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Democratic Practice

By Mike Miller

     Democratic practice in labor, community, constituency, social movement and other nominally democratic membership organizations involves organizers, leaders and active members in a careful process that begins with the definition of problems. The process described here is now widely used to deal with domestic issues facing people at their children’s schools, work, their neighborhood or in the provision of basic services. Today’s challenge is to apply them to foreign policy—to bring foreign policy "within the experience" of increasing numbers of Americans so they no longer defer to Executive Authority what they should be understanding and deciding themselves.

     The following additional steps are undertaken: Large numbers of leaders and active members investigate the sources of problems and who has authority do something about them—a process called "participatory research." The membership as a whole—in a convention, mass meeting, delegate body or some other broad forum--decides on solutions to be pursued.

Here are the basic principles to pursue this approach:

  • Begin where people are. Their problems and questions, not what you think they should be, are the beginning point for moving people from passivity to participation; these problems are part of the life experience of people. Careful listening to members is required--done in one-to-one and small group meetings that are used to involve members in the action, not by surveys or focus groups.
  • Engage the most representative and largest number of people possible in mapping the terrain of public and private policy makers who can deal answer the questions/deal with the problems. In this way a broad base of leaders and active members learn about causes of problems, alternative policies that can be pursued to solve a problem, and who it is who decides whether these policies are adopted. It is this group of leaders and active members who will interpret, explain and lead the wider membership of the organization—always inviting "nominal" members to become active members.
  • The widest and largest number of people possible should define solutions to the problems that they are willing to pursue—their solutions, not yours.
  • Have the confidence that exposure to causes and possible alternatives, in the framework of an organization in which there are relationships among the members and a tradition of participation in making decisions, will in most cases lead to wise conclusions that are practical and rooted in the best of the American democratic tradition.
  • The largest and most representative group of trusted leaders and activists should also determine (in some cases recommend) the strategy and tactics of a campaign—how proposed solutions are to be pursued. Usually this means deciding with whom in the power structure a meeting will be set and what questions and proposals will be presented to that decision-maker.

     This democratic practice requires of leaders and activists that they engage in a continuing process of listening to where "their people" are, challenging them to act on their concerns or problems, thinking through with them what can be done and training them in the skills to do it.

Paralleling the action dimension of such a process are:

  • Reflection—day-to-day action is connected with deeply held values.
  • Evaluation—both "subjective" and "objective"—first asking how people feel about what is being (or was) done, then how what was done fits with what was planned. If something different happened, why? What did we not anticipate? What is to be learned and done differently next time? If it went right (and it never goes 100% right!), why? What did we do right? Why was it right?
  • Interpretation—how is the action described to the people back home, the ones who are sitting at their TV sets saying, "you can’t change things so why waste your time?" or the ones who, for whatever reason, couldn’t participate.
  • Education—how does what we are doing fit into a broader understanding of our social, economic and political situation?
  • Celebration—using the campaign to create new heroes from within the organization by recognizing those who make a contribution.

     Together, these activities develop the solidarity necessary to build a powerful organization.

     Faced with the pressures of time, the need for victories and the limitations of resources with which all our organizations must contend, we never do this perfectly. Short-cuts are taken, and we try to make up for the deficiencies along the way. An indicator of how well our organization is doing is to see how people speak of themselves in relation to it. Do they ask, "What are we going to do?" or "What’s the organization going to do?" If the latter, they are spectators, consumers, observers. They get to gripe and do Monday morning quarterbacking: "What’s wrong with our leaders," they ask. Or, "where the devil is that business agent when you want him?" To move a membership from the latter question to the former is very difficult, but can be done. It takes a process that is commonly called "organizational renewal".

Democratic Education

     The idea of education needs special elaboration. Usually, education means that one group of people—teachers—present information to a larger group of people—students. In democratic education, the people’s curiosity and desire to understand their situation are used to generate the questions asked of the world. That means that good citizenship or "political" education is a process of generating questions from the participants—the people who we usually think of as students. In most education, the students are relatively passive. Their brains are thought of as vessels into which information is poured. The main question for the teacher is to determine how complex the information can be and how fast it can be poured. At its best, in this kind of education students are exposed to different points of view—which may be called "conservative," "liberal" or "radical." From these alternatives the students are to determine what they think about a subject. Whether what is being presented is what is important to the students is, at best, a matter to be determined by surveys, focus groups or other information gathering procedures.

     In many organizations, there is confusion about what education is. It is not training in which people learn skills. It is not telling in which a teacher provides information. It is not indoctrinating in which the objective is to instill a correct way of thinking. Education teaches people how to think, challenging them to exercise their minds as they exercise their muscles.

     Democratic education begins with people’s own concerns, problems, issues and experience. By using these as the beginning point, the energy to learn comes from the participants themselves. It is their lives that are at risk; it is what will happen to them, their families, their children and their neighbors that is at stake. When people think they can change the world by collective action, a tremendous amount of energy is unleashed. In order to sustain that energy, victories must be won. If people have little confidence that something can be changed by collective action, then first issue campaigns need to meet the classic organizing criteria of immediate, specific and winnable. With these victories, skeptics who once sat on the sidelines can be enrolled to participate. As there are more participants, there is more people power; as there is more people power, there is the potential to tackle bigger issues; as confidence in the efficacy of collective action grows, people’s capacity to engage in longer campaigns does as well. With a longer willingness to remain engaged, more recalcitrant issues can be addressed—the ones that require one, two and three year campaigns before specific victories will be seen.

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