Dare for Democracy: Nine Steps to Ignite Power and Connection

Originally published on Beacon Broadside on 09/27/2017

 

Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen’s Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want offers the hope and empowerment we need during a divisive and wrenching moment in our history. While many may feel voiceless and powerless in the face of an administration working to dismantle civil liberties and our very notion of democracy, Lappé and Eichen argue that standing up for democracy is necessary—and that it can provide us with a much-needed feeling of power. Together they lay out the history and players in the Anti-Democracy movement, explore the strategies needed to reclaim democracy, and introduce us to the individuals and organizations taking steps to make real change. Here are a few ideas they list at the end of the book to embolden us to join forces and take back our power.

 

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1. Celebrate democracy. Invite local musicians to a public park or library event room to share and teach songs related to freedom and democracy. And if you have the clout of an organization behind you, goad them to go for the spectacular. Imagine tens of thousands in a big-city stadium celebrating democracy. Wouldn’t Bruce Springsteen be up for that? We love the idea of audiences honoring Leonard Cohen by chanting and swaying to his powerful “Democracy,” with its refrain “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Concerts with a message have an impressive history. Some will recall the 1980s’ “We Are the World” concerts. And decades ago, singer Harry Chapin created concerts in part devoted to alleviating world hunger. Between sets, Joe Collins and I, Frances, jumped on stage with Harry to share our ideas to help the antihunger movement grow. What about a democracy version?

 

2. Become a hub for multiplying power and building community. The Indivisible website became an avenue for a dear friend, Janet Surrey, to participate in one of its 4,500 groups nationwide that sprouted after the 2016 election. In the Boston area, under the banner “Re-creating Democracy,” Jan meets people with a range of issue passions. In monthly meetings she loves hearing their action updates. Members support each other in learning together and are also there to pitch in on each other’s key passion when a big-leverage moment arises—a great example of what we mean by the budding “movement of movements.” Hosts rotate, and once when a host forgot it was her turn, folks arriving for the meeting didn’t just go home disappointed. They met on her porch and had a great time anyway. And, Jan tells us, it was a cold day!

 

3. Together, get voices of citizens heard. Submit letters to the editor and op-eds to news outlets. Here, we take inspiration from Citizens Climate Lobby. Through its many local groups networked nationally via monthly conference calls, its members’ total of published letters to the editor rose from thirty-six in 2010 to more than three thousand five years later; and op-eds published went from twenty-nine to 547. Incredible. (And remember, even if you don’t get published, somebody at the news outlet has read what you have to say.)

 

4. Become a citizen lobbyist, both by phone and in personal visits. Just about everyone feels tongue-tied the first time. But don’t worry, you can get ideas from “scripts” offered by groups such as Move On and adapt them to your voice and angle. Create your own citizen-lobbying day. Make an appointment with your legislators and bring friends and family. Take photos, write up your experience, and share it.

 

5. If you are an employer, offer your staff paid time to fulfill their roles as citizens. Since politicians’ offices are open only during workdays, offering employees, say, fifteen minutes to call their representatives sends an important signal about community, responsibility, and citizens’ power. Of course, it can be done in a way that no one ever feels judged or coerced.

 

6. Organize highly visible citizen deliberations to choose the best long-term strategies, priorities, and immediate actions. Why not host “democracy for dinner” evenings in homes, cafés, or schools, facilitated to encourage curiosity and sharing about solutions? More formally, approach your local high school principal, religious group, or library to volunteer to help organize a debate or “democracy dialogue” on solutions to problems of money in politics and voting rights suppression. For ideas, check out the resources of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

 

If you have clout in a local, state, or national civic body, why not encourage something on a bigger scale? Perhaps citizen panels with randomly selected participants, all asking: how do we get money out of politics and our voices in? A website could document which strategies turn out to be most appealing to participants and invite visitors to weigh in.

 

7. Create inviting, intimate spaces for sharing stories. In our homes, houses of worship, and community centers, we can create opportunities for people to share concerns and solutions, including stories about being heard or silenced. “[W]e had not known the extent of others’ pain and suffering,” writes the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, “until we came together to listen. We did not know how much we had in common until we told our stories of struggle to one another.”

 

8. Create new public spaces for community talk, “People’s Corners.” In well-traveled public spaces in towns and cities everywhere, imagine the “democracy buzz” generated by citizens creating a mashup of street theater, London’s Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, and facilitated exchange, along with opportunities for public commitments to act on behalf of democracy. (I, Frances, remember standing on a soapbox in Rittenhouse Square in Philly, sharing my feelings about the war in Vietnam. The power of that moment stirs me to this day.)

 

We can draw from the experience of Brazil’s Theater of the Oppressed, which blurs the line between spectator and actor, encouraging audience members to jump in.  We can embolden participants to seek and propose answers together, even elevating the people’s solutions to policy actions.6 A People’s Corner could stage a debate on our nation’s democracy crisis; or, organizers could pose a question to everyone gathered, then invite folks to turn to a stranger nearest them to take turns responding, then reflecting on their differences.

 

9. Make a personal, shared pledge to act. Most of us find the first step the hardest. Here’s an idea that can help: because stating one’s commitment to a specific action, and doing so publicly, can be powerfully motivating, at a People’s Corner or other gatherings, organizers could distribute pledge cards on which each person is invited to write down one commitment to act for democracy. Or cards could be prepared for elected officials, asking them to pledge support for nondiscriminatory policing, automatic voter registration, same-day registration, action on climate change, or public financing of elections.

 

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