Living Democracy

Transition to a sustainable culture
will require a sense of ownership of the process

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 28
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute


Change is on the way. But how we go about making change – for example the extent to which we are inclusive, empowering, and strategic in our efforts – may have a greater impact on the outcome than all of our intentions.

Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Du Bois have been involved in the change business for many years. Both have come to the conclusion that empowering people in the arts of democracy is key to long lasting social change. The two, who are also husband and wife, co-founded the Center for Living Democracy and co-authored the book, The Quickening of Democracy: Rebuilding our Nation, Remaking Our Lives.

Sarah: The two of you come from different sorts of social change activites, but you both now focus on Living Democracy. How did that come about?

Frances: When I was 27 years old, I made a life-changing discovery. I figured out that hunger is needless! I then spent almost 20 years trying to sound the alarm: "Hey, wake up. Hunger is human made – created out of plenty."

By the 1980s, my message boiled down to one: hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy. That sounded good, catchy. I was asked, "So where is this democracy strong enough to eliminate hunger – this democracy in which power is so widely shared that everyone is able to ensure their basic needs are met? What exactly does it look like?" I had no answer because of course it does not yet exist.

I realized then that my job is not to tell people what democracy would look like in some idealized model. Instead, what’s needed is to identify the seeds of this stronger, more vital, more inclusive practice of democracy. Those seeds exist now in our midst, and we can identify their lessons and spread them.

We call these the seeds of Living Democracy. By Living Democracy we mean democracy as a way of life; democracy as a culture; democracy as a set of expectations and practices that become part of our blood, part of our instinct for how to behave.

This is certainly a long-term understanding of social change, but it’s also one in which each of us can find a place for ourselves, no matter whether we’re a teacher, an engineer, a student, or a political figure. Each of us has a role to play in a Living Democracy; we don’t have to be an office holder to help create this culture.

Sarah: Paul, how did Living Democracy become a focus for you?

Paul: My life’s work has been focused on poor communities and communities of color. I found contemporary formulations having to do with gaining power to be simplistic and unsatisfying – and they also have demonstrably failed.

When one goes deeper than the prevailing rhetoric, one begins to understand that power is much more multi-dimensional than is often recognized. Power is buildable from expertise, numbers, creativity, even humor. Power is buildable by people who enter into constructive relationships with those in authority, with institutions that have as much to gain from us as we do from them. Entering into relationships with people with whom we initially appear to be in conflict can expose sources of power that we often don’t realize we have.

Sarah: You’ve been talking about a connection between Living Democracy and sustainable culture. Why is Living Democracy a necessary precondition for sustainable culture?

Paul: The sustainability community has an extremely strong and compelling analysis of what we might term end-point behavior – in other words, where we as individuals and as members of a community have to end up. But they have a very weak analysis of how we’re going to get there. We need to focus on the steps that lead from here to where we all wish we were.

Frances: I think it’s inconceivable that we could make this transition towards a sustainable culture without many more people having a sense of ownership of the process of getting there. Environmentally benign practices require a change in behavior that will only happen when we all feel we are a part of the process.

Paul: Only when people develop this sense of ownership will the millions of people who we really need to be involved actually be prepared to implement necessary changes at the scale that’s required. And such a sense of ownership is only created within a Living Democracy – that is, widespread, inclusive, and active engagement in problem solving in a skilled, knowledgeable fashion.

Otherwise we will constantly be on the margins of society preaching to the converted, to our own community, or trying to sell an intelligent, ecologically sensitive program to people who aren’t interested because they have other concerns.

Sarah: What is the most difficult challenge in bringing about this level of democracy?

Frances: The first thing may be the world view that envelops us like an invisible ether. In this world view, public life is alien. It’s for celebrities and officials – it’s not me. It’s not pleasant, it’s not rewarding, and the only way I can hope to have a decent life is to somehow bolster my private life through income security and hopefully happy family relationships.

That notion is the greatest single obstacle because it robs us of a whole aspect of human development – our public selves, and prevents us from being willing to risk imagining another way of living.

All that we’re talking about in building a Living Democracy hinges on people seeing themselves in rewarding public life roles, seeing their humanity as being expressed in public life as well as private.

Paul: It is going to the heart and the mind of our consciousness as human beings – changing our expectations of what’s possible.

Sarah: What’s involved in getting people to reinvent their relationship to public life?

Frances: We grow up in this culture learning basic skills like reading, writing, arithmetic, but there’s very little emphasis on the skills we call the arts of democracy. How well do we listen? How well do we participate in envisioning a future? How well do we support people taking on new roles, like speaking in public for the first time? How well do we use conflict as a source of creativity rather than something to run from? And how well are we able to tolerate uncertainty, because living democracy is a process whose very nature is uncertainty and dynamic.

Sarah: How do you get people talking about the real issues facing their communities rather than divisive issues as they’re portrayed on television; and especially, how do you get them talking across the lines that normally divide our communities?

Frances: The answer is in the concrete. It’s in helping people reflect on, and apply their life experiences to, the very real problems facing them. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, you have an incredibly racially divided city in which – since the early days of the civil rights movement – there had been essentially no history of blacks and whites working together.

The community group there was able to develop a school reform plan that both blacks and whites felt very committed to. They conducted an in-depth survey so they had very concrete evidence of the problems. And they held some 435 house meetings over two years. All this involved intensively reaching out across racial lines and careful listening. By sticking to practical issues, bringing hard data to bear, and involving as many people as possible, they could set aside the kinds of polarized debates that can otherwise dominate school reform efforts.

Sarah: I’ve noticed a lot of organizing in recent years around things like keeping an AIDS hospice out of a neighborhood, or a soup kitchen, or low-income housing. It’s troublesome to me that community empowerment has this other side, which can be so very narrow.

Paul: What we have in every one of those instances is a group of people who are not really connected with the larger community or the larger set of problems. It’s a failure to communicate in a very profound way. The only way to engage people with their larger arena of connections is in fact exactly that, to effectively engage them.

Frances: I think where we see this kind of NIMBY [not-in-my-back-yard] syndrome, we are often seeing people reacting out of fear. Some of this fear is quite real. If people’s only wealth is in their home and they feel the value of their home is threatened by entry of something that may be unpleasant, that’s real.

So we need to look at what kind of processes would allow people in a neighborhood to develop face-to-face relationships with the folks who want to put in the drug rehab facility, the halfway house, and also the people who would be living in these facilities. How can we get these people talking and respecting each others concerns? What would it take to create real relationships, so that instead of seeing the people in the neighborhood as targets whom you’re going to have to enlist or overcome, you can see them as people with legitimate interests who deserve respect?

Sarah: You’ve mentioned democracy in workplaces, which is not an arena where there’s a lot of talk about democracy.

Frances: The form of economic culture we have today is really very recent in human history. Certainly it’s just in the last few decades that we’ve had large global corporations as the dominant force in the world. Our economic system is in evolution, and that evolutionary process cannot function well if the majority of the people participating in it have no voice.

Every other aspect of solving our nation’s and our world’s problems can be solved only with the participation or ownership of people affected. That’s why you now see even the top Fortune 500 companies experimenting with teamwork.

Giving at least some type of authority to line workers or giving them a stake in ownership is increasingly seen as what makes for productivity. Twenty one percent of publicly traded companies have some significant degree of worker ownership, and these worker-owned businesses are out-performing the market averages. It’s quite possible that there will be an increasing demand on the part of many people for a voice in their economic lives.

At the same time, we’re not blind to the fact that overall our economy is split, with a few at the top getting wealthier and the majority getting poorer. It is conceivable that we will develop our own form of apartheid, not just in a racial sense, but in a class sense – you can see the signs that we’re headed in that direction.

Paul: The only way to prevent that from happening is for all of us to work together to make sure that 100 percent of the people are part of the decision making.

Sarah: What is it that gives you the most hope?

Frances: I would say that it’s the "ordinary" people – the ones you won’t read about in the paper – who are rewardingly engaged in public life and self-consciously aware that this is meaningful to them. This can begin to change people’s expectations of what is "the good life" and what is possible for our culture.

Paul: We need tens of millions of people practicing democracy in their everyday lives in order to change the culture of despair. The seeds of such change are certainly present. Our job is to make them visible and build on them.

You can contact Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois or order their wonderful book, The Quickening of Democracy at the Center for Living Democracy, RR#1, Black Fox Road, Brattleboro, VT 05301, tel. 802/254-1234.


Celebration and Appreciation

Here are a few suggestions from citizens who are learning the importance of celebration and appreciation:

Celebrate the learning, not just the winning, acknowledging what has been accomplished, even when an intended target is not met.

Create a celebratory spirit. Colored balloons. Streamers. Live music. All these create a mood of celebration, even in a public gathering with deadly serious problems. What are we celebrating? The power of citizens to come together with a common vision; the power of hope over fear.

Show appreciation of your adversaries as well as your allies. Gestures of appreciation, like phone calls and letters, don’t signal weakness. They establish your credibility as a group or person with strength who knows you’ll be around for the long haul.

Frances Moore Lappé & Paul Du Bois, adapted from their book, The Quickening of Democracy.

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