This article by Janet Newbury was originally published on rabble.ca on May 31, 2013.

Keeping democracy alive: Engaging in political process between elections

Last week, Seth Klein reflected on some lessons from the 2013 B.C. election. Among the many important lessons he noted was the fact that “we need to better understand why so many people feel disengaged from politics and key policy debates.” Indeed. Now that the election is over, those of us who are passionate about civic engagement need to do what we can to understand this trend and hopefully alter its course.

In Powell River, a group of us have been trying to find creative ways to engage diverse groups of citizens in dialogues about matters that impact us and our community. Calling ourselves PR Voices, we’re hosting a speakers series which began in March with a talk by Ken Wu on raw log exports and will continue until our municipal election in November 2014. Our intention is for this to be a dynamic and emergent process which may change shape as we go depending on the passions and needs of those participating. That said, we are far enough along in the process now to have a few lessons of our own that we believe we are learning about engaging people meaningfully in the democratic process.

What follows are a list of some of these lessons that guide how we will be moving forward:

Personal relationships matter

Political parties, policy-making bodies, municipalities, and institutions are living systems, not mechanical systems. As long as we approach policy change as a matter of technical fixes we will continue to miss the mark. Understanding that systems are comprised of people is crucial to stepping outside of our respective camps to learn how to work together differently.

Personal invitations to attend speaking events, for example, can be hugely impactful if we wish to not only speak to and with ‘the usual suspects’. Other ways we can ensure people experience these events as inviting and relevant include: ensuring they take place in accessible spaces and advertising them as such, working in time for informal conversation over refreshments, and inviting attendees to become part of the planning for future events and/or to recommend topics for future talks. Perhaps most importantly, we hope for these events to be experienced as fun and fulfilling opportunities to connect, rather than work for those who attend.

Significantly, this also requires a willingness to build bridges across what can sometimes be experienced in communities as impermeable divides. For genuine change to take place, we need to create spaces in which multiple perspectives can be heard and influenced by one another.  Rigidly adhering to polarized positions fractures our communities, which may be preventing us from effecting real progressive change. Working together where possible can only happen if we challenge ourselves to remain curious and respectful in the face of differences. We hope the speakers series can be one way of creating spaces where this kind of dialogue and relationship-building can occur.

Partnering is both a strategic and democratic way to organize

Partnering with various institutions or organizations helps to ensure we are able to reach a broader range of participants. For instance, for our March talk on raw log exports we partnered with both the Sierra Club and the mill workers’ union. Each of our partners helped to promote the event (and one of them covered the cost of the venue), which meant the room was filled with people who have very different interests in relation to the topic. Partnering strategically like this helps more citizens to see the event as relevant to them, whereas if it was simply an initiative of PR Voices with no partners, we’d likely attract a similar (and less politically diverse) crowd each time.

In addition to helping with promotion and potentially with some costs, partners also provide support through volunteer energy and other strengths or resources they have to share. For instance, at our April talk on steady-state economies, we partnered with the PR Money Society (which launched a local currency last year). As a result of this partnership, the event accepted both Canadian and Powell River dollars at the door, which made our event more accessible and simultaneously helped raise the profile of our partner organization. Partnerships on an organizational level in this way help to systemically build the kind of bridges that dialogue helps to build interpersonally.

We have recently been supported by a grant from the Taos Institute which alleviates some of our major stresses about funding our project, but this does not mean partnering is no longer necessary. In fact, the Taos Institute promotes “creative, appreciative and collaborative processes in families, communities and organizations around the world”; we believe community partnering is both a strategic and democratic way to work towards this aim.

Following up is crucial

If we are striving to cultivate a more engaged citizenry, then continuing the conversation after speaking events is at least as important as hosting the talks themselves. What the follow-up looks like, however, cannot be pre-determined but must be informed by the needs and possibilities in relation to each particular issue.

For instance, at our March talk, direct engagement with MLAs on the topic of old growth protection was recommended. As a result, a group of community members brought our concerns to MLA Nicholas Simons, who in turn brought these matters to the table at the all-candidates debate that took place the following day.

The April talk has led to a different kind of community-based follow up. Michael Lewis — co-author of The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy — facilitated a workshop on the morning following his talk which was enthusiastically attended by a range of community members, including city councillors. As a way of continuing the discussion about how to implement his ideas in our community, a group of engaged citizens has begun a discussion group focusing on Lewis’s book and its local applications. There is also the possibility that Lewis may return to Powell River to support a new committee called ‘The Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Revitalization’ in its efforts to respond to changing economic conditions.

What is crucial is that we as citizens are participants in political process — not observers.  Meaningful follow-up activities after each event may help to facilitate a culture of participation.

A simultaneous awareness of local and global dynamics is necessary

The value of bringing people to Powell River from elsewhere is that it can prevent us from feeling like we’re in it alone and have to create solutions from scratch. Many great initiatives are happening in our and other communities, and connecting in this way can buoy us all to continue to imaginatively engage within existing conditions. Communities throughout the province and far beyond are struggling with issues around climate change, resource depletion, poverty, and economic turbulence; working together and sharing ideas and resources can only help us all.

That said, the local nature of these speaking events is also crucial, as it can ground us in the unique conditions we are facing as a community, and can help us focus on the pragmatic outcomes of our discussions. Politically, socially, and economically, a local focus is currently understood as an important response to some of the challenges that have come with globalization. We are convinced that a simultaneous awareness of both local and global realities is necessary for policy decisions to be informed and sustainable.

Moving forward

The connection we’ve now established with the Taos Institute can help us to remain in dialogue with our international allies at a more conceptual level; connecting through the CCPA can support a provincial dialogue at a policy level; and our local events are opportunities for community dialogue at an interpersonal level. All of these, we believe, are equally significant in keeping democracy alive.

To be sure, there are more lessons to come. As with any living system, adjustments will have to be made along the way in response to unforeseen circumstances. We understand this speakers series to be one small response to the larger challenge of re-engaging a public in the matters that impact us. And we are cautiously hopeful that perhaps in the wake of this most recent election there will be other responses as well.