Democracy is always in the making: a never-ending project that requires constant rethinking and development.
Reclaiming and recasting politics and democracy is a core challenge for participatory democrats. The key argument is that citizen participation can reinvigorate democratic life by infusing diversity, experience and knowledge into official decision making. The question is what kind of participation?
In representative democracy, citizens are usually given a thin role in public life, and participation often means casting a ballot every few years, and being occasionally invited to consultations. It seems unsurprising that most citizens don’t grab such opportunities with both hands. Lack of public interest can then be used as an excuse for not supporting citizens to become more involved in governing themselves.
But there are alternative understandings of democracy where participation means direct influence for citizens on the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. Why citizen participation? Because our current political systems too often struggle to cope with the pressing issues of our time. We need more problem-solving capacity, better policy and decision making, and new ways of governing. In other words, representative democracy needs a substantial upgrade.
Although there seems to be broad support for democratic principles amongst citizens, there can be mistrust in how current institutions work. Representative democracy can suffer from low turnouts, political disaffection, public cynicism and loss of legitimacy. The answer to the problems of democracy must surely be more democracy, a more meaningful and engaged kind – a participatory democracy, perhaps.
Well-known forms of participation, including volunteering, voting, organising, campaigning and so on, coexist now alongside those that eschew traditional models of organisational affiliation. For instance, many engage passionately on single issues that matter to them, others are political in how they spend their money and time, yet others work to develop new forms of economic life through cooperatives or social enterprises. All forms of participation can contribute to develop a vibrant democracy.
One form of participation being used in Aberdeenshire is participatory budgeting(PB). Following on from PB exercises throughout Aberdeenshire in 2017 and 2018, Peterhead Decides is currently asking the people of Peterhead if they have an idea that would help improve the local environment in Peterhead?
Join us at K and M Communities next week to read more about what Peterhead have been up to!
The word ‘idiot’ derives from the ancient Greek for a private citizen who professes no interest in being involved in politics. In the birthplace of democracy, it was simply an article of faith that every citizen would become actively engaged in the political decisions of their towns, cities and nation state. Democracy, as the ancient Greeks conceived it, was a civic duty and any citizen could be called upon to serve. No hustings, no elections, and no political parties. Just the random selection of individual citizens who would willingly step forward when their names were drawn by lot. Known as sortition, this form of democracy would be anathema to our modern-day career politicians. Yet it is a particular form of sortition – the citizens’ assembly – to which many countries around the world are now turning to help resolve some of their most intractable problems. And as we settle down to watch the next instalment of modern-day British democracy of Brexit, many now argue that a randomly selected assembly of citizens, expertly guided and supported, might just offer a sensible way forward. We’d surely be idiots not to try.
Look back next week, to find out a bit more about the participative democracy happening in Aberdeenshire now.
In the Autumn of 2014, two San Francisco therapists shared a vision: to help heal that which divides us through the fine art of skilled listening. They gathered 26 of their colleagues, practiced listening skills and came up with a curriculum and model for listening on the sidewalks together.
On May 7th 2015, for 2 hours in 12 locations throughout San Francisco, listeners set up chairs and signs, offering to listen to any passer-by who wanted to be seen and heard. The result was amazing. And soon after a group from Los Angeles asked if they could reproduce it. There was never an intention for this thing to grow. Every person met at Sidewalk Talk is just like you, someone who believes that human connection is the way to create healthy humans, healthy politics, and a healthy world.
Today Sidewalk Talk has 1700 volunteers world-wide. They have groups in 40 cities around the globe. They have grown but remain grassroots by design. The focus is creating an active, engaged community of volunteers who commit to a regular listening practice and who connect with each other, not just the people they listen to.
Is this a way to gather not only people’s thoughts and opinions, but also raise the important of what the man on the “sidewalk” has to say? Would this work in our communities? Worth a thought!
Spare Chair Sunday first launched in 2015 as a partnership between national charity Contact the Elderly and Bisto. Expanding on the charity’s model of free monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of older people aged over 75 who live alone, Spare Chair Sunday encouraged people to offer a ‘spare chair’ at their Sunday lunch tables to a Contact the Elderly older guest and their volunteer driver, to share a delicious warm lunch all together. The response to the award-winning campaign was amazing, with over 1,600 Spare Chair Sunday volunteers hosting Sunday lunches or becoming regular tea party volunteers in their local community.
Any host homes or venues must have a downstairs toilet and be easily accessible (generally we say no more than three steps where possible).
Any car used must be fully insured and drivers must hold a full driving licence, as well as supplying two references and completing a DBS check. This is for the safety and security of guests and host.
Interested? Click on http://www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk/volunteer to apply to become a volunteer. Applications are dealt with as soon as possible, but please do be patient, all necessary checks must be made. In some cases, there will not be anyone near enough to you, groups may already have as many volunteers as they require, or there may not be a group in your area. It may be the case that your application may enable work to be launched in the area for the first time, enabling more older people to benefit!
Some beautiful and unusual buildings and land are in community ownership.
A growing number of groups are getting together to rescue much-loved places from redevelopment or demolition – from castles and piers to public toilets.
Could your community take ownership of a local space? To inspire you, over the next few weeks we would like to share with you some of these. First up, The Burrow, Devon.
The Burrow in Exbourne is a community-owned shop with a difference – it’s underground. Like something from The Hobbit, this little shop, café and post office is built underneath a field in the centre of the village, and is the UK’s only underground shop.
In December 2001 the village shop and post office in the parish of Exbourne with Jacobstowe in rural West Devon closed and was sold as a private dwelling. This meant that villagers would have to make a journey of at least 5 miles each way to reach the nearest town for shops and services.
Early in 2002 following a public meeting to discuss the closure of the community’s only store and post office, the Exbourne Community Initiative Committee was formed. The original mandate of the organisation was to try and re-establish a shop – a community-run shop – possibly with additional facilities alongside it. The great importance of such activities in safeguarding the quality of village life was keenly recognised and the initiative was supported by the vast majority of local residents.
The Association quickly established a temporary shop, cafe and post office in Exbourne’s Village Hall, opening 2 mornings a week and run (with the exception of the Post Office section) by volunteers.
The shop has grown and grown and with the support of local growers, plus a lot of hard work, they have managed to get together an exciting range of products, from fresh vegetables, canned food and even some hardware items. Each shop day freshly baked bread is locally sourced.
Borrowing from neighbours was once a commonplace practice, part of the network of relations we once had with those who lived within close range.
So what’s changed?
The industrial revolution brought affordable modern technology—with it quick transportation and supermarkets. In ancient times, hunting, gathering, and foraging were communal practices. And it wasn’t long ago that many cultures, especially rural ones, still relied on weekly markets, traveling salesmen, and the growing of their own goods. But living in relative isolation also meant more contact with your neighbours because one of them probably provided your weekly dairy needs and another milled wheat for flour or grew pears you exchanged for apples.
Changes in food technology, making fresh produce less perishable, extending shelf life, has decreased the interaction we have with those who live close by to help out when we are running short. Communal cooking practises regularly seen in other countries don’t feature in our society.
It’s easy to reflect on past practises with rose tinted spectacles. Changes in our food supply has brought countless benefits. However, does the growing reliance on foodbanks indicate we should re-evaluate practises long forgotten? Reconnecting with our neighbours in times of need would not only strengthen bonds within our communities but provide welcome support during difficult times. The social distance created by modern society is a symptom of our increasingly busy lives and the sprawling communities we now live in. However, it is only a short walk next door for that cupful of sugar, but the benefits to our communities can stretch much further than that.
Solomon thought so, he says to ‘go to the ant’ and ‘consider the ant’ and refers to them as little upon the earth but exceeding wise. He suggests that taking a leaf from their book will preserve us from poverty and give us wisdom. Given Solomon is the richest man the world has ever known (today he would be worth 100 times more than John D Rockefeller), some ant facts are worth knowing.
So, how do ant communities do it?
1. Strong leadership
Ant communities are headed by a queen or queens, whose function in life is to lay thousands of eggs that will ensure the survival of the colony. Workers (the ants typically seen by humans) are wingless females that never reproduce, but instead, forage for food, care for the queen’s offspring, work on the nest, protect the community, and perform many other duties. When the queen of the colony dies, the colony can only survive a few months. Queens are rarely replaced and the workers are not able to reproduce. The lesson;
Without strong and clear leadership – failure is imminent!
2. Communicate & cooperate
Ants are social insects which form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organised colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. Ants communicate and cooperate by using chemicals (pheromones) that can alert others to danger or lead them to a promising food source. The lesson;
Nothing can succeed without clear communication and cooperation.