Another Plug for Ground-Level Democracy

by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Oops – a Category Short!

Some wonderful Comments last week hi-lighted a significant short-coming of the blog (The Urban Powerless, Invisible to The Comfortable?):

You don’t actually leave a third option – the C who are struggling to pay the bills and (just) succeeding…barely surviving…   H

Interestingly enough, there is the strange category of being UP, knowing you won’t stay there: immigrant families who live many to an apartment until they can get the hell out of there, and those of us who started out as penniless students or impoverished too young parents (us), who lived in the slums and were also were biding our time until we too could get out.

It leads to a very different existence. We KNEW we were not staying. We denied ourselves all pleasures, all clothes, nice ‘things’, all unnecessary foods, cigarettes, alcohol, eating out, fast food, whatever we didn’t need that very second…because  that denial WILL ALL LEAD TO GETTING THE HELL OUT OF THERE. Delayed gratification, the basis of the middle class.   Piki

Motivated by Memories

H and Piki are correct.  Student life is almost synonymous with being temporarily poor, as is starting out on your own, as may be working on behalf of those who remain poor.   So many of us have shared this state.  The difference between us and the Urban Powerless is that we were programmed with a desire and/or capacity for mobility.  You could say we were Motivated by Memories of being comfortable (MM’s).

One may be remembering a life at home with parents, or a friend’s family, or even an image adopted and strongly identified with (from movies or TV).  If we’ve ever absorbed the taken-for-granted confidence and insouciance of the Comfortable, that may remain as an image of the possible.  That has given us a choice to make changes, as described by Piki.  She was very motivated to give up small pleasures because she knew in her bones there really was something else that she wanted: the prize of getting out of poverty.

The Links to Democracy

A few weeks ago (October 16th) I wrote about what I thought had to be altered for democracy to become real – particularly where there has been little experience of participating in the democratic effort.  If being poor and powerless go together, efforts to engage the poor in decision-making that affects their lives may be one way of attacking their passivity in the financial system.  If our efforts to ‘help’ don’t include learning what assets the community contains, asking local people what immediate goals make sense, utilizing local leadership and modelling the processes of shared decision-making, there may be little to show for our efforts when it’s time for us to walk away.

In the development of Co-op Housing through the 70’s and 80’s, Member Education was a pillar in the process.  By the time the development group left a finished project, members – many of whom had been previously powerless people – had had plenty of experience in conducting their business using fundamental democratic activities.

Is this the only way to get useful things done?  Not at all.  Sometimes strong action taken by Comfortable people, with very modest consultation can provide a service urgently needed in a community.  But local control can be encouraged once the project is underway and functioning well.

Any Role for the Comfortable Observer?

We may not be trained to guide people toward participatory democracy but we can maybe better assess what movements and initiatives to support by looking for particular characteristics.

Can we try spotting and supporting:

  1. Evidence of processes in political parties and action groups that create opportunities for members to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and that broaden the range of people with access to such opportunities . (Bob Rae seems to be trying this with his efforts to revive the Liberal Party);
  2. Protests against bad laws that breed distrust of the democratic process, like so many provisions of the present government’s crime bill and  Toronto’s issuing of fines to ‘loitering’ homeless people (presently being re-thought);
  3. Projects that revive respect and funding for the role of Community Organizers in teaching the fundamentals of working as a group: listening, recording decisions, , inclusion, transparency;
  4. All the wise uses of technology, leading to the type of empowerment needed for participatory models and the spreading of information.

I’ll repeat myself.  Again.  Transformation of democracy, with increasing inclusion of communities at ground level, is needed to move the Urban Powerless toward seeing the possibility of shaping less restricted lives . We can help them become more visible to the Comfortable.


1 Comment

Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries, Uncategorized

One response to “Another Plug for Ground-Level Democracy

  1. I don’t feel invisible and I wonder if the C’s aren’t really powerless. Did you vote? Did you still get Ford? I have a C friend who told me that she gets physically sick when she sees him. I’m a U.C. (Used to be Comfortable).I see everything from both sides. Pretty well I think.
    I live in high density (Regent Park area) and I work in the Rolex world. I once expected to have one of my own. But that’s another life.
    Maybe my history is inaccurate but it seems to me that both the French and the Russian revolutions were pretty grassroots. In fact I believe that here in Canada a poor pastor from a small Protestant sect gave us our health care program. I hate to sound like Brutus saying “did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” but it’s what comes to mind.
    The Hub in Regent Park is filled with emigrant women of many religions. All working to improve their neighbourhood and who encourage and work to supply needed as well as desired services to their families. Their English may be broken but their spirits are not. UP’s here are apparently” made of sterner stuff”. (My profound apology’s to Shakespeare).
    I live in a very special housing situation. It’s called transitional. I haven’t turned into a butterfly yet………one can but hope.
    I do know that few if any voted in the election (s) except for ME and many just smoke and grumble outside in good weather. The rest get on with it.
    The reasons for being in this habitation are as numerous and diverse as one would expect. But, what I notice is that the one’s that want to (or probably expect) to move forward do what H from last week said. Save and wait. The others do not.
    I do not pretend to know for sure their reasons for giving up. I don’t feel that way myself. But, after many years living here I have come to believe that their reasoning for doing nothing may be that:
    1. They did not see any attempt at forward movement when young.
    2. They were not encouraged to try to move forward and seek to leave Regent Park ( substitute any uban poor to blue collar neighbourhood anywhere).
    3. Somehow they learned to believe that this was it. And that learning to manipulate the system for life was all there was. All they could hope for.
    4. They did not believe that they could escape.
    5. They didn’t WANT to escape.
    6. And my favourite they saw no reason to work to escape.
    (Ed Mirvish once famously said that when he was a child he didn’t know he was poor and only when he saw television did he feel and see the difference). Which I think comes from fear of failure.
    I think the problem lies in ourselves. Our parental training or it’s lack.
    Just my opinion

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