Discovering Public Life

Democracy isn't something we have, it's something we do,
say the founders of the new Institute for the Arts of Democracy

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 43
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute


This fall Ballantine Books released the 20th anniversary edition of Frances Moore Lappé’s classic on the politics of food, Diet for a Small Planet, a book that has been changing lives – and eating habits – for two decades now. Lappé, co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (better known as Food First), has continued to research the political and economic roots of hunger and poverty – and the trail has led her to consider the state of our political discourse, a subject she digs into deeply in her most recent book, Rediscovering America’s Values, which presents a penetrating dialogue between conservative points of view and her own emerging philosophy.

Now Lappé is starting off on a new venture. She and her new partner (and husband) Paul DuBois – an equally-experienced activist, organizer, educator and writer – are together founding the Institute for the Arts of Democracy to promote greater citizen participation in public life. Here they explain the genesis of the Institute to Lila Forest, a Unitarian Universalist minister and former IC associate editor. To contact the Institute, write to Institute for the Arts of Democracy, 36 Eucalyptus Lane, Suite 100, San Rafael, CA 94901.

Lila: How has your vision evolved through the various projects you each have been involved with over the years?

Frances: In 1969 I left a graduate program in community organizing at the University of California Berkeley, and for the first time I started listening to questions coming up from inside me. I was very much influenced by what was going on at the time – the birth of the ecology movement, Limits to Growth, The Population Bomb. It just seemed common-sensical to me that if people weren’t eating, what else mattered? If I could understand "Why hunger?", I realized, I could understand a great deal. Understanding hunger would be a way to penetrate the complexities of economic and political power.

So Diet for a Small Planet did not spring from the simplistic notion that if we just ate less meat everything would be OK. Diet was about recognizing that hunger is not caused by scarcity, because there’s plenty of food. It was a call for people to use daily eating as a reminder about the whole set of rules, assumptions, and institutions that create plenty for some and scarcity for many.

I was very frustrated after I wrote Diet because I didn’t know how to build on it. Then Joe Collins and I created the Institute for Food Development and Policy in 1975, which I saw as a way to empower people by disabusing them of myths such as "There’s just not enough to go around," "Poor countries simply need our technology," or "It’s all a matter of overpopulation."

By the early 1980s I began to feel it was too easy to critique the concentrated economic and political power structures that create hunger and other social and environmental problems. There was a certain self-righteous and intellectual pleasure in that critique, but it became less and less satisfying as the Reagan era developed, and I realized that what was missing was any convincing, compelling vision.

I realized that people wanted more from me than simply critique. So I started a program of study. I examined worker self-management, economic democracy in Sweden, the worker co-op movement in Europe. I was really struggling, because I knew that the answer wasn’t some new "ism." Saying "Here’s my new model of the society of the future" wasn’t going to convince anybody.

By the mid-1980s I was beginning to articulate that the solution is not a model, it’s a path – and the key to that path is dialogue. That was my motive for writing Rediscovering America’s Values as dialogue. I believe the only way answers will emerge is through real talk among people. When everything is reduced to polarized issues, shrill name calling, and sound-bite simplification, we’ve lost public talk about our values – the basis of all real problem solving.

So Rediscovering America’s Values was the first step that led me to what became the Institute for the Arts of Democracy. Co-founding IAD is my answer to the questions I started struggling with in the early 80s. The book Paul and I are working on now, Doing Democracy, will be the fullest popular articulation we can give to that path. I expect this work to be the basis for the rest of our lives.

Paul: Because I was born Black, and into a very, very violent family – I was a seriously beaten child, and my mother was a seriously beaten spouse – and because both my parents were, ironically, vitally involved in public affairs, I grew up with a strong aversion to violence, a strong sense of social justice, and a very strong notion that the people I most wanted to help were my people – Black people. I later came to define "my people" as simply poor people. Those are the concerns that drove me to a seminary for three years, to the anti-war movement, to the civil rights movement, and that informed my choice of studies.

I left a graduate program at Cornell in 1977 to become the assistant director of a model cities program, and then the executive director of the FIGHT organization. At the time, it was the largest Black community organization in New York, and one of the best known in the country. I also founded two for-profit companies concerned with inner-city development. I was heavily involved in alternative newspapers and rape crisis centers and all sorts of things.

But I came to realize – as I was burning out during this period – that the road to social change was paved with lots of ruts and boulders that I didn’t fully understand, and at least as much failure as success. So I went back into academia to ask some questions, eventually becoming vice-president of two colleges.

Later, I became executive director of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Through that branch of psychology I had learned the value of looking at successes rather than focusing on the failures, as I had always done – the failures in society as well as in our own work. I noticed that the programs that worked – in housing, education, employment, drug abuse, youth training, business, and so on – were nearly always the programs that gave people some access to power and decision-making. They gave them a chance to develop their capacities to run more and more of their own lives.

That brings us to the present – to founding IAD, to citizen democracy, and to empowerment.

Lila: What will IAD be doing to help meet the needs for dialogue and empowerment that you’ve identified?

Frances: Lawrence Goodwyn, who wrote the definitive work on the populists of the last century, said in a speech recently that we have a language of Karl Marx, and we have a language of Adam Smith – in other words, we have a language of class struggle and of the market – but we have no language of democracy. You can’t consciously create what you can’t name. People are doing things all the time, but they are not naming them so they can see how one’s own actions are contributing to a larger, historic positive change. To do that naming is incredibly energizing and empowering.

So one of our very specific goals is helping to build language. This is very solid activism – it’s not simply describing what is, but what’s emerging that’s invisible. Doing Democracy is all about the democracy that is happening in communities, in the environmental movement, in schools, in the human services, in media, in political practice – understanding "democracy" to be a continuous process, a way of life we’re all engaged in that involves becoming effective deliberators, problem-solvers, and decision-makers.

We’re trying to give a name to this historical movement. We see it as the end of the inherited mechanistic world view, in which people are isolated atoms, and the political arena is simply a competition, sorted out through the mechanism of the market. We’re witnessing the emergence of new assumptions:

* that human beings are relational, that we come to an understanding of even our own interests through dialogue with others;

* that people are fundamentally capable and need engagement in public life in order to grow, to be happy, to develop their fullest humanity;

* that public life isn’t, therefore, just a burden that democratic people must bear – it is a very profound human need.

Our goal is to demonstrate that there is an alternative that you – today, tonight, tomorrow – can be part of. And it’s not up there in Washington DC or just in your town hall: it’s in how you relate to your child’s problems in school; in how you relate to the human services sector; in how you begin to take responsibility away from distant experts or simply the impersonal law of the market. How do we each, every one of us, begin to take responsibility for shaping all these relationships to match our own values? And how do we develop our values through dialogue? Those are the questions we’re trying to help people answer for themselves.

Paul: There are a lot of myths these days about the American character and public life. People say Americans don’t care very much about the environment, or poverty, or racism, or whatever. But exactly the opposite is true. The recent Kettering Report is one of the many studies that demonstrate that people really do care. We are not moral couch potatoes – but we are, in a sense, political couch potatoes. There is a vast difference between what’s really in our hearts, or troubling our minds, and our behavior.

Formally we say we’re a democracy. But saying that makes us feel even worse, because we feel some responsibility for public life – and public life is abhorrent to most of us. It appears to be nothing but ten-second sound bites, mud-slinging, and money-dominated elections. So we continue to withdraw.

The mess in political affairs is a swamp, and we have no idea how to drain it or how to change it into something more attractive. At the same time, we don’t have any idea what to do about the very large problems that we know threaten our values, our future, the security of our children, and the welfare of the society and the people that we love. We feel that our voices, our values, and our caring are not heard in the business community, with our employer, in some of our churches, and certainly not in the media. We don’t have a voice to speak of in any of these sorts of arenas. To say it more emotionally, there is so much about the world that we want to love, but we don’t have a way to love.

But many of us would try if we saw some glimmer of hope. So first of all, people have to understand that whenever they do something, they are in fact linked to thousands of other people who share the same concerns. They’re not really one lone drop in an empty bucket because many, many drops are actually filling that bucket. There really is a quiet revolution occurring across the country – people are standing up and doing something about what they believe in. The question becomes, how do we find them?

The best way for our Institute to help is not to be out there preaching a vision, or asking people to jump on our bandwagon, but rather to demonstrate that there are thousands and thousands of people who are doing this very thing in their quiet and low-key – and sometimes not so low-key – ways. It’s happening everywhere; it’s just that people don’t quite know that their neighbors right down the street or on the other side of town are doing important things, and that they could also do them.

Frances: I think most people feel that they’re the last sane person on Earth – and if you feel like that, you feel pretty lonely. That is clearly an obstacle, and part of what we can do with our organization is to show people that their feelings are very common.

The liberal tradition of Western philosophy still has a powerful impact on us. We’re taught that we can’t really put ourselves in each other’s shoes, and therefore that any political or public process is suspect because it’s likely to be manipulated by one self-seeking individual. The less public life we have, the better; the more we can leave things to the market, the better. That’s the logical conclusion to this line of thinking, and it dominates how the political sciences are taught.

So one of our myth-busting jobs is to help people to see the degree to which they’ve absorbed this tradition, and then to ask them to examine their own experience: Is that really how it is? Or do I actually get a lot of satisfaction from teaming up with other people in the family, or the classroom, or in sports to solve common problems?

Another job is to help people see that there’s more to public life than civics or politics. Early in this country’s history, economics was assigned to the private arena. That made sense, I would argue, when we were small farmers and shopkeepers, and when the family unit and the economic unit were pretty much the same. But 200 years later, economic life is dominated by large bureaucracies like Dow Chemical or General Motors that are effectively non-elected governments with non-elected officers. So part of our mission is to help people see that today, economic life is public life.

Lila: One of the things that really struck me in your literature is the careful thinking you’ve done about the skills people need to develop in order to be fully participatory.

Paul: Well, the root of the word "idiot" is Greek. It meant, for the Greeks, someone without a public life. So if we develop only certain "private" skills that leaves us as only a fraction of the human being that we could be.

To get specific, we need to know how to have good relationships with other people, from our car mechanic to the people who run our government. We need to be able to listen so well that we really understand the felt messages, not merely the words. We need to probe for the values, needs and interests underneath it all. We need to understand something about power – where another person’s interests are, and where our interests are. We need to understand how our own interest is, in fact, in the larger view. We need to be able to understand something about what the world might become, and what our own values manifested in the world will actually create. We call that "public imagination," and there’s a lot that can be done there. We need to think about the future – and we also need, therefore, to think about the past, about the lessons that can be drawn from our relationships and from our efforts to change the world for the better.

Lila: What’s the first step in that process?

Frances: It may sound ironic, but the willingness to admit failure is the first step. The eighties represented the last gasp of the simplistic notion that we can close our eyes, deregulate, and "the market" will take care of things. The nineties will require a revival of citizenship. And it doesn’t matter whether you were born of parents living in this country, because we’re never born a citizen in the way I mean that word. We only become citizens as we learn the arts of citizenship and take responsibility. Many of the people that I know who are real citizens in this society are people who don’t have the papers to show it.

Paul: Right, because what counts is what one does with one’s life. The first step is simply acknowledging that we all are public people every day – at school, at work, in the economy, in our places of worship. We have to reject the empty notion that our only real meaning or reward comes from private life.

The second step is consciously building our capacities – listening, evaluation, negotiation, public communication – to enhance our public lives. The third step is active problem-solving and decision-making in any public arena. Public life then becomes not a dull duty, nor a shield to protect our private selves, but the path for solving our communities’ unprecedented problems and the means for our fullest development as people.

You see, the quality of life in general is affected by what we’re calling public life. It’s all public, in fact.

Doing Democracy:
Examples From All Over

In Minneapolis, a group of unemployed single parents on welfare who call themselves The Mothers Union have joined together to offer each other mutual support – from housing and child care to crisis intervention and tutoring for their children. In Albuquerque, a group of Hispanic inner city residents formed an organization called the Southwest Organizing Project to demand paved streets and low-income housing from their city government. Now they are successfully fighting crime and toxic dumps in their communities. In Ft. Worth, Black and White ministers and thousands of parishioners in an organization named Allied Communities of Tarrant (ACT) focused on involving parents in their children’s education and dramatically raised learning levels in the city’s most poorly performing primary school. ACT is part of a 12-city Texas network of church-based organizations (the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation) that organized tens of thousands of state-wide residents to reform utility rates and secure healthcare for the poor. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth – mostly rural and poor – bucked the coal companies to change the state constitution so that the companies can no longer seize farmers’ land for strip mining. In New York City, the Youth Action Program, with a Board made up of 75% young people, has relied on the energies and initiatives of teenagers to rehabilitate houses for the homeless and a senior citizens’ activity center where young people serve as escorts and companions.

In Little Rock, Dallas and Watsonville, California, radio and TV stations with boards composed entirely of low-income people deliver programs and news that directly address the problems of the poor.

At Northern Telecom in Morrisville, North Carolina, managers reorganized the workforce into teams which make decisions on everything from budgeting and hours to hiring managers. Some top executives didn’t know about the change until they began asking why productivity had so improved. In New York City’s Cooperative Home Care over a hundred African-Ameri-can and Hispanic women, many formerly on welfare, now run their own home care business and earn incomes above the industry average.

In Harlem’s Central Park East public school, students are excelling – despite neighborhoods marred by poverty, crime and drugs – in programs that emphasize cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and community service.

What do such diverse initiatives share? They are changing their communities, their schools and their workplaces – and in some cases their entire states – by developing the capacities of their members to engage successfully in public life. In most cases, the members of these organizations can see that their individual self-interest is embedded in the interests of their community. They seek power in order to advance that sense of embedded self-interest. As they take responsibility for constructive problem solving, they become effective participants in an active democracy. In other words, they are active citizens practicing – doing – democracy.

– Frances Moore Lappé and Paul DuBois

To order materials about such initiatives or to join Lappé and DuBois’s new organization, write to the Institute for the Arts of Democracy, 36 Eucalyptus Lane, Suite 100, San Rafael, CA 94901.

A Direct Democracy Index

By David Morris

Politics only recently has become a process by which we vote for people. Originally, it was a process by which we actively participated in making decisions.

Alexis de Toqueville, the French chronicler of early American democracy, wrote that "Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science. They bring it within the people’s reach. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty."

Town meetings, except in a few parts of New England, no longer exist. But hundreds of cities still enable their citizens to make decisions directly. They allow citizens to recall local elected officials before the end of their term. Or they allow citizens to initiate and enact legislation directly (initiative), or to vote on legislation enacted by local governments (referendum).

A healthy democracy balances direct participation and representative government. In America we have gone dangerously far towards relying exclusively on representatives of the people, and, as we have discovered, eventually these representatives become divorced from the people and beholden to interests that are often hostile to the will of the people. What follows represents part of a Direct Democracy Index, an evaluation of local government state by state from the perspective of how much access each state’s citizens have to municipal decision making. Only the five highest and lowest ranking states are listed.

Recall Initiative Refer-
1 Hawaii* 100% 100% 100% 100%
2 Alaska 94% 94% 100% 96%
3 Colorado 97% 89% 98% 95%
3 Oregon 92% 96% 97% 95%
3 South Dakota 100% 85% 100% 95%
46 North Carolina 24% 20% 53% 32%
47 Alabama 33% 15% 36% 28%
48 Kentucky 21% 20% 33% 25%
49 Virginia 13% 89% 51% 24%
50 Indiana 14% 6% 36% 19%

* Based on data from only one reporting city.

Source: The Municipal Year Book, 1979, International City Management Association, Washington DC.


David Morris is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance at 2425 18th Street NW, Washington DC 20009, Tel. 230/232-4108. He adapted this piece from his book The New City-States, available from the Institute.

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