When public culture is at its healthiest it’s a noisy, tension filled affair. We get the word “agony” from this kind of political culture.  An “agonistic” culture is one in which contestation, debate, and spirited conversations among citizens Argumentare standard operating procedure.  Being civil to one another does not mean being “nice.” Politics, after all, is a public argument.  The question is not, “Do we have an argument?”  The question is, “Which arguments should we have and how do have them?”

It’s not the rules of what we say to one another that create civility but the kind of culture we create shaped by the institutions we build that engender conversation, argument and a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves.

Participation in institutions capable of teaching and learning democratic skills – when they step up to the mission – are the lifeblood of civil behavior.  The parish, the synagogue, the mosque, the Rotary Club, a free independent press, the public school, the Legion Hall, the union hall, the block club, the neighborhood association, the family dinner table.

It’s in these sometimes “pre-political” settings where most of us learned, imperfectly, how to deal with the interests of others–where we learned how to navigate towards a common goal among differing people, how to speak and be heard, how to listen, how to argue, how to make our way into the world.

Our civil skills wane with predictable results when participation dwindles a core mission is lost.  Worse still if those institutions are destructive, deformed, exclusive, mean-spirited, then we learn a different kind of engagement and politics.

Politics is our access road to power.  It’s the way we gain standing in our community to be heard.  If citizens engage in non-partisan politics they fundamentally are engaged in a conversation with one another about their shared community.  If they have never been taught how to have that conversation then their attempt at politics is stunted, awkward, ineffectual or just plain mean.

People, instead, isolate and segregate themselves and lash out at large public policy decisions (health care reform, Supreme Court decisions, government bail outs etc. etc.)  When we feel our interests are threatened we go to the legislative meeting or the public hearing and explode.  Is anything more tragically symbolic of our barren public culture than an adult having the equivalent of a temper tantrum in public?

We act that way when we see no other option or lack the skills to create an alternative. When we don’t know where else to turn.  When we’re de-skilled as citizens.  When we’re powerless.  People shout, throw tantrums, bully, bluster, abuse one another.

So it’s not the practices of civility we need–using a calm voice, no name-calling, being nice, etc.  It’s democratic practices that create a healthy public culture.  It’s democratic institutions stepping up to their calling.  This is what IAF organizations across the country are all about.  Teaching and learning the habits and practices of active citizenship:

  • How to sit down, face to face with someone we don’t know and have a conversation that reveals who they are and why they do what they do.
  • How to facilitate a small group conversation among differing citizens that allow people the space to tell their story.
  • How to research and uncover why things are the way they are?  Who benefits and who decides on the public policy decisions of our community?  How and when is it decided?  How can it be changed?  The cost of a constructive critique is a creative alternative.
  • How to organize diverse people with diverse interests into a unified, cohesive body politic that “stands for the whole.”
  • How to craft solutions and ultimately take action on seemingly intractable public problems through our research and on the ground “social knowledge.”

It’s a long, slow difficult road with no certain outcome.  But our current path is certain to wreak more havoc on our democratic republic and make rekindling civic spirit and any semblance of civility that much harder.

Searching for Pericles

The world’s first democracy lasted for approximately 200 years.  Its location was ancient Athens.  It succumbed to the pressures of constant war and a series of very bad decisions, not the least of which was the slaughter and enslavement of the islanders of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.

Some believe the destruction of the Melian people was the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire.  It’s particularly tragic given that it was entirely avoidable on the part of the Melians.  The Athenians asked only for “alliance on a tribute-paying basis and liberty to enjoy your own property.”[1]

20 years ago, as a new organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, I inherited the tradition of using the Melian-Athenian dialogue from The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides to teach ordinary people fundamental lessons about power and politics. The IAF developed this dialogue as a teaching tool over 50 years ago.   Since its creation, thousands of people from all walks of life have learned its hard lessons in our weeklong national leadership training.

As I approach the 30-year mark in my organizing career and as I see my own children become adults, I find myself going back to Thucydides over and over for his wisdom and reflections on the demise of his country.

Within The Peloponnesian War is the famous funeral oration of Athen’s greatest leader, Pericles.  In it he describes the virtues of Athenian democracy and the sacrifices we must make to our fellow citizens for the good of the city.

Has anyone seen Pericles lately?  How often have you seen an act of humility or sacrifice for the good of the whole on the part of our U.S. Congress, or a presidential candidate?  Maybe living in Iowa during caucus season skews my perspective but it feels more like American Idol than American democracy.

The irony is, we see the virtues of a Pericles everyday among ordinary American residents—people who run charitable organizations for little pay and at great personal sacrifice, men and women who serve in the military and run headfirst into harms way, neighbors who give freely of their time for the good of their community, people who fight fire and violent crime on our behalf, volunteers at Catholic Worker Houses, organizers, reformers, public school teachers, lay leaders in churches, mosques and  synagogues, union members struggling to make a workplace more humane and pay a just wage.  The numbers are legion and yet our national political landscape could not be bleaker.

How do we explain this disconnect?  How can a country that relied on democratic association and civic engagement to thrive now have such a dysfunctional national political environment?

That’s a question the leaders and organizers that make up the 60+ organizations of the Industrial Areas Foundation in the United States have been trying to answer every day for the last 75 years.

We believe the antidote to what ails us politically resides not in the mind of a presidential or Congressional candidate, or think tank, or foundation or “expert,” but in the practical wisdom of ordinary Americans struggling to make their communities stronger.  It resides in the practices, rituals and living traditions of their local institutions, religious and otherwise.  It resides in the slow, patient process of building relationships across the lines that divide and crafting solutions to local problems.  It resides in the heart of leaders like Bishop Douglas Miles of the Baltimore IAF affiliate (BUILD) who had the temerity to stand across the street from the White House and challenge President Obama to stop whining and start acting on the epidemic of gun violence in our country.   He and others in the IAF have crafted local strategies to this seemingly intractable problem.[2]

It resides in the hearts of thousands of local leaders across the country who have stopped complaining and started acting to build power on a local level to make their communities work.

It can reside in you too.  It can reside in you, if you stop looking up and start looking across.  Stop looking up for a national leader with a quick fix who’s going to take you to the promise land and start looking across the table, across the street, across your cubicle, across the pew and across the stereotypes you have of the stranger you encounter but don’t know.

If you do that, you’ll understand why Pericles went to such great lengths to describe the virtues of Athenian democracy, despite all its notable flaws.[3]  You’ll begin to see politics, not as red or blue, liberal or conservative but for the good of the whole, for the community we hold in common and the promise of a better future for our children than the one we inherited.

[1] History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides.  This is a debated point among scholars.  The IAF rejects the idea of the Melians as a principled people who had no choice but to die and allow their children to be sold as slaves.  We believe they had a choice and they made the wrong one.

[2] Metro IAF has led the nation in calling for a “smart gun” strategy that would prevents thousands of needless gun deaths in America –

[3] Athenian democracy excluded women, slaves, people who worked with their hands and others.  Not unlike American democracy in its first 150 years.

Workforce Development

After hearing dozens of stories of chronic underemployment in its 2008 house meeting campaign, AMOS leaders formed an issue research team on Workforce Development and began exploring how the central Iowa labor market was working (or not working) for those who needed it most.

What they found was a chasm between people who worked hard at dead end jobs and dozens of central Iowa employers who had good paying, career track jobs ready for the taking that they couldn’t fill.  Project IOWA was born out of that chasm.

AMOS leaders took a high powered Iowa business and government delegation to San Antonio, TX to study Project QUEST, a labor market intermediary that closed a gap just like the one we found in Iowa in Texas.  Slowly but forcefully with patience and persistence AMOS raised enough seed money to launch our version of Project QUEST in February of 2012.  Christened, Project IOWA (Iowa Opportunities for Workforce Advancement), it is a bridge organization that connects the under and unemployed with high quality training through DMACC and Mercy College of Health Sciences with central Iowa employers who need skilled workers.

To date, Project IOWA has trained and placed over 200 formerly impoverished central Iowans into career track living wage jobs.  For more information on this initiative visit their website at

Ames Affordable Housing Issues

The Ames Affordable Housing Team has conducted extensive research on issues related to the affordability of housing in the Ames area. Significant increases in Iowa State enrollment have greatly exacerbated the pressure on affordable housing for Ames’ low and moderate-income residents. As a result, the Ames Affordable Housing Team has launched a strategy to address this growing problem.

Mental Health Care Re-Design

Over the course of several AMOS small group “house meeting” campaigns over the last 15 years the pressures families feel in relation to affordable, quality mental health care has slowly risen to the top two or three issues identified by central Iowa families.

Three years ago, the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Greater Des Moines  chapter (NAMI) joined AMOS as a member institution and through our on-going relationship with them, AMOS has tackled mental health care reform as a critical issue that must be addressed in our state.

AMOS, NAMI and many other organizations joined forces with the Iowa legislature three years ago and began the arduous process of state mental health care redesign.  With critical leadership provided by a bi-partisan group of legislators like Renee Schulte, Dave Heaton and Jack Hatch, we were successful in passing mental health care redesign.

As a result the waiting list for mental care services from Polk County, which used to number in the hundreds has now been completely eliminated!  We will continue to monitor this important issue and push for on-going reform and appropriate funding to ensure central Iowa families get the mental health care they deserve.

For more information about Iowa’s mental health care redesign and its interface with the Affordable Care Act,  click here:

To join the AMOS Mental Health Issue Reseach Team contact Bob Glass at:[at]

To learn more about NAMI – Greater DSM go to:

Power Over Power

By David Nyberg

In 1887 Lord Acton wrote a severely critical review of Mandell Creighton’s History of the Papacy during the Reformation and sent a personal letter to the author in which he defended his point that popes and kings ought to be held to account for the criminal acts they authorize.  That letter was the context for Acton’s might maxim: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Although it remains the best-known sentence ever written about power, it is only a partial truth.  Read More…

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

By Charles M. Payne

If some black activists working in the South prior to the 1960s left an organizational heritage, other left a distinct philosophical heritage.  Leadership among southern Blacks –  in churches, on college campuses, within families – has frequently leaned toward the authoritarian.  Taken as a group, Mississippi black activists before the 1960s reflected that traditional conception of leadership.  They were shepherds; the people were to be cared for.  Read more…


Reclaiming our Birthright

By Ernesto Cortes Jr.

When the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) began in the 1940’s, it organized around balancing the asymmetric power relationships within the existing intermediary institutions such as schools, churches, unions and political parties.  The goal of IAF then was to establish justice and accountability in these institutions through a thick network of relationships already embedded within and between them.

The assumptions around which communities organized thirty, forty and fifty years ago are no longer valid.  Read More…

Toward a Deomocratic Culture

By Ernesto Cortes, Jr.

Long before recent terrorist attacks, invasions and hurricanes, the alienating and homogenizing effects of globalization and the dominant market culture had begun to isolate people from on another and from their institutions, destroying our relationality and creating a new kind of tribalism.  Read More…

Creating Effective Ministries of Justice

We are called in the church and the synagogue to “love mercy and do justice.” We have demonstrated success and a proven track record of developing effective ministries of mercy in the areas of food, shelter and clothing, but what about equally effective ministries of justice? Can we point to the ministries in our congregations that intentionally ask the questions of “Why are they hungry?” and “Why do they need shelter and clothing?” The lay leaders and professional staff of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS) have been teaching institutional leaders how to create effective ministries of justice for nearly 20 years in central Iowa.

What does an AMOS leadership team look like in a congregation and how does it work? Our effectiveness is borne out by our proven track record of success including:

  • Greatly expanding the charity care policies of our state’s two largest health systems
  • Winning millions of dollars in flood control efforts for a southeast neighborhood of Des Moines
  • Moving dozens of impoverished central Iowans off the welfare rolls and into living wage jobs through our workforce development initiative, Project IOWA

Come learn more about how you can create ministries of justice in your congregation through the practical and skilled advice of veteran AMOS leaders.

Blessed are the History Makers

By Walter Bureggeman

The historical process is mostly hidden and inscrutable.  Enlightenment modes of understanding have led us to imagine that if we could investigate enough we could finally understand how the historical process works.  The failure of the Enlightenment has forced us to ask in a new ways how history is made.  Read more…


Health Care – The Affordable Care Act

Health Care – The Affordable Care Act

AMOS IPL has engaged in a comprehensive community education effort to ensure Iowa’s un and under-insured populations are aware of how the Affordable Care Act will affect them. We will not be enrolling anyone or accepting government funding for this effort but we will be educating the public on the in’s and out’s of the ACA.

If you’d like us to come to your group, organization or congregation to do a one hour presentation on the ACA, please send an email to

Subsidy Calculator-CLICK HERE

ACA Handout for Individuals-CLICK HERE


Blessed Are the Organized, Jeffrey Stout

This book takes a journey in search of democracy, through an America that Tocqueville and Whitman never knew. It begins in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and moves on to the Houston Astrodome, in the days when the hurricane survivors were there. It tours the borderlands of Texas, where hundreds of immigrant shantytowns somehow became habitable neighborhoods. It touches down briefly in Arizona, and then passes through some of the poorest communities in California, before ending in a well-to-do synagogue in Marin County.

Blessed Are the Organized, Jeffrey Stout