The Citizen Professional Idea

The term “citizen professional” comes from recent scholarship, much of it created here at the University, which reexamines the role of the professions in society. It emphasizes the role of professionals in rebuilding the civic life of communities in addition to their traditional role in providing specialized services to individuals. It moves beyond the late 20th century notion of the professional as a detached expert who informs other citizens but is not informed by them, who critiques social systems but does act to change these systems, and who tends to see patients, clients and communities in terms of their needs and not their capacities for individual and collective action. Traditional professional ethics codes emphasize the expertise and benevolence of the professional and the importance of promoting the personal autonomy and well being of the patient or client. These are essential values, but taken alone they render invisible the roles of professionals and their clients as citizens of a broader community.

Citizen professionalism is mainly an identity: seeing oneself first as a citizen with special expertise working alongside other citizens with their own special expertise in order to solve community problems that require everyone’s effort. This not just an idealistic self-image but comes from a grounded realization that the really big problems in health care, education, and social welfare—sometimes known as “wicked problems”— cannot be solved by professionals working alone, nor by government action alone. We will not make headway against the tide unless we all row together.

Citizen professionals have a body of knowledge about the connections between the personal and the public dimensions of their professional practice. Citizen physicians, for example, understand the connection between diabetes, the fast food industry, and cultural practices of diet and exercise.

Citizen professionals have a set of skills for facilitating public conversations and catalyzing public action. In the context of their regular service delivery, they are able to skillfully interweave the personal and public dimensions of the issues they and their patients or clients face. And when the time is ripe, they are able to bring together other citizens for public conversations and sometimes for small, local action projects to address community needs. Citizen parent educators, for example, have the skills to lead parents in a discussion that connects children’s safety and the social cohesion of neighborhoods, to encourage parents to become active in their communities around issues of safety, and to create a venue where parents can meet with community leaders in order to get involved.

When it comes to research, citizen professionals have access to the rich tradition of community based participatory research (also call action research and participatory action research). This approach involves the close collaboration between the researcher and a community of other citizens in every stage of the project, from identifying the problem to designing interventions to evaluating the outcomes. It features a democratic process in which everyone’s expertise is brought to bear. The National Institutes of Health and many foundations are actively seeking to fund projects that address pressing community needs in a participatory way.

There is an important distinction between this idea of the citizen professional and current specialized forms of community practice.  Citizen professionals as defined here have their primary base in service delivery. They are grounded in patient care, education, therapy, social service, and other forms of personal practice to which they bring a civic dimension in an integrated way. Historically, the professions created specialties of community-oriented professionals (such as public health and community social work) that were cut off from front line professionals. The result was community practitioners cut off from their clinical or educational roots, and front line service professionals cut off from their community roots. Our vision is the renewal of front line professional practice as work by, for, and with citizens, and the generation of useful knowledge for solving problems affecting communities.