Democracy is not going to heal by itself

“We have been far too absent from how our country is run”, interview with Patricia Jerido
Women’s March on New York City, photo by Mathias Wasik (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For our democracies to survive, we need people who want to be involved with how our communities are run. If we leave decision-making just to our representatives, or if we do not vote at all, we might weaken our democracies up to a point that they collapse. Out of concern for how few inhabitants of my city Amsterdam use their voting rights, I initiated the first Citizens’ Assembly (Burgertop Amsterdam) in 2015.

Before and after this inspiring gathering in June 2015 I spoke to many people who share similar concerns about the state of our democracies as I do. Many of them have strong ideas on how to renew local and national representative democracy. Although the directions in which they elaborate their ideas are very different. For example, people supporting ideas around the notion of deliberative democracy, advocate that taking decisions in a community could best be based on mutual discussion and a strive for consensus. Defenders of direct democracy believe that policy initiatives should be decided by the people, e.g. by voting. Both approaches aim for a greater involvement of people in decision- and policy-making, but their favoured instruments differ.

Referendum versus people’s assembly

This presents us with a dilemma: which direction should we follow? Deliberative methods like citizens’ assemblies or participatory budgeting are often considered to be instruments that are more likely to be supported by progressive politicians. Whereas referendums or popular juries are tools favoured by conservatives. But if you look more closely, this distinction is less easy to make. An aspect that plays a role is what you could describe as the dramatic aspect of democracy. A referendum often narrows down a very complex issue to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. The electorate is forced to take a side. The third option is refusing to vote at all. Campaigns run and tensions are rising. And then the highlight comes with the result. Deciding by mutual discussion, in smaller and bigger groups, sometimes over a long period of time, often provides less fireworks and less dramatic elements that could be covered by media.

Iceland, Belgium and The Netherlands

In search for answers I wanted to speak to people who decided to become active against the backdrop of communities in crisis. My first stop was Iceland. After the country went bankrupted during the global economic crisis of 2008, many inhabitants felt the land of volcanoes and ice was morally bankrupt. Weekly protests in front of the Icelandic parliament fuelled a grass-roots movement that initiated a process of collective writing of a new constitution. Next, I turned to my neighbouring country, Belgium. When the political parties failed to form a new government during one year of negotiations, a group of engaged residents, led by the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck, organised a nation-wide citizens’ assembly in Brussels in 2011.

In both countries, many people were motivated to come together and bring about necessary change that their representatives could not bring about. But the results were different than the people had hoped. The proposal for a new Icelandic constitution is collecting dust in a drawer of the parliament. And although the results of the Belgian G1000 Assembly was accepted by the chairs of parliament, they did not lead to any substantial policy changes.

Since 2014 in the Netherlands, inspired by the G1000 in Brussels, more than fifteen cities have organised citizens assemblies. I have tried to visit as many of them as I could in order to observe and learn from this process. As I did with debates organised around the first corrective referendum in 2016, requested by citizens, which challenged the Dutch law backing the treaty between the European Union and Ukraine. Roughly one third of voters showed up and almost two third of them spoke out against the law. The Dutch government decided to put the outcome aside. Something the leaders of the United Kingdom felt they could not do, after 51,9 percent of the electorate voted for a Brexit; the UK leaving the EU.

I couldn’t believe my eyes, when I learned about what had happened across the North Sea, as I woke up in a Maastricht hotel. I had been following the BBC live coverage on the referendum until I fell asleep in the early morning. The assemblies that I had researched and the one I initiated myself were far from perfect as democratic instruments, but deciding upon such an important membership of a country, by such a small margin in a referendum was a plain disaster.

New York City

I needed a broader picture. In the beginning of this year I got a chance to cross the Atlantic and visit New York for the first time in my life. I landed amidst the biggest democratic turmoil that I had ever experienced — one week after Trump was sworn in as the new president of the United States of America. My plan was to interview people and visit public gatherings, like assemblies, rallies, meet-ups and protests. I wanted to find answers to three questions: Which alternatives do people see for the heavily criticised American two-party system? How and where do people meet to discuss these alternatives? And how do their initiators reach out to larger and more diverse audiences?

I stayed with my nephew and his partner in Brooklyn, who were great hosts. They were both scared and angry by what was happening. As they went out to protest, I explored the city, looking for events and debates. With the help of friends I had the change to interview some inspiring people who provided me with insights to what was happening in New York and lead to bits and peaces of answers.

One of the people I met was Patricia Jerido, an expert on participatory budgeting and a truly inspiring woman. She is a member of the New York City Steering Committee for Participatory Budgeting, and a member of the Participatory Budgeting District Committee, in her own district 39 in Brooklyn. Before starting her own consulting business, she worked for a wide range of non-profits. Besides she also chairs the Board of Directors of the Center for Artistic Activism.

Participatory budgeting is a relatively new practise in New York, in which citizens have direct decision power over a part of the city’s funds. She took time to explain to me how it works in practice, but the most important insight she gave me was that the core problem lies not so much in the exact form of democracy we believe in, but in the huge lack of involvement.

It is nearly a year later. I had planned to publish this interview with Jerido earlier, but it got delayed by the birth of my son. In between changing nappies and enjoying Christmas dinners I finally managed to take time to write this intro to the original article, that I am happy to share with you hereafter.

***

Patricia Jerido, participatory budgeting expert, non-profit & leadership consultant

While rushing across Madison Square Park in New York, and soaked by the February rain, I had just one thought in my head: ‘What on earth is happening in this country? I walked trough a city in shock. Trump had become the new President and immediately started signing a seemingly endless list of executive orders: to put up a wall up with Mexico, to ban people from seven Muslim countries, to strip federal money going to cities that do not actively search for illegal immigrants.

But did this all come by surprise? Trump was not dropped from the sky and American democracy has been a subject of debate for centuries. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street gave a boost to rethinking democracy ‘of, by and for the people’. But how do you get people involved in their own government? One problem is that many people don’t know their representatives; they don’t meet with them or talk to them. There is no connection except a few weeks prior to elections. The higher up one goes on the political level, the bigger this problem becomes. Could the key to strengthen democracy lie on the local level?

New York is a city of 8,5 million people, and since 2011 the inhabitants can divide a part of the city’s budget themselves. No protesting at City Hall or lobbying city councillors. Instead, just proposing a plan, having it checked on feasibility, and putting it up for ballot. Patricia Jerido has been part of this process from the beginning. She is a very engaged woman with a contagious laughter. We started off by talking about how the citizens of New York claimed a role in spending public money. But as with every conversation in the US during these weeks, one cannot not talk about Trump. “You know, Republicans are masters at the slow boil. I’d rather have Trumps conversations of banning Muslims, in my face”, Jerido said.

One thing was very clear in this second and third week of the new President, the people of New York and across the country were fired up. Not because their leaders told them to be, but out of deep anger. An estimated 400.000 people attended the Womens’ March in New York and half a million marched on Washington D.C. “It was incredible; I have never seen anything like that!” Jerido said. But will this be enough? “When people are talking about becoming active, it is not just for this crisis period of Trump; we have to change the way we show up, forever.” This is the link between changing national and local politics, people becoming active in a totally new way. Not because they like to try out some funny participatory experiment, but to continue being a democracy.

Interview with Patricia Jerido

How did participatory budgeting become a practice in New York?

Patricia Jerido: “The person who brought it to New York was Josh Lerner, I met him when he was still a graduate student. They started it small in Chicago. I remember talking to him saying ‘Oh, that is a lovely idea, but we are way too cynical here in New York.’ I am a New Yorker, born and bred. Very smartly he ignored me. It took off here in 2011, at the same time as Occupy. I started going from Occupy meetings to participatory budget meetings and I couldn’t believe how engaged I was. They are two very different processes, although they are both seeking voice and change.

In 2011 I got a job as a budget delegate in my city district in Brooklyn. That is someone who as a community member and volunteer looks at the ideas that are generated. We hold assembly meetings where community members were asked how to spend 1,5 million dollars. Before, not everybody knew that the council member had this budget, but it was through the process of participatory budgeting that we found out. And it was not so much about the formal rules that had to be changed, it was about the willingness of certain council members to take it on. First there were four members of the city council who signed up for this process, and said: ‘We want to open up our discretionary spending to the community to decide on what they do. Before that, it was whoever had access to that information, could ask for the money… And it is such a wonderful question to put to people: what are your ideas for what needs to happen?”

Can every idea receive funding from the district?

The cost of a project has to be between 35.000 and 250.000 dollar and it has to be a capital project, which means it has to do with infrastructure and buildings. It also cannot be supporting social programs or staffing. It is things like repairing water fountains, planting trees, putting in air conditioning units in a school, fixing up a library. Then, a budget delegate takes the ideas and works with a committee to research the proposals that people come up with. And because it is participatory budgeting, that comes with a clear condition for equity and participation of people who are traditionally marginalised in the system. So, what happens is that people in this process partner with social justice, low income advocacy groups.

But the people with the strongest voice still have a better change?

I actually live in a district that is rather wealthy and not that diverse. Our mission for people who are behind participatory budgeting, is how do you get equity into the conversation. Everyone has needs. I was a budget delegate for our parks committee. One of the things we were looking at, is to put trees throughout the district. One woman who was active on the committee, she wanted trees on her block. But she lives in Park Slope, which is a very affluent neighbourhood. On this particular block, there are already trees but there is no park… So what we did was go through the district to see where trees are planted. There is this stretch of Coney Island Avenue, that is a long avenue in Brooklyn that covers our district, and that is just bare. For her, to see that was quite eye-opening. What participatory budgeting also does is bring you outside your neighbourhood and you can experience how other people live. When she saw that she was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’

Process is key

The New York City Council has 51 members, representing the districts in the city. Does every one of them allow their communities to participate?

It started with four members in 2011 and now we have 38. But it is really a lot of work. Any time a council member takes it on, their staff is going to have an increase of work. There is no getting around that part. But still so many members got behind it and like it, because it builds connections with the community. It gives community members a way to articulate what is going on, and this makes it some of the best research that you can get.

The process in short: you bring together the community, put up ideas, delegates research them to see if they are eligible to be supported by the city agencies, if they are they get on a ballot, and then the people in the community get to vote on where they want to allocate the money. And what is really great is that the voting totally differs from how we normally vote in the U.S.. There is no residency status needed, you don’t have to be a citizen, you just have to live in the community in order to vote. You can be as young as 14, and in some districts even 12, no restrictions if you have a criminal record. And we use all the recognised languages in New York. People are really encouraged to vote, they are welcome to vote. It is really great in changing people’s connection and ownership: ‘This is my country, my city, my neighbourhood. I have a voice, I have a say.’

And what about the ideas that lose in the polling?

Even projects that don’t win become elevated to city agencies trough this process. We have had changes in our neighbourhood because agencies realised ‘Oh, this is a major concern for people, so let’s fast-track this process over what we thought we were going to allocate resources to.’ And it can also be a way of shaming projects. In our district, for example, there was a project proposed to put bathroom doors in an elementary school. The teachers would have to stand in front of the stalls when kids went into the bathroom, in the wealthiest country in the history of this planet! This became a huge discussion. Why are we using discretionary dollars from a council member to pay for bathroom stalls, whereas the Department of Education should be covering this?

How do you keep people motivated?

The key question is: how do you get small wins, in order to keep people engaged? And that is the riskiness. You see people come in to the process with idea generation, and then when they find out their project can’t go forward to the ballot, for different reasons, they drop out. Or even with voting… People come out to vote just on one thing, instead of looking at all the proposals. People need to be educated on that.

People are asked to show up, in a way they have never been asked before.

People are asked to show up, in a way they have never been asked before. So, it is very new to people. And Americans like to win! (Jerido laughs loudly) ‘If I am not winning, why am I doing this?’ But it is about the process: asking questions, opening up books, it just changes you in a way that will increase your expectations of what government really is about and of what your role is. That has a real beauty in it.

What is your hope for future development develop?

To have a city wide open budget — I would love to have that! I am sick and tired of just voting on people, I want to vote on things that matter. Show me the money. This process is eye opening for a delegate like me, to find out what things cost. We have been doing this from 2011 and to see the cost increasing, you really learn. Issues that we could propose in 2012, we cannot afford anymore in 2017. Finding out how expensive it is to run a city or a neighbourhood, that makes it all less abstract for people.

I am sick and tired of just voting on people, I want to vote on things that matter.

Absence

But with Donald Trump in power now, what will happen to these progressive practices?

The problem is, we have been far too absent from how our country is run, how cities are run, how our communities are run. We cannot keep functioning as a democracy, and do that. The attitude and behaviour of people really have to change. I work as a strategist and coach with social justice organisations. Part of what I look at is: how to sustain advocacy and leadership in different roles? When people are talking about becoming active, it is not just for this crisis period of Trump; we have to change the way we show up, forever. Obama needed people to be active. But too many people responded like ‘Let him take care of it, he is so good.’ The level of engagement that we need to have in a functioning democracy is completely different from what we have been doing. And that is why we have to build up the muscle. Because once Trump is out — maybe trough impeachment — the inclination could be going back to business as usual. In our larger culture, the main role that we are asked to show up at, is as a consumer. A consumer is very different from a citizen. To switch from that role to an engaged role, asks for different muscles and ways of acting.

The level of engagement that we need to have in a functioning democracy is completely different from what we have been doing.

I do have hope. In many ways we have exhausted ourselves from entertainment. The other thing I am hopeful about is that we felt a disconnection for decades now. We have such a high depression rate in this country, that is linked with higher incomes. There is a non-fulfilment that is happening with the way we have been living our lives. Many people are put on this treadmill for success. I am not saying that civic engagement is the answer to that, but people are looking for connectivity that they don’t have currently in their lives. And that provides this opening for: OK, how do we get people connected?

Quick boil

You know, none of the problems we face now, are new. And I find it fascinating that Trump’s style is not to divide and conquer. Usually what has been done in this country is pit the gays against the blacks, pit the women against the environmentalists. He is like: ‘All of you suck!’ And people are like ‘OK, don’t you know that if you give a little here, you’ll get rid of so many people complaining?’ And that is not his style at all.

What is his style?

Do you know the metaphor of putting a frog in slowly boiling water, so you can kill it? Whereas if you would dump it into hot water, it would jump out. Republicans are masters at the slow boil. And that is what we have been fighting for decades at this point. I rather have the hot water, because that helps visibility, it helps anger. Even Hillary Clinton said they wanted to have a conversation around not letting in Syrian refugees, even tough they are vetted. I’d rather have Trumps conversation of banning Muslims, in my face. Because that is the real thing that you want to do. Are we a country for Muslims or not?, that is a conversation I want to have.

We had such a limited ask for participation as Americans.

I was here at the Women’s March in New York, which I thought would be small. Everyone I knew was going to Washington DC. But it was the largest march I have ever been too. We actually ended calling it a stand, because we could not move for over two hours. I was on the East side, and all the way up to Fifth Avenue, to Trump Tower. There was just no movement because it was completely packed. It was incredible; I have never seen anything like that! The cops were giving up controlling the crowd. You know, people care. It is just that we need to build up muscles to show that caring. We had such a limited ask for participation as Americans.

Lack of participation

How can that be done? What are you facing now?

An important question is: were is technology leading us? And how much we are removed form having to do, what we need to do, in order to be functioning human beings. That is what America is. It is so easy not to participate, and have a functioning and successful life. We can travel the world, and not to have to know another language. So there are all these competing forces, that we get, in order to not make us engage. It’s the entertainment, it’s the Facebook, it is my career. Things are provided for me, we don’t have to cook, we don’t have to clean… There is just so much that we don’t have to do, that not participating in civic live makes sense. I am using generalisations of course, there is also extreme poverty in this country.

But your city differs quite a lot from the rest of the country.

I always push-back when people call New York a bubble. We are a city with over eight million people and during the day it triples in size, from the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). People from almost every single country on the planet live here. You can be in Nebraska, in an all white community, with a population of the state of 1,8 million people, how is that not a bubble? When you have so many people from all over the place you learn to get along. It does not mean you have to like each other, but you have to be friendly. That is what we are, we are friendly. You learn how to co-exist. That is what I love about this city. Because it is amazing how we take in people from all over the world and still maintain an identity. New York City has a strong identity and it is a place where you can come in from wherever. It is a hard city to live in.

How do the huge difference in income effect the social fabric?

Especially in the middle of the U.S., there is just so much economic despair. If you see a store that is closed, it is not going to be displaced by an other store. It is just lost. With that kind of economic devastation it feeds of people, they respond like: ‘Why should I participate? It’s all for nothing.’ It is all going to hell and back, it is not going to matter… Even the people who voted for Trump are not participating.

That is the other thing, people work two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. We are overly medicated. People are on prescription drugs, so where do you find the energy? Because to be civically engaged you have to have a level of hope that your involvement will matter. That is a big leap to take, when they see that in so many other aspects of their lives they don’t matter.

With what you describe, how can there then be any fertile ground for participation?

The thing about participatory budgeting is that it gives you a network in a community and a process in which to do this. So it is not me calling up my congress person or my representative, complaining about something. It is a process for engagement, and it’s very creative, because every proposal that we can vote on, does not exist yet.

Knocks at democracy

And which political changes are necessary at this moment?

When we protest, it is often under a big umbrella of multiple issues. We don’t protest under a party line, because there is not a Pro Green Party or a Socialist Party. We just go at it: Black Lives Matter, Abortion, etc., but there is a bottleneck in translating that to the political process. We don’t have an alternative party that is strong enough to push these ideas in a political process. If such a third party would be effective? I never say never, but it is very hard to see how that could happen here in the United States. I would love to, but there is just so much money in politics.

I was reading the autobiography of Katharine Graham who was the publisher of the Washington Post for two decades. And one of the things that she was writing about is when John F. Kennedy announced he was running for the democratic nomination. He did that at the Democratic Convention. I was like ‘Wait, what? In July or August he announced that he was running for a seat in November?’… That’s how it was, when you did not have to fundraise two years before. That is why you have conventions, they are about nominating and that is what the members of a party used to do. Now we are inundated because the candidates need all that time to raise the money. I don’t know how a third party comes in that messed up system, unless we correct our money in politics. Which we totally can! We own the public airwaves, we can have a station that is just for candidates.

Did Bernie Sanders and his movement give you hope that things can change?

I was a Bernie supporter because of his ideas. I happened to be in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention. If you walked around Philly, it seemed like it was Bernie’s party. He had so much energy and enthusiasm around. So I am excited about how he was able to raise money by small donors, because that is a model we need to use more and more. Hillary had more money than both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Romney spent more money than Obama and still lost. We don’t have that exact correlation. We need better candidates. We need candidates that can excite people, and who can motivate people to become active as well, because when we get an excited candidate in office, then we sit back and think their job is democracy. But president, senator, congressperson, mayor, citizen — these are all important roles and have interlocking responsibilities.

We need better candidates. We need candidates that can excite people.

We really need to change our voting laws. The Citizens United Act is horrible. Can you imagine that corporations have the same voice as normal citizens? And often even more, because they can spend much more money. You know, I protested when George W. Bush stole the elections, but my life still went on and we still function as a country. Here is the thing: what Trump is doing is disruption and people feel it in a way that we did not feel it with Citizens United, which was still too abstract for us. But now with a Muslim-ban they do. People protesting at airports — that is amazing! And the Superbowl ads like from Budweizer coming out with an immigrant story. What Trump is doing hits at the heart of capitalism, because capitalism needs freedom of movement: this beer company has 1,7 billion costumers.

The flip-site of my excitement of this new activism, is that when Trump pushes the swing that far, and we normalise that again, we end up much further right than we expected. But he is pushing it so far, that you cannot not react.

So it seems that people are used to these extreme situations?

But people don’t feel them as extremes, although they are extremes in terms of knocks at our democracy.

Follow the money

Does that also apply to the problems around healthcare?

Here is the thing that stops us a little: we are the centre of capitalism, if there is a market solution we rather go with that. We had healthcare problems for decades, yet, you have a rising alternative system: everything from vitamins to weight-lose programs. People will pop their money into other solutions, rather than address cutting into policy solutions. When the Republicans want to replace Obamacare there are at least two big issues they have to deal with: finding an answer for keeping peoples kinds up to 26 on the health insurance of their parents, and the problem of insurance companies refusing people with pre-existing conditions. The companies really have to be beaten down, before they stop doing that, but I am afraid other aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are very safe.

The strength of a lot of smart Democrats, and Obama was very good at it, is that they can get into the weeds of policy making, but that also means that the outcome is harder to explain to people. For example, if you were eligible for food-stamps, you automatically got ACA — so you did not have to go trough that application process twice. But I am not sure if anyone receiving this benefit knows that this was a part of a deliberate policy. So people will not defend it and maybe it is also too much to ask for people to be able to grasp these details… But for example on the business side: I think people get that the level of debt most Americans are holding, especially young people, is effecting our innovation and the risk-taking that we need to see in terms of entrepreneurship, like youngsters taking up riskier jobs. We have seen a stall in that because people are overburdened with debt. Our economy needs that innovation in order to keep growing.

Instead Trump is closing the borders.

Yes and that is something that has potential for movement on a local level. Although many local communities don’t get to what extent immigrants are paying taxes, or paying water bills. We all have to pay a certain amount of dollars for a water system to work. If suddenly we would lose a group of people who are paying that water tax, we have a problem. Immigrants add to the community, not just for jobs, but also with income. I think that is something they will feel, when groups are being deported.

When you don’t have people buying at your local grocery store, or doing fantasy football gambling with you, it hurts the economy and we have al these multiple economies that go down to the local level that we rely upon. That is something people will feel and hopefully it activates them. We don’t need only to push on the human rights issues, but it is also the economic angle that I hope we will get some traction on, getting people to reconsider how this is such a bad move.

Thank you!