Public Service Innovators - Innovations in Public Service: Profiles of Success Jim Shultz (MPA 1985): Catchy Title, Solid Advice

October 10, 2002
Lory Hough

The first thing you notice when you pick up Jim Shultz's new book, which came out this year, is the title: The Democracy Owners' Manual: A Practical Guide to Changing the World. It's catchy. Then what really grabs you as you start reading it is the language: Shultz has an amazing ability to take a complex subject like democracy and make it accessible to everyone.

It's a skill he's honed during three decades of activism, both in the United States and abroad. A skill he says is critical if you want everyone in a democratic society to have power.

"I taught for awhile at San Francisco State. I saw lots of books where academics were writing for each other," he says from his home in Bolivia, where he moved for the second time in 1998 and runs the nonprofit Democracy Center. "That's anti-democratic. It makes it harder for people to participate. It was important to me that my book be simple but not dumbed down."

Shultz uses real-life examples to illustrate his points. For example, when he wants readers to understand the importance of arming themselves with knowledge to fix societal problems, he tells a story about his old Volkswagen, which always broke down. Instead of relying entirely on mechanics, he used his tattered owner's manual and did some of the work.

"There are two ways to own a car and two ways to live in democracy. One is to know nothing and put your fate in the hands of others," he writes. "The other is to know enough to take back some of that power, or at least enough to keep a careful watch over so-called experts."

Shultz is plenty qualified to offer advice. He first became interested in democracy when he walked door-to-door for Democrat George McGovern's presidential campaign as a 14-year-old growing up during the Vietnam War in Whittier, California. Eventually he worked a string of staff jobs at the California State House. He's petitioned alongside welfare recipients and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (a group he helped start).

In the early 1990s he ran an orphanage with his wife in Bolivia. A couple of years later, living back in California, he started the Democracy Center, which trains community leaders on social and economic justice issues. More recently, after he and his family moved back to Bolivia -- this time to stay -- he took to the streets with his angry neighbors when the poor were literally forced to choose between buying food or water. Water bills had skyrocketed as a direct result of an American company winning a 40-year privatization lease from the Bolivian government on the water system.

Since then, he's developed a second sense of what makes the light bulb go on for people. That's evident in his book, which sold out after the first printing in just 12 weeks.

"In the book, I was trying to explain things in a way that made sense," he says. "A way that made people say, 'Now I get it!'"

For information about the Democracy Owners' Manual, go to www.democracyctr.org/

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