by Phil Mitchell
One of the least talked about but most far-reaching worldchanging innovations is the development of new processes of citizen-centered democracy. These processes (such as citizen assemblies) are not just solutions to specific problems; they hold out the promise of better collective decision-making in general. In this time of ultra-polarized, dysfunctional politics, such a promise is a beacon in a dark night. Yet, because most of us are focused on specific issues rather than on process itself, much of this innovation does not get noticed or used to its full potential.
Earlier this month, at the National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation, facilitators, mediators, citizen participation gurus, and deliberative democracy advocates gathered in Austin, Texas, to learn from each other and reflect on the field. Much more than just a set of workshops, the conference was an exercise in process itself, with the organizers challenging participants to figure out how their field can really make a difference. As a climate activist who uses D&D in my work, I was invited to lead up the conference challenge area around Moving from dialogue to action.
Indeed, tying dialogue and deliberation to actual political outcomes is perhaps the key challenge the field faces. The wonderful fact is that we know how to create the conditions for healthy dialogue and good collective decision-making. The sobering reality is that actually using good decision-making requires taking power away from those who currently hold it, and that is tangling with gravity.
My beacon of hope was in finding examples at the conference where practitioners were able to create the conditions that made a power shift inevitable. I found one of those examples in Varun Vidyarhi.
At the conference Vidyarthi spoke about the systematic removal of obstacles to change as well as his experience in North India, where he has spent two decades figuring out how to empower those who are at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole even in remote, impoverished areas.
His organization, Manavodaya (Human Awakening), runs facilitated dialogue circles as a key to building self-esteem and collective identity. But he has learned that such circles alone rarely succeed. The circle must have a material basis, which he accomplishes by having each member contribute to a pooled fund and then used for micro-loans. Even if each member can contribute only one handful of rice per month, this changes everything. The participants have an experience of agency and of building power that changes them and changes the material conditions that have defined them.
But still, groups fail. Another key characteristic of success that Vidyarthi has identified is that the group be a group of equals. He argues that mixed, unequal groups, with different levels of investment in the pool and different power backgrounds, do not succeed. And so on. Failures help identify the obstacles to success. Each and every obstacle must be addressed. The result has been an emergence of women as village leaders, a decrease in discrimination toward the low castes, and almost incidentally a reliance on dialogue circles as an informal center of decision-making.
This example might seem far-removed from those of us in the affluent, global north. Yet in my own work running climate change dialogue circles in Seattle, I've seen many flavors of disempowerment block groups from taking meaningful action. Vidyarthi's brilliance lies in showing that it is both necessary and possible to systematically remove the obstacles.
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Photo credit: flickr/coyenator, Creative Commons license.