its manufacturing capacity, what should be done to do this?

What’s our definition of patriotism? Following the lead of whoever is the President? Challenging policies with which we disagree? Fostering sustained discussion in our communities? Could we say that the highest duty of a patriot is to ask the hardest questions in the most difficult time? If we have an urgent question to ask, could see ourselves writing a letter to some public offiicial (or campus, corporate or community leader) to voice it?


CHAPTER 11: COPING WITH BURNOUT
Should Paul have demanded a higher salary at Liberation so he could have stayed? Have you ever known people who sacrifice themselves so much to a project or cause that they end up backing away from it and not coming back?

 

Have you ever been burned out while involved in a social cause--or any project for that matter? What caused it? Failure to sent boundaries? Too much time commitment? Too little progress? A sense of isolation? Does fear of burnout hold you back from social involvement?

 

Have you ever felt let down by people you've worked with on a project, poitical or otherwise? How did you respond? How much do you think personal disappointment or rejection plays a part in people's withdrawal from social causes. Similarly, how much do you think a healthy community can keep people involved, even when the challenges are difficult?

 

Do the examples from this chapter (and earlier ones) give you models for balancing larger commitments and personal lives?

 

How would you apply earlier concepts in this book, like the perfect standard, to explaining why people don't always participate in important social causes? Does understanding the barriers to involvement make it easier to keep on when people don't always respond to our call?

 

Have you ever felt let down by a political leader you worked for, voted for, or simply vested hopes in? If they've done some of what you hoped for but not enough, does this book offer ways to keep engaged nonetheless, to support them where you agree and speak out and challenge them where you don't?

 

 

Relate the traps of purism to the perfect standard.

 

 

Do you think that the relationship of the civil rights movement to presidents Kennedy and Johnson or the labor movement to Roosevelt holds lessons for today. Explain. For extra credit, read a book on either or both of these movements and explore its lessons, like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's Poor People's Movements, Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, or Doug McAfdam's Freedom Summer.

 

 

If you’ve been involved in community issues, do you take the time to celebrate your achievements and victories? How could you do this more?

 

Why do you think Lieutenant Ehren Watada was able to maintain his stand without breaking down? Does thinking through potential adverse consequences in advance make it easier to later endure them?

 

Have you ever experienced a situation where acknowledging vulnerability or voicing uncertainty actually made you stronger? Describe.

 

Why is it important that Loeb almost didn't go to the Hiroshima event that ended up so nurturing his soul? Have you ever held back from communities or events that actually might strengthen you if you participated?

 

Are there any other ideas in the chapter that could help prevent your burning out?

CHAPTER 12: THE FULLNESS OF TIME
This chapter reviews many of the ideas found throughout the book about social involvement. List the messages Loeb gives here that you think are most useful or inspiring.

 

Does our current time seem one of possibility, of apprehension, or a mix of the two? Explain.

 

Talk about Jacob Riis's stonecutter metaphor. Have you ever chipped away at a seemingly impossible task until suddenly you surmounted the barriers and you were able to achieve what you sought to accomplish?

What does Loeb mean by radical patience? How did Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Susan B. Anthony exemplify this? How can you relate this concept to your life and the things that you see need changing?

 

Did you know the story of Stanislav Petrov and how close we came to nuclear war in the eighties? What does this story say about our capacity, as Americans or as humans, to act in ways that produce potential disaster, and also to bury that potential? What are its lessons in terms of global climate change?

 

How does humor help us keep going in difficult situations or times? Can you think of examples, from the book or your experience? Does it seem incongruous that people like Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama seem to be constantly cracking jokes? What's the relationship of their humor to their amazing achievements?


Loeb tells lots of stories about how stubborness can be a virtue, from Pete Knutson's fishermen friends refusing to accept their skipper's verdict that "It's all over boys. We're done for, " to Stanford climate scientist Steven Schneider refusing to be demoralized by the climate change deniers, to the seventy-eight-year-old grandmother shaking her finger at the young Coast Guardsman. What do these invididuals have in common? How could they be models for you in keeping on?

 

What changes have you witnessed or read about that make you hopeful?

 

Meredith Segal talks about drawing strength from relatives who've worked for justice. Do you have relatives or friends whose courage you've admired in situations you can learn from?

Sonya Tinsley talks about "picking your team," and choosing those who try to live their convictions, versus the team of the cynics. Which team would you choose to live your life with? What are you hopeful about, and what motivates your hope? Has this book changed your sense of what you might be able to achieve?

 

Can you imagine yourself living to 100, like Hazel Wolf, and being involved your entire life? What qualities allowed Hazel to keep on? Can we learn from Hazel's ability to take on the most serious issues, yet keep enough of a sense of humor so she never takes herself or others too seriously? How could you develop a balance between more personal activities that nurture your soul (like Hazel's hiking and kayaking) and work that gives back to the community?


Has reading Soul of a Citizen made you feel more connected to the river of social justice that historian Vincent Harding describes? If so, how?

 

What does Vaclav Havel mean by calling hope "an orientation of the heart"? Do you agree? And if so, how can we teach people this orientation?


What are the differences and similarities between religious and secular frameworks for hope? What mix gives you hope in your life? We're defining home in this case not as passive wishing, but as as Jim Wallis said, as “believing despite the evidence" and then, because of your actions, "watching the evidence change.”

 

How would you answer Rabbi Hillel’s question in terms of how you’ve lived your life, and how you want to live it from this point on?

 

 

 


GENERAL QUESTIONS [These or any others could also be used as longer essay questions]

 

For any of the chapters, pick two or three quotes, stories, or arguments from the chapter you’re reading, and be prepared to talk about why you picked them: How did they inspire you, annoy you, trouble you, or otherwise affect you? Break into groups and talk about your responses.

 

Or talk about the book as a whole:

Which stories and examples from the book moved you most and why?

 

What's your favorite quote from the book and why?


What did you learn that you didn't know before that seems significant?

 

Has the book made you want to get more involved in some issue you care about?

What barriers still remain, making involvement more difficult, and how would you get past them?

 

How would you explain the book's core message to a friend?


Drawing on the book's lessons, create an essay in which you tell your story including any larger issues you've been involved with or ones where you thought about getting involved but didn't. If the latter, explore why you held back.  

 

Create an essay in which you compare and/or contrast two of the individuals whose stories you have read in Soul of a Citizen.  Remember to include relevant, thought-provoking points to highlight the similarities and/or differences among their personal stories and the causes they champion.

Using Soul as your inspiration, compose a written work in which you champion your cause using sound logic and solid evidence.  Do not just rely on emotion to persuade your audience that, for example, your hometown should fund an Adopt-A-Senior program simply because it's your home town. Instead, determine what the true needs are in the place where your cause is located, be it a campus, a town, a county or a state. 

 

 

DISCUSSION TIP:

Students of all political beliefs respond wonderfully to Soul of a Citizen. It inspires them to think about what they can do to help create a more humane world, acting from their own particular perspectives. At Georgia's Kennesaw State, for instance, 2500 first-year students were reading the original edition in 2009 in the heart of Newt Gingrich's old Congressional district, and gave me ovation after ovation when I visited. The projects they became engaged in spanned political lines, ranging from a gay rights effort, to tutoring programs, to an NRA-backed concealed-weapons initiative. Occasionally conservative students get upset at my criticisms of specific Republican positions (although I often criticize Democrats as well) or get offended that they're being presented with certain ideas that they consider liberal. If you get those responses, I'd stress that every writer has a point of view, and that no one's going to agree with every position or example in any book or class. I'd also stress that you're not seeking blind agreement, but rather challenging them to reflect on their own belief systems, and get involved accordingly. For groups like first-year students, it can help to make this clear from the beginning. Many faculty have also encouraged students to play devil's advocate and debate some of the ideas presented in the book. This has also worked well to engage them.


Some schools have been uncertain which level to assign Soul of a Citizen, particularly for all-campus programs.Students at a less sophisticated intellectual stages may not get absolutely every nuance (although they're often also less cynical). But I think it's worthwhile to help students wrestle with these ideas from the beginning of their college career, or even in high school, because it leaves them more likely to get engaged from that point forward. Teachers at lower academic levels simply need to recognize that part of what you'll be doing is planting seeds for future reflection. And with this approach, Soul is being assigned to enthusiastic responses from high school classes and freshman programs to graduate seminars.

 


LINKS TO CAMPUS-BASED GROUPS
Students can find links to national activist groups with local chapters or organizations here and links to national student organizations or groups with campus-based chapters or projects here.


STUDENT QUESTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
To give you an additional sense of what students think when they read Soul of a Citizen, you can visit a blog created by students who were reading Soul at Paradise Valley and Glendale Community Colleges in Phoenix. There are some very thoughtful reflections, but the blog link starts with the last page, so if you want to start from the beginning, you need to go to the Blog Archive links on the lower right side and scroll backwards and forwards from there. I'd recommend creating a similar blog for students in your classes to give them another channel where they can interact.

 

 

Also here are some questions students prepared for me at Millikin University in Illinois, where all the seniors were reading Soul of a Citizen for their capstone courses. These were relatively conservative, largely first-generation students from the Chicago suburbs and downstate Illinois. I was impressed by the breadth, range, and realism of their questions—which spoke to their fundamental values and to the complex life choices they will be making.


"In your book, you mention that being 'perfect' is irrelevant to social activism. Most people, if their efforts do not instantly achieve dramatic results, are quick to criticize themselves. How do they, as citizens, become 'good-enough activists'?"


"Do you think there's a difference between activism and community service, and if so, what is that difference? When does one step over into the other? Do you support both? To what extent?"


"A large part of your book is dedicated to helping one's own community. How do you feel about helping another community, another culture, another country? Which takes priority over the other?"


"What balance needs to exist between finding the initiative within yourself to combat apathy in your community and helping motivate others to join your cause?"


"You make a point that public involvement demands a tolerance for mixed feelings, doubts, and contradictory motives. What advice would you give the social activist to combat the social stigma of public activism?"


"Do you think it is more productive to examine what is wrong in our world, or to focus on what is right?"


"What are some ways that a person can balance a new family, new career, and volunteering? What if your family opposes your spending valuable time helping the community?"


"You describe participation in public life as 'a process through which our personalities evolve' and argue that taking action is also an experiment in self-education.  It helps us learn about ourselves through our own actions and those of others. You also imply that social activism is a way to learn how to listen and learn from those who disagree with us. What role should social action play in formal education? Should schools require students to become participants in public life and take part in social movements?"


"You talk about the 'necessary discomfort' in working with people who don't agree with you completely in order to successfully 'widen the circle.' When working with people of opposing or differing views, which is most important: acceptance or understanding? (Also, can that be related to forgiving or forgetting?)"


"Today's society is considered 'possessed by our possessions.' Individuals may be able to break this cycle of greed and need for riches, but seemingly only those who've been brought up according to a moral structure based more upon giving than taking. Is the vast majority of the population too focused on material things and a frivolous lifestyle to change? Will the extreme presence of wastefulness and frivolity sway the resolve of those who live frugally, or does ingenuity really have a chance to persevere?"

"At what age do you think it's a good idea to get kids involved in community issues? Should they be able to understand fully what they're doing before they're allowed to contribute on their own, or is any contribution, whether understood or not, a good start? What if they're involved in a destructive cause?"


"Today's society seems to have become very self-oriented. How do you think we can get away from the 'me first' frame of mind? How do we go about getting people to think about the good of society again?"


"You said that working in a place that lets you spend time on community involvement is very important. What are some practical ways that people in workplaces that do not offer this kind of opportunity could start programs to benefit their community and workplace? Should those in the 'helping' professions still volunteer? Or do they give enough on the job?"

"What would you say to an 18-year-old female who wants to become involved in pro-choice activism, but is afraid of being chastised by her motheran avid pro-life Catholic who gave up the chance to be a successful businesswoman by having this daughter at age 22?"


"You make a case that change is a product of 'deliberate, incremental actions' rather than single, spur-of-the-moment unique events. In your opinion, what one deliberate, incremental action could today's college-age youth take that would be likely to evoke lasting, long-term change in our society?"


"What is your best advice to a person who feels strongly about an issue, but cannot motivate others to get involved, and needs them to pursue their cause?"


"Will the pressures of economic globalization (the Lexus) overcome the need for identity/family/culture (the olive tree)? How do we put on the golden straight jacket without foregoing community values?"


"You discuss vulnerability and call it both an asset and a limitation. It would appear that there is a fine line between being vulnerable enough to listen, ask for help, and accept that you don't know everything, and being so vulnerable that you give up hope of being able to achieve anything. It would appear that a balance of vulnerability and confidence is required to be effective in public life, especially in a leadership position. How does one achieve the correct balance?"


"I frequently find myself feeling that if I cannot change everything at once, why bother? How does one maintain faith in their work and their ability to make a difference?"


"In the section We Never Celebrate Our Victories, you stated that 'Few of us are capable of taking on highly difficult tasks without being rewarded somehow. We need approval, gratitude, a feeling of accomplishment, some indication of success.' If you are attempting to lead a group on issues, how can you make people feel this reward and keep them involved?"




 

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