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Community democracy

Jenifer Wagley

It is true our communities are in the utmost need of “deep democracy.”

The community I serve in the urban core of Houston has birthed many public officials, from a county commissioner to powerful city council members.

In spite of these remarkable political assets, however, the Northside community has long been forgotten and has continued to suffer the indignities of poverty and disinvestment.

And so I find the narrative in “Deep Democracy Is Not Meetings that Last Forever: Community Development Next” utterly true. Authors Xavier de Souza Briggs and J. Phillip Thompson argue that our collective practice of democracy is broken, and it is broken because we have lost sight of its foundational principals.

“First,” they write, “democracy is the craft of collective problem solving, which hinges on developing and using ‘civic capacity’ with and beyond the government.”

I’d like to talk here about how residents on the Northside of Houston have embraced their role as civic participants, and how as a professional community developer I have helped that become a reality.

One quote that the authors include is by John Dewey: “Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Briggs and Thompson’s contention that democracy is not achieved solely through the practice of voting and of holding an office—democracy must be lived out in our communities in a “deep” penetrating way that allows the collective to “solve its problems.”

Our leaders participated in training opportunities to learn a new way of engaging in public discourse.

When I began my work in the Northside the civic clubs and civic associations in the area were struggling for both relevancy and membership. The traditional “Robert’s Rules of Order” way of operating a civic institution was killing the very soul of the collective.

So we did away with that tradition and introduced a new tradition of shared leadership and of consensus making. This took a commitment from our leaders to participate in training opportunities to learn a new way of engaging in public discourse.

Next, we had to address this idea of “civic capacity.” In communities like the Northside, the assumption is that people do not care about their neighborhood, their schools, their children. An outside perspective of a neighborhood like this is that if they cared, things would be different.

As a practitioner for many years, I know this to be utterly false. Disenfranchised communities care deeply, but because of a lack of capacity to know how to engage they have become discouraged and withdrawn.

In the Northside, residents had looked at their elected officials as the ones to answer all of the problems, and when they accomplished too little, the residents became critical and shrugged off the political system as not working.

Briggs and Thompson propose a recipe to address this disenfranchisement that they call “empowerment 2.0.”

Northside residents envision how a local city park can be improved.

I don’t disagree with the substance of the concept, but I do find issue with using the word and the idea of “empowerment.” We do not believe that outsiders coming into a community have any power to bestow upon the population. We believe that power is to be realized by the collective. The key is how to reengage a disenfranchised population so that they are able to seize the power that has been left dormant.

For the Northside of Houston, it has meant that we looked beyond the traditional leaders in the community and cultivated a new core of leaders. It’s an ongoing process. Because leaders come and go with the ebb and flow of life, we must cultivate a continual pipeline of new and emerging leaders.

Attracting those leaders requires operating in new ways. For instance, another key ingredient for us is the practice of shared leadership. We eliminated roles such as president, vice president and secretary and created community coordinating teams.

In bringing in the disenfranchised, we knew we had to develop everyone’s capacity to lead.

In bringing in the disenfranchised, we knew we had to develop everyone’s capacity to lead. In each meeting we hold we rotate the role of facilitating meetings, crafting agendas and taking notes. We make sure that even the newest leader has the opportunity to practice the foundational skills of public discourse and thus of democracy.

Often times this looks a bit upside down. The executive directors of various organizations are participating in meetings where their clients are the facilitators. The role of expert has been reversed, mixed up, shaken a bit to allow room for many voices to be heard and to be exercised.

In this way shared leadership removes the scapegoat mentality of so many failed democratic notions. There is not a person, the President, to blame. If something is not happening, or is not happening well, then it is all of our responsibilities.

The effort of forming a deep democracy in the Northside is an ongoing process of building relationships, developing leaders, taking on issues, accomplishing great things and reflecting.

A natural consequence of this cycle seems to be consensus building. It is assumed that there will be conflicting views, but because it is a process, the duality of stopping everything and “taking a vote” rarely occurs. Decisions are made when the collective has vetted and prepared for the next step. The art of compromise is achieved through relationships that inform each participant of the other’s humanity.

Another, tradition that we practice is of inclusion.

The Northside was deeply divided by real and imagined civic club lines. The northern part of the neighborhood, which is a strong middle-class enclave, stood as an island of refuge against the suffering of the rest of the community, but while it held much of the “power” in the community for many years, it was also embattled with infighting and power for power sake struggles. A Super Neighborhood group, created by the city to help bring communities together, imploded over infighting and exclusivity related to this enclave.

A celebration of being added to the National Historic Registry.

To create a new civic model we had to confront the past and make a firm commitment to inclusion.

We began by identifying every civic organization functioning at any level in the community and ensuring that we had representation from that group. We paid particular attention to the groups that represented minority populations in our community.

Not every group was interested in participating in a new model. In fact, this practice of inclusion continues to challenge our leadership group to reach further and deeper into the community to make sure that as many voices as possible are represented.

We believe these ingredients are building the skills of deep democracy as described by Briggs and Thompson. We have taught the community leaders how to recognize other potential leaders and how to welcome them to the table. We have taught the community the importance of connecting relationally.

This work at the end of the day is not about infrastructure concerns, or struggling schools in the community. This work is about humans. Relational connectivity fulfills a basic human need for connecting with others. It ensures that no matter which part of the neighborhood a person lives, works or plays in that they understand the struggles and the strengths of the whole.

We have taught them that issues come and go, but leadership that has been taught, practiced and replicated continues for generations.

In turn the leaders have taught us that our role, as professional practitioners in community development, is to create the space for the communities natural talents, strengths and abilities to flourish. We are to set the stage, open the table, take away the barriers, offer new models and the resources for the community to accomplish the best and deepest of all democracy.

Jenifer Wagley is the assistant director of Avenue CDC and the program manager for GO Neighborhoods for LISC Houston.


This article is part of a series of essays by community practitioners about ideas from the book Investing in What Works for America's Communities. Click here to see the list of other articles.

Posted in Engaging, Houston, Thinking Out Loud

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