What does a vibrant democracy look and feel like?


We the People Are Greater than Fear, art from Amplifer by Shepard Fairey

Last Friday I was debriefing an event with Jondou and he mentioned the phrase a “vibrant democracy;” it now seems so long ago. As we talked Jondou mentioned how our project progressed from an event featuring a single voice to a series of events featuring many voices. This conversation was before the news that Supreme Court Justice Kennedy plans to retire allowing Trump to nominate the next Supreme Court Justice, most likely swinging the court conservatively. It was before the latest mass shooting in Maryland in a newsroom killing five truth-seeking journalists, and before the Supreme Court ruling allowing the Muslim travel ban to stand. Last Friday was now ages ago. In a week the term vibrant democracy has taken on a new meaning and new heaviness.

We weren’t the first to use the term but it is one that sticks. It is hard to feel the word vibrant applies in our current state of national and local affairs. Today I posed the question “What does a vibrant democracy look and feel like? How will you participate in a vibrant democracy?” to colleagues of color. They all stopped and gave me a look of “huh?” After a long pause, a friend said “We haven’t had it [a vibrant democracy], so I don’t know what it feels like.”

I’ve preached on this blog – vote, run for office, testify before your school boards, call your elected officials, etc. While I preach these actions I also know they are slow-moving ways of bringing about change, they are hard to access and not always available to all people, and it is still privileged activities to participate in. I don’t know if they are enough to feel like we have a vibrant and equitable democracy, but it is currently our way of being heard in our systems.

As my colleagues and I talked through what it means to be in a vibrant democracy I mentioned many conservatives finally feel like they have a vibrant democracy where they are seen and heard, where they are in control of the national agenda. The problem isn’t with the agenda swinging from one side to the other, our current problem is how marginalizing and how polarizing our conversations have become. As my friend CiKeithia said we’ve lost what civility looks like in conversations involving politics, race, and government.

“Do we need to create new forms of democracy?” How will you participate in a vibrant democracy?

Another colleague said it best when she said “Do we need to create new forms of democracy?” We talked about what it means to have democracies rooted in our common humanity, where we can include and in many ways focus on the needs of our most marginalized neighbors, sisters and brothers.

A vibrant democracy has to be more than just one vote, one person, one action. We need to recreate and newly-envision what it means to have a democracy that isn’t tied to privilege and oppression (everyone feels oppressed in some ways, time to step away from oppression politics). John Adams wrote, “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” A new vibrant democracy also can’t be about denouncing the current regime, it has to be in response to the justices we need from each other — together, not just what the loudest want.

It is hard to envision what hasn’t been done. I’ve thought long and hard about re-envisioning what racial equity in education could and should look like. I almost always come up with a blank since I’ve ben trained and currently work to stop bad-policies from happening; it takes different muscles and brain power to think of new ways of working. While visioning and listening to others can be hard, we have to do it, without it we will re-create something that doesn’t work.

New forms of democracy need to look, feel, and act differently. When I say they need to look, feel, and act differently I really mean that, maybe they should also taste differently too – a little sweet, a little bitter, and savory. The experience of a new democracy needs to be so different we recognize it as new and be willing to suspend judgement just enough to give it a try.

It needs to be inclusive of people of color and practicing intersectionality– focusing on people farthest from justice. Democracy can be more than just people voting and calling elected officials. A vibrant democracy needs to take into account histories of poc exclusion from participating in government and work to undo those embedded structures in access to government and democratic processes. A vibrant democracy needs to be about supporting people to participate and not about navigating systems to participate.

We also have to be willing to ask questions such as why we exclude people, such as felons from voting, they have the greatest stake in voting in justice minded elected officials. We should ask why do exclude non-citizen immigrants from voting? Why do we place such a high premium on tying voting to homes and places – intellectually I get it, vote where you live, but as gentrification pushes people of color out does this notion of being tied to place still hold true or do we re-envision a new meaning of one vote.

Vibrant communities are tied to vibrant democracies can we get ourselves there is the question. We can’t keep using the same methods, definitions, and practices if we are to see a new way to building. Tonight I don’t have answers on what a new democracy means, but I do know our current version isn’t shining as brightly as it could. For now we have to do the bare minimum of creating a new democracy – we vote, we get others to vote, we resist, we see the humanity in each other, and we keep on being – all of this is needed as we work towards a more vibrant and just democracy.

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