This film features Chas Jewett, from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and Standing Rock Water protector, speaking in the Teacher’s Club in Dublin at an event supported by Afri, Comhlamh, Feasta and Friends of the Earth. This public meeting was part of a tour around Ireland.
Chas Jewett was to speak at the CDJ-sponsored event “A Thinkery on Water, Anti-Privatisation Struggles and the Commons” in University College Cork. We will also be uploading videos from that event to CDJ Plus in coming weeks.
While taking a year off to travel around the world with her family, Miriam Levin has been looking at new models of participatory democracy that puts decision-making power in the hands of the citizens.
When 40,000 people in Brazil emailed all the Congress party leaders on one day, they stopped a law granting amnesty for corruption being passed.
In Australia, 100 citizens of Geelong got to decide how their town would be democratically represented after their previous council was fired.
Across the world, people are finding ways of making their collective voices loud enough to be heard, and movements which are experimenting with new forms of participative democracy are mushrooming.
Since August 2016 I have been on sabbatical from the Department for Communities and Local Government, where I have been Mobilisation Manager for Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning. For one year I am traveling the world from Japan to Mexico with my family. As we travel I am meeting organisations who are tackling the growing frustration with representative democracy in positive and radical ways.
Each of them can provide useful pointers for the UK, but two in particular stand out: Nossas in Brazil and newDemocracy Foundation in Australia.
‘Nossas’ means ‘ours’ in Portuguese. It was started in 2011 as a network for citizen action in Rio de Janeiro called Meu Rio (My Rio). It has since developed offshoots in cities across Brazil and the meta-network of all these is called Nossas. Each network works at a city level as they have found that this is the scale that people are willing to take action on, and the municipality is prepared to respond to their citizens.
What each of Nossas’ networks does is shine a light on the actions of their local government and politicians, and mobilise people to take rapid actions in response. This is a very recent phenomenon as Brazilian politics has historically taken place behind closed doors, rife with corruption and bribery, and people have felt powerless to influence what goes on. Through the networks, people are informed about what is happening politically, and are able to respond to and pressure their representatives as soon as issues come to light, using innovative online technologies that Nossas has developed. Nossas also trains people in how to make a difference in their community, works through the media and develops offline actions.
They’ve had some notable successes. For example: Meu Rio mobilised 15,000 people to pressure the municipal government to create Rio’s first police station for missing people, and Meu Recife in the north of Brazil mobilised citizens to stand with the residents of a neighbourhood whose houses were to be knocked down to make way for a prison; after several weeks of intense mobilisation, the residents were able to return to their houses. Nationally, Nossas coordinated a campaign when they found out that the central government was going to rush through a law granting amnesty to politicians for monies donated to them, such as by big business interests. Nossas’ campaign resulted in 40,000 emails sent to the all the party leaders in Congress in 24 hours pressuring them to reject the legislation. The law was not passed.
As 38 Degrees in the UK and Avaaz globally show, campaigning networks are a vital way for ordinary people to take a small action that can lead collectively to a big change. It also demonstrates that in our hyper-connected world, citizen-led scrutiny means that politics behind closed doors is no longer acceptable or possible. In the UK, we have a notionally more transparent political system but the opportunities for influencing the decision-making directly are still rare.
newDemocracy Foundation in Australia offers an inspiring way that this can happen.
The newDemocracy Foundation, based in Sydney Australia, is a ground-breaking organisation that aims to ‘do democracy differently’. It sets up Citizens’ Juries to enable ordinary people to get directly involved in political decision-making. They are made up of between 30-350 randomly selected people, who deliberate on a specific issue and provide a response or recommendation to the commissioning body – usually the local, state or national government. The Jury comes together for a minimum of 40 hours of professionally facilitated discussion to reach a consensus on the issue; they are given access to whatever experts and sources of information they choose, and give up their time in the knowledge that the commissioning body has committed to consider, and usually act, on their recommendation.
This process enables people to get far deeper into an issue than knee-jerk reactions. Generally, people are very sensible and, with enough information, can see several sides of any argument, rather than fracturing along party political or personal interest lines.
I was invited to observe a jury in action in the town of Geelong in Victoria, south east Australia. The state government had fired the entire local council of Geelong for incompetence several months previously and had asked nDF to set up a Citizens’ Jury of 100 people to answer the question:
“Our council was dismissed. How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?”
The quality of discussion that I witnessed would put the name-calling performances sometimes seen in the House of Commons to shame. The Local Government Minister said in her response to the jury’s report:
“Some [Jurors] had fixed attitudes when they walked in, and then after listening, having the opportunity to debate and decide, they came up with the best model for their local area, rather than what individuals wanted.”
She has already committed to putting into action the Jury’s recommendations, including passing new legislation.
Citizens’ Juries in Australia have now been used to decide on issues large and small. From whether to use the South Australia desert for burying nuclear waste (2/3rds of the 350 jurors were against, so the idea was shelved by the state government) to a panel of 34 jurors reporting back to Penrith City Council about what services and infrastructure are needed in Penrith; and how these should be paid for. Elsewhere in the world, Ireland convened the Constitutional Convention of 99 people – 66 citizens drawn at random and 33 politicians – tasked with overhauling aspects of the constitution. Amongst other changes, this resulted in their recommendation to legalise gay marriage which was subsequently ratified in a referendum – a huge step for a Catholic country. Iceland has used citizen deliberation most radically, even though the process was ultimately unsuccessful: 25 ordinary citizens were selected to re-write the entire constitution, using social media to make the process transparent and to gather ongoing feedback. Despite the new constitution being approved in a referendum, however, the parliament has not ratified it.
The opportunities for real participation in the decisions that affect our lives on a local or societal level are few and far between in the UK. Yes, I know we had a referendum, but in the words of David Van Reybrouk, author of ‘Against Elections’, “referendums very often reveal people’s gut reactions; deliberations reveal enlightened public opinion”.
The UK could up its game considerably by utilising the Citizens’ Jury methodology, as long as decision-makers commit to act on the recommendations made by the jurors. For citizens, there is huge value in participating in, or hearing the consensus reached by an informed group of our peers (not just those with the loudest voices). It would give politicians a more effective barometer to measure public opinion than inflammatory headlines, and if the results are acted upon, provide a pressure release valve on the growing frustrations people have with (un)representative democracy. We hear a lot about trust in elected officials being at an all-time low, but more important here is that politicians need to trust the process and trust their constituents.
Across the world, people are finding new ways to make their voices heard. As disenchantment with established systems of power is acted out in ways both positive and destructive, new methodologies and movements are offering alternatives.
Both Nossas and newDemocracy Foundation are creating informed and empowered citizens, networking and mobilising people to improve where they live, decide on controversial questions, or challenge corruption. Both are working with traditional centres of power, such as local or national governments, and opening channels so they can hear from citizens in new ways. Both demonstrate that people care deeply about particular issues, and will give up their time to help tackle them. The test for them both is whether people in power embrace or marginalise these new forms of collective citizen engagement.
In the UK too, people are neither apathetic nor unable to get to grips with the challenges facing the country, and will generally act in the best collective interest. What we need to do is find ways of harnessing this, by creating new channels where citizens can debate issues and directly inform political decision-making.
In order for this to happen, we need to know what issues people care about (Community Organisers’ door-knocking methodology is a very good place to start); politicians at all levels need to trust their constituents; and flexible, responsive systems outside the party political framework need to be in place which can be triggered as and when needed to bring people together to debate and decide on issues.
Travelling the world this year has given me great hope for the power of citizen-led movements for change. There is still much work to be done, but the people are finding their voice.
O’Rahilly Building University College Cork, Ireland
Expressed in slogans such as “water is a human right”, “water is life”, “we are water” and “defend the sacred”, throughout the globe a revolution is taking place as people organise to resist the privatisation of water.
In a spirit of shared struggle against privatisation (in its many forms), this Thinkery will explore differences in approach and attitude in anti-privatisation struggles mobilized around water in Ireland, Italy, Spain and Standing Rock in the USA.
Speakers will include:
Chas Jewett, Standing Rock Water Protector
Miriam Planas, Aigua és Vida (Barcelona) and European Water Movement
Marco Iob, Italian Forum of Water Movements and European Water Movement
There is no charge and participation is open to all. However, it is necessary to register a place at the Thinkery on eventbrite or by emailing Órla O’Donovan (email@example.com) before 16 June 2017.
CDJ Board member Dave Vanderhoven reflects on his experience of running writing workshops for community development practitioners and academics.
Academic journals often aim to attract more written contributions from practitioners, to balance the predominance of academic articles. The aims are often to broaden the relevance and interest in the journal, and hence, increase it’s potential impact.
Equally common, is the discovery that supporting practitioners and other new writers towards publication is more difficult than one first imagines. The problem, I discovered in trying to lead an initiative on behalf of CDJ, is the way that we consider it as a ‘problem’.
The CDJ Editorial Board set out to explore these issues by doing some Action Research, (AR) to consider how new writers might be supported effectively. As project lead, I set out to write publicity materials that would inspire potential writers and build confidence of those who sometimes think about writing, only to dismiss the idea before pen hits paper. However, as my ‘pen’ hit ‘paper’ I realised that I didn’t know what the issues were that stop people writing – I couldn’t really articulate the substantial barriers to my own writing practices.
After much thought and procrastination, I realised I couldn’t start where I originally thought I would – I couldn’t write the publicity materials that others would use to recruit new writers, without first thinking about what others go through when confronted with the reality of having to write.
After many informal conversations with respected colleagues, considerable refinement of my own ideas and a degree of crossing my fingers, I sent out invitations to the inaugural meeting of the CDJ New Writer’s Network in Sheffield. Invitations went to people who had expressed an interest and who I knew struggled with writing.
I recognised in the number of apologies, either for absence or lateness and non replies, that the idea of writing, not even the writing itself, could be a source of considerable stress. I modified my approach yet again and thought the point of the first meeting should be to get people talking about the kinds of material that they are dealing with, where I had previously thought we should jump straight into their abstracts (which of course hadn’t been written or weren’t being volunteered for review anyway). The learning I took from this is to get people to talk first and progress to writing in due course, perhaps only later edging towards academic writing.
The first meeting included a group of largely unpublished researchers, a couple of activists with connections to universities, and surprisingly a Professor who admitted that she hates academic writing and a fellow CDJ board member, whose presence was a great confidence booster for me. The discussion was at times intense, but lively and reflective. We barely got past the first question I posed, which was what have you been doing in work. At the end of the meeting, people were genuinely keen and one said he was inspired to write, others that they had really enjoyed the conversation and meeting new people.
I came away thinking it was going to be much harder to get people to write than I thought – mostly because I was absolutely clear that I didn’t understand what was getting in people’s way – they (like me) could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but froze when it came to writing, why?
The second meeting included a different group of people; with two Board members and two new writers from the first session, but this time three new members of the group arrived, with a few others yet to attend. We paired up to consider what we would write about in more detail and spent over an hour sharing ideas and making plans for the next session. People left at different times and so the opportunity to develop a co-ordinated summary slipped away.
From my paired discussion I was left thinking that it isn’t writing that is the problem. It isn’t ideas that are the problem. But that the problem, such as it is a problem at all, is a clash of cultures and all that this might imply. Writing per se, for me at least, is a process of discovering what I have to say followed by a struggle to say it in a coherent way; a process that takes time and energy.
Academic writing contains all the same ingredients, and despite supposedly using the same language, often involves writing with an alien set of rules and expectations. The difference, I began to recognise having been in academic roles for several years, was that it was familiar territory for me, more familiar than I realised. Overcoming the nervousness that seems to emerge in most people, even well published professors (I know a few that might say the same), amounts to developing a higher degree of self-confidence and/or using one’s existing sense of entitlement to have a say in debates.
The ‘problem’ of enabling practitioners to write for publication, follows the problems of class, gender, race and other forms of exclusion and discrimination; overcoming one involves some degree of overcoming them all. That ‘others’ do not write for our journals should be evidence enough that something is wrong. It falls to those of us ‘on the inside’ to make something new happen, if we are to justifiably consider ourselves as relevant?
Accepting that we do not know enough about why practitioners do not write for academic publication would is a useful starting point, against which to try a range of different activities. We haven’t solved the problem through our work in Sheffield, but we have made a good start in trying to understand it better.
Academic knowledge is not always better than other forms of knowing, presuming it is can feel like a judgement on those who lack confidence and can present obstacles to others writing for publication. Learning how to effectively break down the barriers between practice and academic publication is open to anyone willing to try, and in particular those on editorial boards of academic journals – solutions are within reach of the willing researcher?
The IVAR team are preparing to facilitate a diverse dialogue that will explore the past, present and future of support to communities in the UK.
By Leila Baker, Head of Research, IVAR
The Institute for Voluntary Action Research has been appointed by Local Trust to be responsible for a research project that will ask, ‘What needs to happen to empower communities?’ and ‘Does community development still have a contribution to make?’
We’re excited and not a little humbled to have the chance to work with people across the UK who have important insights and opinions to contribute to this research. What we discover will matter to Local Trust, to IVAR and to the hundreds of people who have already signed up to updates on the project.
A research approach for our times
The withdrawal of the state is leaving communities to do more for themselves, widening the gap between rich and poor, and damaging the infrastructure that supports community action. Cuts and austerity have become powerful drivers for finding different ways of doing a huge range of things – from how we involve people in their own care and wellbeing; to how we finance community building and empowerment. Brexit has sharpened our awareness of division and tensions in communities and subsequent incidents of racism or other prejudice have mobilised and alarmed people across the generations.
So what kind of research is needed? This isn’t a big project. The budget of £40,000 sounds like a lot until you start to break it down across work in all four nations of the UK and with everyone who has something to say. But the money that is available for Local Trust to act on the research is sizeable – a £500,000 legacy from the Community Development Foundation.
Our approach is simple. We want to ask great questions and stimulate dialogue between diverse groups of people. How we do that will vary – we’ll use whatever language, style or approach that will elicit the ‘best’ response. And by ‘best’ I mean one that allows participants to get across their perspective, experience and opinions and that challenges them to think widely and critically. And, yes, we want people to have conversations that they find enjoyable, stimulating and useful for themselves too.
Learning from the past
The dialogues we facilitate will need to connect people with different perspectives, experiences and opinions. That includes creating opportunities for conversations across the generations. Over the past few weeks, I have been struck by the number of conversations and chance encounters that I have observed between people of different generations. These conversations hearten and strengthen, but also inform.
Lessons from the past matter. Being ambitious for the future matters too and sometimes that means doing things in new ways. But let’s not forget that if you are poor, hungry, lonely or isolated, good doesn’t necessarily equate to new. We need the past as much as the present to help us do good.
IVAR is an independent charity that works closely with people and organisations striving for social change. We use research to develop practical responses to the challenges faced and create opportunities for people to learn from our findings.
Local Trust’s mission is to enable residents to make their communities and their areas even better places in which to live. We do this by helping residents develop and use their skills and confidence to identify what matters most to them, and to take action to change things for the better, now and in the future. We provide a mix of funding and finance to support people to make sustainable change, maximise impact and make the best use of scarce resources. Our major programme in England is Big Local.
The UK’s Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) has recently looked at a range of community activities and initiatives, (and specifically the Eden Project initiated Big Lunch) with a view to providing a better understanding of how better connected communities can impact on people’s lives.
The Eden Project is an educational charity with the objective of connecting people with each other and with the living world with a view to exploring how people can work together towards a better future. One of the Eden Project’s most significant and best known initiatives is the Big Lunch Programme, the UK’s annual get together for neighbours, which aims to bring people within neighbourhoods together to build stronger and better connected communities. Such initiatives are designed to unlock the value of the social capital that is available to us by connecting with others.
Empowered Communities in the 2020s is an ambitious new project made possible by a major legacy donation from the Community Development Foundation, which would have celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The project is about scoping and supporting the future of community development in the UK with a critical eye for what it needs to look like and who it needs to involve in order to be fit for the purpose of empowering communities in the 2020s.
To start the project, Local Trust and their partners at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have commissioned IVAR (the Institute for Voluntary Action Research) to carry out a research project to capture the contemporary value and future possibilities of working with communities to enable them to develop to their fullest potential.
The research aims to enable a conversation with a wide range of people, groups and organisations in the public, voluntary (including faith and community groups) and business sectors who support individuals and communities, build movements, and operate online and offline.
It will do this through three sets of Dialogues:
Dialogues #1 – Exploring policy contexts that intersect with community development and empowered communities, such as income inequality, local ageing populations, housing, immigration or climate change.
Dialogues #2 – Visiting the four countries in the UK to hear from people who work with communities regardless of whether or not they have a community development remit as such.
Dialogues #3 – Conversations in four communities of place, to hear from people who work with, or in some way support communities — regardless of whether or not they have a community development remit.
The research is led by Leila Baker. You can read more about it – and sign up to the Empowered Communities mailing list – on Leila’s blog.
You might also be interested in a blog post by Local Trust’s chief executive, Matt Leach, to see what the funders want to achieve through the research.
Following consultation with IACD members, presentation and finalisation of the draft text at the July 2016 Minnesota international conference, the IACD Board has approved a new Global Definition of Community Development.
“Community development is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes participative democracy, sustainable development, rights, economic opportunity, equality and social justice, through the organisation, education and empowerment of people within their communities, whether these be of locality, identity or interest, in urban and rural settings“.
How can – and how should – academic work be made freely available to a wider public audience?
In April 2016 the Editorial Board of the Community Development Journal invited UCC librarian Cathal Kerrigan to present on the background to “open access” within academic publishing, plus the strengths, limitations and ethical issues associated with various approaches to this.
Cathal has kindly filmed his presentation for wider public distribution. The video and slides can be seen below.