Democracy Without Boxes or Borders

July 5th, 2011

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Laura Leone @ 11:35 am

By Len Krimerman

Innovation Rising

In April 2007, two undergraduate students together with the Director of Student Activities and myself, a retired but still teaching philosopher, began designing a new program in “Creative Community Building” (CCB) for the University of Connecticut. Our program is in many ways innovative. It embodies a reciprocal partnership between the off-campus community and the university, one that respects the wisdom of community-based practitioners and integrates it with academic research. It brings together a very wide spectrum of community building and democratic engagement fields, rather than specializing on only one, e.g., economic development or citizen dialogue. Our prospective students range from late teen community college transfers to mid-career professionals, to those seeking new careers, or returning to finish degrees. And it puts creativity and its facilitation at the very center of an approach to learning and community building, focusing on personal, community, and planetary transformation.

Magic Begins Within

Over the past year, little by little, others in both the university and the off-campus community in eastern Connecticut have been attracted to this new program, among them several social scientists, a mechanical engineer, the Women Studies and Puerto Rican and Latino/a Studies programs, along with veteran practitioners in cooperative economics, creativity and education, a former state Commissioner of Social Services, and members of the Windham Area Arts Collaborative and of Colectivo Mestival, Willimantic’s Hispanic cultural organization.

Today our working team consists of more than a dozen faculty and an equal number of community-based practitioners. For a university still fragmented within largely isolated academic schools and departments and often seen as indifferent to its proximate neighbors, this assemblage – which has been meeting almost twice monthly since last summer – is remarkable enough. But something very magical has been created through these meetings. Even while wrestling with the nuts and bolts of developing budget proposals, course descriptions, and outreach strategies, our meetings have become genuinely educative as well. Stories, dreams, and teaching methods are shared, responsibilities divided up, exciting research from multiple fields is blended with practical experience. In short, a collaborative space has emerged in which our customary “sociologist”, “anthropologist”, “practitioner”, “faculty”, and “student” identities have largely dissolved, allowing us all to become learners engaged in discovering our own community-building assets in ways which we hope prefigure and will contribute to our larger mission – helping communities recognize their own resources and creatively shape their own futures.

And Spreads Beyond

The magic began within us, but, magically enough, could not be contained there. In mid-April of this year, at a most congenial and productive meeting, we presented a full progress report on our initiative to the core staff of UCONN’s Continuing Studies Center. A month later, we received word that we were approved to start offering certificate and CEU credit workshops this summer and could begin our full Bachelor of General Studies degree program in the Fall of this year(!!). Having spent decades in academia imagining but never quite realizing such an outcome, this has left me speechless with joy and tears, and magically dispelled the dark suspicion that “nothing can be done.”

Our inaugural event will be a small conference this July, which we’ll call a “Collaborence”™. It will bring together the community practitioners with whom we’ve worked or consulted so they can start learning about and from one another. They will also have an extended opportunity to provide us additional feedback on all aspects of our creative community-building program. Among the included off-campus organizations: Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circle Resource Center), Windham Regional Community Council, American Friends Service Committee, Cooperative Development Institute of the Northeast, Cooperative Fund of New England, Eastern Area Health Education Center, Windham Area Arts Collaborative, Colectivo Mestival, and several regional community colleges.

Magic & Problem-Free

To teach, learn, and work collaboratively in ways that honor and combine the diverse resources of a major university and its community neighbors is indeed marvelously magical. But to do this really well, we need to educate ourselves and our students about what George Benello called “working models” – long-lasting examples of successful and creative community building. It’s here that we’ve encountered a problem, a fairly big hole in our magical fabric, and one we hope NVO’s readers might help us fill.

First, though, a distinction. Despite the nay-saying academic chorus – think Bowling Alone and the alleged demise of “social capital” – grassroots democracy and inventive community building is very much alive. There is no shortage of wonderful and well-working models – the Mondragon cooperative consortium of worker cooperatives, now in its fifth decade, Highlander’s 75 years, throughout the southern states and elsewhere, of deeply educative democracy, Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities, the Brazilian participatory budget process, now replicated on almost every continent, the fast-growing National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation with over 500 organizational members, and many, many more. (refs at end)

Thus far, however, these have remained overwhelmingly local and without substantial impact on national or cross-border institutional priorities. Moreover, and not accidentally I think, these grassroots initiatives have tended to pursue single-minded or isolated paths: some focus on “economic development” or “workplace democracy”, or on “citizen engagement” or “conflict resolution”, still others on “cultural agency” or “creative expression”, or on “participatory inquiry” or “democracy in education”. In short, they are not, or not yet, the sort of models of collaboration across borders we hope to find, teach about, and emulate.

Here’s one of many examples. Early this year, I received an email announcing the formation of a new “November 5th Coalition” to support “citizen-initiated democracy”. It sounded like a good idea, and I signed onto a “petition” calling for politicians of all stripes to support its demands. But when I looked more closely, I found that workplace democracy, cultural and creative engagement, participatory budget efforts, educational democracy… receive no mention in the agenda of this “coalition”, which appears to equate “citizen-initiated democracy” with public forums and “dialogue and deliberation”.

How often, to take another case, do you recall a cultural grassroots activist collaborating with or seeking out the lessons of workplace democracy, or vice-versa? Or consider the Peace Department initiative of Marianne Williamson and many others, certainly a good idea in itself. So far, however, it has remained disconnected from efforts to democratize public budget priorities – including defense department spending – through a participatory budget process establishing citizen control over the allocation of public revenues.

More personally, in recent months I have begun to raise with my fellow North American workplace democrats this issue of learning from and collaborating with the full spectrum of grassroots democracy initiatives. In the USA (though not in Canada), this has been met with very mixed and sometimes even angry reactions. At the 2004 US Federation of Worker Cooperatives national conference, one such reaction appealed to a familiar kind of principle: as an objection to cross-border collaboration, several worker co-op friends told me that “There Is No More Important Social Change Work You Can Do Than Cooperative Development”. Surely, I responded, we can all accept that good principle, while still building coalitions with other equally important and democracy-building allies, ones not confined to starting and supporting co-ops.

Our problem, the hole in our magic we wish to share with you, is not that we lack grassroots models of passionate, inventive, and durable community building. Rather, what we lack are examples embodying a deep collaborative spirit, which walk on many legs and across multiple sectors of social change.

In NVO #1, Arlene Goldbard touched on this problem, speaking of the need to escape from “too-small boxes” and to “scale up”. The models of democratic and grassroots invention just mentioned, despite their magical proliferation over the past two decades, often seem to contribute to the problem. That is, by staying within the borders of their own single form of grassroots democracy, they may have boxed themselves in, and lost some crucial opportunities to scale up beyond localized initiatives or small constituencies. As a result, so it seems to me, they have yet to find a way to direct more of the public’s revenues to peace-building and community empowerment than to preemptive military invasions, or to effectively deter NCLB, this generation’s federally enforced version of mindless and mind-dumbing “compulsory mis-education”. (Little wonder, as Arlene pointed out in NVO #2, that so few public schools offer anything like instruction, or direct engagement, in democracy!)

Tariq Ali, the radical historian and journalist, once wrote, “To change the world, we must take power”. Tariq, I think, was almost right. We must indeed take power away from those who have egregiously misused it, but we must also “remake” it, so that those now lacking power can find their own voices and co-create – collaborate – to build new (local, state, national, cross-border) institutions which “provide a space for the gifts and contributions of all” (Margaret Mead). This, though, requires opening up our comfortable but too-small boxes and welcoming the many other democratic pioneers who walk on contrasting, but equally important paths. Who, though, and with what measure of success, is doing this? Where are we to find working models of this sort of “creative community building”?

Unboxing and Scaling Up the Magic

The clearest case we have thus far found may be the participatory budget process. In the late 1980s, the Workers Party of Brazil introduced this democratic invention in Porto Alegre, a large city in the southern state of Rio Grande Do Sol. The basic idea was simple: citizens, rather than politicians, would decide how to allocate a large portion of the city’s annual budget – that covering new capital expenditures. Virtually any group – of youth, elders, parents seeking child care or improved schools, neighborhoods demanding sidewalks, clean water or affordable and green energy, etc. – is encouraged to submit a budget proposal and assisted in refining it. These refined proposals are then collected, and delegates from citizen groups – not politicians or officials – make the hard decisions as to which are funded and at what levels. Today, after almost twenty years, the Workers Party has lost power in Porto Alegre, but the highly democratic process they literally created remains in place. And it has spread to several hundred towns and cities – of all sizes and in all regions – throughout Brazil.

Moreover, the PB process has caught the imagination of communities across the globe. By browsing, you can find articles about and links to hundreds of similar democratic experiments in Latin America, the Caribbean, and in western Europe; a few have also cropped up in Asia, Africa, and North America. The Canadian cities of Guelph, Montreal, Toronto, and Greater Sudbury, and Montreal are all experimenting with citizen-shaped budget processes; some Vancouver public school children participate in determining how a portion of their educational funds will be spent. (This wise and democracy-fostering policy has been introduced elsewhere in Brazil, where it is called “OP Crianca”, or “Children’s Budgets”, and throughout the western French region of Poitou-Charentes.)

No panacea, the PB nonetheless has its own considerable magic. Previously marginalized groups, which is to say almost all of us, can come together not merely to express their concerns and visions, but to help allocate – and become recipients of – public revenues. Through it, peace-makers and creative community builders may emerge from what Dewey called their “eclipse” to shine more brightly than the purveyors of fear, war, and divisiveness. Citizens of all ages, backgrounds, and gifts can be welcomed as stakeholders of their own communities and of their Earthly home. (To see this in practice, check out the city of Seville, which boasts that it is not only the largest European city with a PB, but one with an increasingly strong social and cooperative economy.)

Where Can We Find More Magic?

Aristotle famously said, “One robin does not make a spring.” And I say, “One cross-sector collaborative space does not make a renewed or upscaled grassroots democracy.” Our long and hard winter may be coming to an end, perhaps by 2012, as many indigenous cultures have long told us. But where, besides the inventive PB, have people begun to unbox their own hands, minds, hearts, and democratic ingenuity to jointly transform our current bleak and life-threatening wastelands into ripening fields that can feed us all and public spaces where every gift and talent is welcomed?

In what follows, Phoebe, Gus and Steve – all of whom are helping co-create the “family of life” in eastern in eastern Connecticut, offer their own community building stories, describing places where the magic of another, much more collaborative, world has begun to percolate and infiltrate. But we are counting on YOU to have many other stories of this sort, and we hope this issue of New Village Online will excite and encourage you to share them!


Len Krimerman works with Steve, Phoebe, and Gus in the development of communiversities, especially in New England, is the Director of the new degree program in Creative Community Building at the University of Connecticut, and helped found the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter, which has covered and supported the magical rise of renewed democracy since 1984.  He is eager to learn – and spread the word – about more and more working examples of democracy unboxed and without borders, and can be contacted at 1-800-240-9721 and

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