Soul of a Citizen: Reading Groups
All over the country people are reading Soul of a Citizen in book groups, study groups, and college classes. Some are informal groups of friends. Others are based on campuses, in religious institutions, or in activist or community organizations. The book has fostered excellent discussions.
Here are some questions that discussion groups have found useful. If you’re a student or educator, you might want to refer to the classroom study questions since they’re specifically designed for that use.
I’ve geared the questions primarily toward people who are just beginning to get involved in larger public concerns or who haven't been active in a while. If you’re already a long-time activist, you can use them (in training sessions, for instance) to help newly active people get past their barriers and stay involved for the long haul.
And of course feel free to modify them or to email with suggested additions. If you’re ordering 10 or more copies, you can get discounted books by contacting the St Martin’s bulk order department.
- What barriers to social involvement have you found, both in yourself and in others? What images does our culture present when describing citizens who act. What comes to your mind when you hear the term "social activist"?
- How would you write your political autobiography? What stories would frame your involvement, or hesitation to get involved?
- "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." "When we shrink from the world," writes Loeb, "our souls shrink, too." Are there times when you’ve stayed silent over a "public" issue where you wanted to speak out? Did you feel a psychological cost from swallowing your convictions? Have you felt the sense of reclaiming your soul when you’ve begun to speak out?
- Did you know the full Rosa Parks story before you read it in Soul>? If not, what parts didn't you know? Does knowing the full story change your view of how citizens act to create social change? Does it make it seem easier or harder to act on what you believe?
- Loeb says we don’t know the stories of how ordinary Americans have acted together to change this society for the better. What have you learned about citizen involvement when you grew up? If you did get engaged, what triggered it? Were you involved in the 2008 election, and if so,,how did that make you feel in terms of your ability to shape history? How do you view your role and responsibility now that Obama is president?
Chapter One: Making Our Lives Count
- "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?
- When Virginia Ramirez begins to get involved, her husband tells 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?
- Was Derrick Bell foolish to resign his tenured position at Harvard Law School? Can you think of other examples where people have paid a real cost for standing up for their beliefs, yet feel their actions were worth it?
- Did it surprise you that a born-again evangelical like Rich Cizik became so involved in climate change? Did it challenge any of your stereotypes, about evangelicals or climate change activists? Cizik talks about how 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?
Chapter Two: We Don't Have to Be Saints
- 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." Has the "perfect standard" discouraged you from getting involved in your community? Or discouraged others who you wanted to enlist in community projects? Do you feel that if you cannot change everything at once, why bother? What would it mean to willingly "live with ambiguity" in our political lives? How can we, as citizens, become "good-enough activists" who don’t demand perfection or certainty before we begin to take a stand?
- 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 Three: A 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 trying to speak out?
- Did you know about Maine’s Clean Elections initiative? What about Deborah Prothrow-Stith’s success in stopping youth violence in Boston, or Rich Cizik's work to enlist his fellow evangelicals in addressing global climate change? If you didn’t, this new knowledge give you hope? Are there ways we can work to get such important stories into common awareness?
Chapter Four: The Cynical Smirk
- "America’s prevailing culture of cynicism," 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 contemporary cynicism as a key corrosive force in our culture? Have you ever received a "cynical smirk" when you’ve tried to do something worthwhile? Or even when you've mentioned some issue you care about? Is there a way to question authority without becoming cynical?
- 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?
Chapter Five: Unforeseen Fruits
- What kind of results do you expect from social activism? What would help you do this work if the fruits of your efforts weren’t visible?
- 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? What are the parallels to those who started the NAACP chapter that Rosa Parks first got engaged with? How would it change your actions if you knew that by starting or joining an organization, you could help engage a future U.S. President, or 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--that 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?
- What kind of results do you expect when you try to change the world? Could you do this work if you couldn't see the fruits of your efforts right away?
Chapter Six: The Call of Stories
- What stories might you tell from your own life? What story would sum up your own life? What stories shaped your views of community involvement?
- How is it different to take a stand for our own communities, like Virginia Ramirez, or to work in solidarity with someone else’s community, like Carol McNulty’s involvement challenging the sweatshop practices of the Gap?
- Are there issues where you've held back because all the information seems too abstract and confusing? Or 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 have you learned to distinguish true stories from false? Were you surprised that "For the Sake of the Children" turned out to be a morally dubious effort to reverse a West Virginia Supreme Court decision against the coal company Massey Energy by electing different justices? 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?
- 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.
- 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 relationship have you seen between one-on-one volunteering and systemic change? When does one become the other? Do you support both? To what extent? Does Loeb’s "politics of witness" offer a way to unite them?
Chapter Seven: Values, Work and Family
- 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?
- Have you know ever 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 common goals could replace "whoever dies with the most toys wins"?
- "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, creating a more just world demands that we take seriously the situation of people who are different from ourselves. If you repeated this quote at your workplace, or to your neighbors, what kinds of responses would you receive?
- Loeb suggests parents set models of community involvement or withdrawal for their children. What models did you get from your family? What do your children learn from your public involvements? How have you balanced work, family, and community involvement? Who do you respect for successfully balancing all three?
Chapter Eight: Village Politics
- Did the journey of Do Angie DeSoto surprise you? Have you met others who've made equally unlikely and powerful journeys into engagement? What do you think was at the core of her change? Are there lessons for how you might enlist others for causes you believe in?
- 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 an activist project? What are the strengths and limits of online activism? 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"? Do you find it hard to talk about critical public issues with people who aren’t already activists—like with your neighbors or co-workers?
- How did Paul Loeb draw on his own lessons in his campus election project? Which ones were most applicable and how did they play a role in his success? Were you surprised that he stepped out of his role as author to act as a citizen?
- 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?
- Loeb describes participation in public life as "a process through which our personalities evolve" and argues that taking action is also an experiment in self-education, which helps us learn about ourselves through our own actions and those of others. 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? At what age is it 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
Chapter Nine: Widening The Circle
- Were you surprised that the leaders MoveOn and the Christian Coalition became friend and ended up working together? What do you think this allowed them to accomplish that would have been harder on their own? Can you think of other examples of unlikely political bedfellows that successfully worked together?
- Could you imagine having extended heart-felt conversations where you do your best to listen to someone on the other side of the abortion issue? What about on any issue you feel strongly about? Is there a value in hearing diametrically opposed perspective even if you’re not going to change your own?
- Have you ever been in a group that became too insular? What was that like, and did they manage to solve it?
- 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? Or if you’re already involved, how could you reach out to people who feel too intimidated and hesitant to take the first step?
- Loeb talks about the "necessary discomfort" in working with people who don’t agree with us or have widely differing experiences. Have you seen people with different political beliefs work together on a cause? Should the story of former Klu Klux Klansman C.P. Ellis give us hope?
- Have you ever asked forgiveness of someone you’ve wounded—beyond just the quick apologies that all of us make? What was the result? Are there lessons for the US of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
- What’s the lesson of the Mitsubishi executive and Rainforest Action Network leader’s encounter in the hot tub? How would their conversation have if Rainforest Action Network hadn’t 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 do some good, does that partially absolve them if you believe they’ve otherwise acted destructively? How do you draw the right lines?
- Have you seen effective political efforts that successfully bridge race and class? Where have organizations that you've been involved with hit the limits of insularity?
Chapter Ten: 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 and how we might act to preserve our environment. 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?
- What's the most important thing we could do now to create a better future 50 or 100 years from now?
- Marian Wright Edelman writes, "We are going to have to develop a concept of enough at the top and the bottom." What do you think she means by "enough?" What’s your vision of a just society? What would it take to achieve it? Is it more productive to focus on what’s wrong in our world, or on possible solutions? Can you learn to act without a hard and fast blueprint for the ideal society, but only a general "magnetic north"?
- Does our citizen responsibility change in time of visible crisis, like the economic meltdown, Katrina, or the 9/11 attacks? If so, why and how? Can we address such crises in a way that addresses their fundamental roots, and builds greater justice for the future?
- How do we deal with the Enrons of the world, and how financial greed deforms our society? Does Enron 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? See www.publiccampaign.org for an excellent 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 the President? Challenging policies with which we disagree? Fostering sustained discussion in our communities? Does Loeb’s Village Politics offer clues on how to do more in our outreach than simply "preach to the choir?"
Chapter Eleven: Coping With Burnout
- Loeb discusses vulnerability and calls it both an asset and a limitation. He suggests there’s 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. If a balance of vulnerability and confidence is required to be effective in public life, especially in a leadership position, how do you achieve the correct balance?
- Have you ever been burned out while involved in a social cause? What about while participating in other community activities? 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, political 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?
- 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?
- Do you think that because Barack Obama raised hopes so high, this makes his task easier or more difficult? And is it likely to leave people more or less engaged, or does that depend on what other citizens do to engage them? And what is our best approach when a leader like Obama does some of what we hoped for, but also falls short in important ways?
- Relate the traps of purism to the perfect standard.
- Do you agree with Melissa Harris-Lacefield's concept that Obama cannot be Martin Luther King, because he's the president, and that if we want change we have to take the role of Martin Luther King and the movement he was part of? 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. What do those lessons mean for our current time? Some good books on these movements: Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's Poor People's Movements, Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, and Doug McAfdam's Freedom Summer.
- What can we learn from 100-year-old environmental activist Hazel Wolf about keeping on for the long haul?
- In the section We Never Celebrate Our Victories, Loeb states 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." How can you help organizations you're involved with allow people feel this reward and keep them involved? How can you learn to celebrate victories, even if they’re seemingly small?
- 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?
Chapter Twelve: The Fullness of Time
- 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 the things that need changing?
- Does our current time seem one of possibility, of apprehension, or a mix of the two?
- 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?
- 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 stubbornness 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 individuals 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," those who try to live their commitments, versus the team of the cynics. What are you hopeful about, and what motivates your hope?
- How would you want to answer Rabbi Hillel’s question about how to live for more than just ourselves?