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A senator's ownership manual for Americans

Bob Graham wants you to know you can fight city hall.

The former two-term Florida governor and veteran of 18 years in the U.S. Senate also says you can fight neighborhood associations, legislatures and even the federal government.

So why don't more people participate in grass roots political action?

"It's the same reason I don't play the piano," Graham says. "I don't know how to play the piano."

Graham offers a remedy to those who don't know how to take action as citizens with his new book, America, The Owner's Manual: Making Government Work for You.

Graham, who will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday, writes in the book about a group of high school students he encountered in 1974, while he was a state legislator. They had complained about the bad food at their cafeteria — to their city's mayor and sheriff, neither of whom had any control over the chow.

Graham says he decided to write America, The Owner's Manual after a year he spent as a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard after he retired from the Senate in 2005. "What I discovered was that this select group of undergraduates was about as civically illiterate as the students I had taught at that high school."

Unfortunately, he says, that was no surprise. "1974 was right on the cusp of a major change in the teaching of civics in America.

"When I graduated from high school in 1955, I had taken three classes in civics. Today a student is lucky to have had one semester of civics between seventh and 12th grade."

Even if students do take civics now, they're taught what Graham calls "spectator civics — they teach students how to watch the game of democracy.

"Democracy was never intended to be a spectator sport."

To help people catch up on developing their skills as active citizens, he and co-author Chris Hand packed America, The Owner's Manual with case studies of real citizens in action, along with tips and plans for pursuing change.

Graham says he was surprised to find that even the Kennedy School lacked case studies of citizen action. "They were all about the actions of government officials or government agencies."

Graham and Hand used only two Kennedy School case studies for the book and reported the others themselves.

He was eager to expand that body of research. "The Graham Center at the University of Florida has gotten a small grant from the Library of Congress to help develop a library of case studies of citizenship, so I'm very excited about that."

The book's primary audience is college undergraduates and advanced placement high school students, Graham says. But it's been used by a wide range of organizations, from the Service Employees International Union to the American Society of Landscape Architects, who "want their members to be more active and effective in engaging with government."

Any readers who want to upgrade their skills as citizens can benefit from the book, as can people "having an immediate problem they want to be engaged in solving."

Such skills can and should be used by people all along the political spectrum, he says, and having a well-educated citizenry can help prevent misuse of the system. "Town halls have long been a part of American culture, a means of communication between elected officials and their constituents. But in August we saw some of them perverted" as the debate over health care reform became heated.

"They were used not as a forum for sharing opinion and information but as an offense. One of the challenges of democracy is that we always need to be revitalizing these institutions."

Citizenship skills are useful even when practicing democracy as a spectator. "A lot of the discussion of health care is taking place on talk radio or television, where there is such a low level of understanding of what the facts are," Graham says.

"It's because we haven't educated three generations of Americans on how to analyze the political and civic issues, or on how to evaluate the people who are speaking about them."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft[email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at

America, the Owner's Manual: Making Government Work for You

By Bob Graham and Chris Hand

CQ Press, 272 pages, $16.95

Festival of Reading author

Graham will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 1:15 p.m. in the Campus Activities Center. For more on the Festival of Reading, see today's Latitudes section or got to

An excerpt from

America, the Owner's Manual

How to define the problem

You know the feeling. You're listening to a speaker, watching television news, reading the newspaper, or even talking to friends or family. You may be registering for classes or trying to secure housing for the next academic year. You could be paying for electricity, property taxes, or a doctor's bill that the health insurance you can't afford would have covered. You might even be walking through a neighborhood park, canoeing down a river, or visiting a national park when it hits you. Something isn't right. You feel upset, even angry. Righteous indignation swells within you, and you find yourself saying something like, "There should be a law!" or "If only I were king or queen for a day!"

That feeling is the launching pad for active citizenship. When something you see, hear, read, or experience in your community, state, or nation causes you great anger or worry, and you realize that democratic institutions — the school board, city council, mayor, state legislature, governor, or even the U.S. Congress or president — have the power to address your concern, you are ready to embark on your journey as an active citizen.

A Chinese proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Your first step in launching a citizen initiative is to understand and clearly state the problem you want to fix. Be specific and realistic. "I want my community to be a better place to live" is a nice sentiment with which almost everyone can agree, but it is far too broad and vague to be useful. More focused starting points might include the following:

• We don't feel safe because crime has increased in our area.

• Our neighborhood drinking water looks, smells, and tastes odd.

• In the past year my property taxes have doubled.

• My small business is losing workers because I can't afford their health insurance.

• Our daughter is one of 35 children in a single kindergarten class.

• The state wants to build a new expressway that would increase the noise level at my house.

Do you see the difference? The statement of the first problem is so nebulous that the democratic process would not be able to fix it. On the other hand, the latter statements address particular concerns for which citizen action may produce results.

When you feel anger, concern, or a passionate desire for change rising up inside you, consider whether the source of that feeling could become a political issue. Many people miss the potential for citizen action when they ignore these gut reactions to local issues.

America, The Owner's

Manual: Making

Government Work for You

By Bob Graham and Chris Hand, CQ Press, 272 pages, $16.95

Festival of Reading author

Bob Graham will be a featured author at the

St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 1:15 p.m. in the Campus Activities Center. For more on the Festival of Reading, see today's Latitudes section or go to

A senator's ownership manual for Americans 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 4:30am]
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