We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Base Communities Give an "Option for the Poor" but True Liberation Comes with Decision-Making Power

Planting a tree at base community of Totoapita

Small lay-led communities, motivated by Catholic faith and defined by participatory values, can be found throughout Latin America. Communities in the United States have much to learn from the participatory practices of these communities, especially their inclusion of the poor in education and problem solving.

With the goals of working together, improving the community, and establishing a more just society, community members respond to Liberation Theology's "option for the poor". In the 1950s, European movements within the Church stressed action around people's real problems, such as unjust treatment in the workplace or school, union struggles, or a coworker's needs. The defining values became "observe-judge-act". Observing includes discussing relevant facts, judging means deciding the situation's relation to the gospel, and acting means doing something, no matter how small, to change it. Regular meetings allowed evalutation of problems and actions a frequent practice. These movements spread to Latin American villages and barrios and by the end of the 1960s, the base community model gained widespread acceptance as the initial cell for builiding communities and became an important contribution to development efforts. While some priests travelled around the region helping people start organizing, lay people began to favor the defining values of commitment, personal growth, dialogue, and critical thinking. These values allowed them a sense of individuality that differs from being part of the masses gathered at a single community church and gave people the power to organize themselves.

The poor have been most responsive to the base-community format. The word "base" is often understood as the "bottom" of society, that is, the poor majority. Poverty motivates communities to struggle for their rights while the actions they take often go hand-in-hand with the religious aspects of liberation theology. A group may meet for Bible study and finish by discussing how to form a cooperative or fix a road for easier transportation. Also, as church members spread the gospel - or "good news" - people find that god is with them in their struggles and that change is possible.

While Catholic faith was a major force in founding base communities and giving an option for the poor, the most important piece is the empowerment of the oppressed. Through dialogue and consciousness raising (concientizacion), peasants and the impoverished learned to read and write without the hierarchical and paternalistic patterns of leadership. The Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and other developed a system in the 1950s and 60s that treated adults as intellegent despite their lack of linguistic skills. Through group discussions and individual curiosity, the community learns in a way independent of established structures. Learning words that denote the realities of a peasant's life (e.g. mother, father, land, corn, hoe) made the process applicable to daily life. As people came together to learn literacy skills, they experience the 'concientizacion' to help them articulate their needs and become organized as what Antonio Gramsci calles "organic intellectuals". This process empowered the poor community by giving them necessary skills to found a base community themselves.

Base communities have goals, values, and tools to make real changes in the lives of community members. These are imperative foundations for participatory democracy. Base communites may be seen as models for participatory democracy in cases where the people have the power to make actual changes. Depending on the case, this could mean control of funding for community projects, deciding what infrastructural endeavors the government should undertake, or gaining consensus on how the community can deter crime, collect trash, distribute water, etc. In their efforts, base communities are a positive step toward participatory democracy, but real decision-making power could fully distinguish them as a defender of communal rights. It is important to see how community organizing has the potential to form a power structure that stands as an alternative to both the church and the government.

For more information on base communities and liberation theology, see Liberation Theology: Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond by Phillip Berryman.

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