Every year the Working Centre hosts a 14-week Diploma in Local Democracy. The purpose of the course is to learn about the practice and theory of local democracy through conversation and reflection on personal experience. We are the group of ten who enrolled in the course this year (2016) - and this essay is a product of what we have learned from one another.
The Attitudes of Local Democracy
In reflecting on our experience of local democracy (in class or elsewhere), we realized that, for local democracy to happen, a lot depends on what each person brings to the gathering. It seemed as if there were some necessary pre-conditions. We call these attitudes. The most important of these are gratitude, humility, and honesty.
Gratitude is a primary precursor to local democracy. Consumerism teaches us to want more rather than appreciate what we already have. Gratitude requires patience and presence to stop and appreciate our surroundings. We forge connections to others when we are grateful for the presence and gifts. From our biographies in class and the discussions that followed, it became clear that each of us felt gratitude in our heads and in our hearts. As we shared our unique individual experiences within local democracy, a common sense of gratefulness was evident. It served to connect each of us. Through continued reflection our cultivated attitude of appreciation extended beyond our group to include more and more of the living world, but specifically the community we share. It is through gratitude we are able to take stock of our individual and shared gifts. In this way our collective gratitude and desire to express it transformed into thoughts and feelings of optimism and empathy.
For a vibrant local democracy, humility is also a key attitude. Humility resists an over-inflated view of oneself: humble people are not ego-centric. Instead, they are eco-centric, they recognize that each member of the community (human and more-than-human) has gifts to offer for the good of the whole. Moreover, while one person’s gifts and viewpoints may be valued, they are always incomplete and partial. Without the contribution of each, the whole is always impoverished.
Honesty is another important attitude for the emergence of local democracy. One of the first projects in our class was to present a short biography to the class, a glimpse of each of our lives and how we have personally experienced local democracy. The project was a great teaching tool — we gleaned lessons as we shared and discussed our individual experiences — but it also created an environment characterized by trust. Relationships that are founded on honest dialogue are the cornerstone of local democracy, one where everyone’s authentic voice is heard and included.
Hopeful practitioners of local democracy come to the gathering with certain attitudes. They are at first grateful for the gifts that each person brings to the community. They are then grateful for the space they occupy, the history preceding their meeting, and they have optimism for the future. Practitioners of local democracy are also humble. They realize that they are merely a part of a whole, that others have claims and interests on their life, on the way they choose to live their life, especially as it pertains to consequences that affect the whole. Humble practitioners of local democracy are willing to yield their power and privilege. And finally they are also honest, because honesty is the only setting in which authentic voices emerge, the loud and the quiet.
The Process of Local Democracy
Although the attitudes of local democracy are required for its emergence, they do not describe its actual embodiment, its practice. We call this the process of local democracy. We discovered the importance of a few themes: 1) a special kind of listening and speaking; 2) commitment to cooperation; and 3) practicing a democracy of species.
One key aspect of our experience of local democracy (in class and elsewhere) was that it emerged when people committed to an active and engaged listening. This kind of listening is present. It is not preparing a response or seeking a counter-point. It acknowledges difference and seeks to understand that unique perspective. We need to truly listen to what other people, even other species, are telling us, recognizing that every situation is entirely unique. Formulaic responses are, in this case, totally inappropriate. There are no set responses. This injects our conversation with spontaneity and liveliness. When people are actively listening, it creates an environment where people can trust one another with their stories and open up to honest dialogue, much like our class did with our biographies.
Since the whole is stronger when each member offers their best gifts and perspectives, we are better if we actively seek out the contribution of those around us. It is not enough to voice our views and hope that others will step up and do the same. We need to actively make room for others at the table. Making room means brings us back to the attitude of humility. It is being aware of our own privilege and yielding power to others. This kind of listening is also special because, on top of seeking to understand the voice of those who are present, it also asks the question, “Who has no voice, but needs to be heard?” Only by listening to those who are absent (human and more-than-human) can local democracy actually call itself democratic.
This leads to another key practice of local democracy. We call this practicing a democracy of species. We realized that in order to be true to the tenets of local democracy, we must be willing to widen the scope of our decision-making to include all members of the community, in all their diverse agencies, as well as the more-than-human world, the natural world of complex species who all also contribute to the community’s well-being. When resources are regarded as participants in the local democratic process then our decisions will be made differently.
Those who wish to practice local democracy must exercise cooperation. Cooperation happens when groups of organisms work or act together for common or mutual benefit. It is opposed to competition, in which organisms work against each other for selfish benefit. Many animal and plant species exemplify cooperation – for instance bees - they offer us lessons for how to establish a balanced relationship with our ecosystem.
The Ends of Local Democracy
Local democracy is situated in relationship to place. Wherever we are, our surroundings form our local context and shape the way in which democracy happens. The unique and unfolding nature of each place means that local democracy must engage the tension between possibility and limitation. Without a place to meet each week it would be hard to imagine this class happening; likewise, it would be hard to imagine this class without the many places that have shaped our personal biographies. We realized that our weekly meetings and conversations could not be replicated in a different place. This local context has at times meant disagreement and misunderstanding while other times it has revealed shared connections to places like the Working Centre and to the K-W area. An essential practice of local democracy is to commit to local and particular places, to understand their history and work for their preservation.
Local democracy is an authentic meeting of difference. It happens when two or more recognize that they desire for a common good, but also that they are fundamentally different. We were especially attracted to the term ‘meeting of differences’ because we thought it is a reflection of reality. Even at the Working Centre, not everyone operates on the same value system. Instead of dismissing the people that you have troubles understanding it's important to acknowledge these differences and try to listen to one another's’ perspectives so you are both able to come away with an enriching experience.
In a healthy local democracy, each member (human and more-than-human) flourishes. In fact, the whole is not well if individual members are prevented from doing so. But it is also true that an individual member cannot truly flourish if the whole is somehow impoverished. For example, if a member of the community temporarily lives well, but at the expanse of the natural world, eventually, even that individual will suffer (from the effects of climate change, for instance). In general, to flourish means to grow and develop in a healthy way. But how that looks for each individual and community can only be worked out over time through conversation and negotiation: the very act of listening we have stressed in our local democracy class. Local Democracy creates the responsibility towards stewardship of the Democracy Of Species - a collection of all of the beings, living or not that, are included in a place. Within the response of stewardship, members need access to the tools that allow them to flourish individually and collectively. These responses and tools are fluid, as the definition of one’s “flourishing” state evolves. There is also an evitable tension as the members define "flourish"; local democracy celebrates this tension recognizing the value of differing opinions. Therefore, there is no formal “conclusion” to local democracy but an on going assessment of the attitudes, processes and responses to nourish the common good.
The commons is a fertile space where people come together to share responsibility and reap the benefits of collaboratively working together. However, the commons are not always harmonious. Conflict arising from differences of opinion necessitates deliberation and compromise to problem-solve, which produces creative, inclusive and fruitful decisions.
A Definition of Local Democracy
The first task we were assigned when we started our class was to come up with a definition of local democracy. Finding a succinct and encompassing definition of any abstract concept is a difficult job in itself. Trying to do so while including everyone’s opinion is even more tricky. In fact, forcing 100% agreement became an unreasonable (and undesirable) practice.
There is a kind of tension that local democracy embodies. It finds a way to accept those who are different and to hold their differences in the midst of temporary conflict or ongoing disagreement. Local democracy asks, “Are you willing to see difference, disagreement and struggle as sources of creative tension?”
This essay is the product of difference. It endeavours to explain local democracy, but if it is true to its topic, then it must end inconclusively. It must be inherently incomplete, for local democracy listens to everyone within its formal limits, the ones who are present as well as absent, who have the privilege of speaking and who are marginalized unto silence. We hope that you will understand, as we have come to, that this is not and cannot be the final word on local democracy. As Paul Gardner once wrote “A painting is never finished, they just stop at interesting places.”