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Awakening grassroots energy by Richard K Moore

This Blog is a chapter in a book being written on-line by Richard Moore.

He says, “This has been a very difficult chapter to write, and you’ve seen the multiple attempts. For one thing it is difficult to make the transition from three chapters on the ‘problem’, over to talking about the ‘solution’, when the solution is in a whole different space than the problem. Also difficult is how to introduce dialog processes into the context of the localization movement, particularly when dialog involves so many concepts unfamiliar to most people.”

He adds “Please don’t be shy about making suggestions, or complaints, about content, style, or whatever. Let me know if you say something you want kept private. ”  email rkm@quaylargo.com

Awakening grassroots energy

In the various localization initiatives we have looked at so far, the community itself has been a more or less passive participant in the process. The activists provide the energy, the programs are largely pre-defined, and the folks in the community need only decide whether or not to participate.

Those initiatives have been about teaching things to the community, and advising local people about what they should be doing as a community. There is another thread of initiatives that are about listening to the community, and helping the local people to find out what they want to be doing as a community.

Rather than programs, these initiatives involve various processes that are aimed at creating an environment where people can work together more productively and creatively than typically occurs in discussions or meetings.

There are a wide variety of such processes, appropriate to different situations, with varying degrees of effectiveness, and with varying degrees of overhead involved. A comprehensive catalog of community-oriented processes can be found in the Co-Intelligence Institute’s toolbox of processes for community work.

As this book continues, we will be looking at various of these initiatives and processes, as we are considering situations where each might be relevant. For now I’d like to introduce one particular initiative that has achieved remarkable results, as regards:

  • finding common ground
  • generating sensible proposals
  • awakening the energy of the participants

A case study: Wise Democracy Victoria

One very promising initiative has been unfolding over the past few years in the city of Victoria, British Columbia. A group of local citizens came together under the name Wise Democracy Victoria, and they have convened a series of Wisdom Councils in which local residents have participated.

Wisdom Councils were invented by Jim Rough, of Port Townsend, Washington, based on practices that evolved out of his consulting work in industry. The participants in a Wisdom Council are selected randomly from the local population, much like jury members are selected. The Council then convenes for one or more days, using a process Jim developed, called Dynamic Facilitation.

In this process, the facilitator’s job is to give their full attention to whoever is speaking, and encourage the person to fully express what’s on their mind. The facilitator repeats back the main statements, and writes them down on a flip chart, so that everything said is clearly understood by everyone.

The facilitator makes no attempt to push the group toward reaching conclusions, but just helps the group follow its own energy. In a Wisdom Council there isn’t even a topic for discussion: the participants themselves gradually converge on what they want to talk about.

Wise Democracy Victoria has posted detailed descriptions of their series of three Wisdom Councils on this website: http://wisedemocracyvictoria.wetpaint.com/. Included are videos, newspaper reoprts, reference information, and statements that were created by each of the three Councils. The website offers this summary:

Wisdom Councils precipitate energy, enthusiasm and HOPE for the Future:
Past participants have indicated that the experience was transforming and energizing because they felt that their voices could actually make a difference!
Like a match in a haystack, the ‘latent energy of democracy’ is there, ready to be tapped. It only takes a few people at the right time and the right place. You can help provide the spark!
Three Wisdom Councils have now been successfully convened in Victoria, including the first in Canada and one in the close-knit neighbourhood of Fernwood. In each case the Council members have prepared an amazing statement of community spirit!
Even though the council members did not know one another prior to meeting and came from a wide diversity of backgrounds and experiences, in each case they have prepared a powerful, unanimous statement.

If you look at some of the videos and statements you will see that this summary does not exaggerate the remarkable outcomes of the Councils. There is indeed a ‘latent energy of democracy’ that can be woken up when people know that their voices can really make a difference, and they are in an environment where they are encouraged to express themselves.

Following each of the Councils, a public meeting was held where the Council participants reported on their experience and their unanimous statement. From the videos of these reports we can see that the participants didn’t just ‘agree on a statement’, rather they are all very enthusiastic about the ideas they have created together. Their enthusiasm spills over to the folks at the public meeting, and for one promising evening, following each Council, the latent energy of democracy comes alive in the room.

Unfortunately, these promising evenings are always followed by a let-down. Experiencing the possibility of participatory democracy is energizing, but there’s nowhere to go with that energy. When the event is over it’s like when an enchanting movie is over; you go back into the real world, with just a memory of an appealing world that you wish could be real.

Every attempt was made in Victoria to get the community interested in the Councils, first in Victoria as a whole, and later in the neighborhood of Fernwood. There were announcements and public meetings of various kinds, both before and after the events, and there was some good newspaper coverage. The hope was to generate public enthusiasm around the potential of particpatory processes in giving people a greater voice in public affairs. Again, a let-down, as the public response was relatively insignificant.

Wisdom Councils are a very important proof-of-concept, despite the fact that they have not yet escaped from marginality in their effect on communities. They have demonstrated that people in communities are capable of finding common ground and collaborating effectively, if they are in an appropriately supportive environment. These Councils have demonstrated in microcosm that people have a natural energy for participatory democracy, that there is indeed a ‘latent energy of democracy’ embedded in human nature.

How that energy might be awoken in a whole community, and how direct democracy might operate effectively on the community level, are still unanswered questions. Those questions are in fact a central theme of this book, and we’ll be returning to them in the next chapter and beyond.

Meanwhile, the Wise Democracy Victoria folks have managed to get the local government interested in the potential of ‘wise democracy’ processes. The City of Victoria recently sponsored two Citizen Insight Councils, which are like Wisdom Councils, except they have a predefined topic to explore. This is happening as part of the city’s public engagement strategy, as they are reviewing the city’s Official Community Plan.

With city sponsorship, these Councils got a lot more attention than the Wisdom Councils did, and they may have a beneficial impact on city planning as well. The recommendations that emerged from the Councils are very sensible and creative.

Using these processes in the context of public engagement with government, is in many ways a very good thing. It gives Councils an opportunity to have greater impact on communities than was happening otherwise; it raises public awareness about democratic processes, and it is a very effective way of providing public input to local government that is of high-quality and that has a considerable claim to democratic legitimacy.

That path, however, tends to take the processes away from the core direction of the localization movement, which is about transforming our societies beyond what governments are able or willing to pursue. To the extent processes are devoted to advising government, only ‘realistic’ proposals can be entertained. And the proposals are recommendations only.

Perhaps in the case of Victoria, the local government will entertain ideas that can really make a difference. It will be very interesting to see the new Community Plan when it comes out.

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