Pablo Collada about democratic space
From Santiago (Chili), for ‘Het Grootse Kleinste Festival van Betekenis 2018’ (The Greatest Smallest Festival of Meaning 2018)
Happykamping regularly organises gatherings for a better understanding, by bringing together diverse people and perspectives. That is why on 19 April 2018 the second edition of The Greatest Smallest Festival of Meaning took place, where 20 speakers from the Netherlands and abroad, together with 80 participants, explored the concept of ‘meaning’.
I start by introducing myself, very briefly. My name is Pablo Collada. I’m Mexican, and I think that for us Mexicans, saying that is kind of a rough statement. Coming to this idea of meaningfulness. For the past five years, or maybe a bit more, I’ve been working around this idea of citizenship. When I was asked to talk about meaningfulness and about getting together to talk about and discuss meaningfulness, I started to think about this idea, the state of being in which things are meaningful. I like this concept; it is a huge concept and a huge idea.
Rite of passage
In my everyday life, I work on notions like: ‘How can we make democracy a more meaningful system?’ And God, it is difficult. And it has become more and more difficult as time goes by. There are a couple of things where I want to talk about. They have to do with this idea of how we turn this idea of citizenship into something meaningful? Particularly in these systems, these places, these countries or municipalities where we feel a distance between ourselves, the authorities or our government systems. I’d like to go all the way back to the tribal life. When we were organised into tribes. Then there was one specific difference. There were the kids, with no particular responsibilities, and there were the adults with all the duties of the community. And there was this incredible moment in life: the rite of passage, the moment where you become an adult. Transforming yourself from being a child to being an adult. There was this kind of challenge set up. You would have to go out there into the jungle of the desert, and you had to do something. Either you had to survive or you had to hunt. In any case, after doing that challenge you had to come back to the community and then you would be an adult. I think that was an amazing moment in the life of the kids and the members of a community. You had to go out there, interact with nature — and I think that is one of the essential things — and you had to go with the flow of nature. If you would go against it, you would fail. So, you would do this challenge, come back and you would never understand the community the same way as you did before. Because now you are someone that has something to offer and you understand the value of having this community giving something back to you. And in this exchange, you will survive and grow.
That is something that I would like to keep in mind constantly when we think about citizenship. Going from there, I believe that we have lost, as we have made the systems of society very complex, this rite of passage of becoming a citizen. Now, when you become 18 years old, you are legally a citizen with a lot of responsibilities. But what does it mean to be a citizen? What’s the interaction? I want to talk about this case in Chili. I’m a member of an organisation where I work on democracies in Latin America. And one of the important things in democracies are the elections.
People responded: ‘It’s crazy, people don’t care about elections.’ The response was to start a campaign to ask people to vote. That obviously made no sense. Those campaigns only said: voting is a duty, voting is a right because it is good. But people don’t go to vote because it is good or because it is important. People only vote when it is meaningful for them.
In Chili, we had presidential elections and congress elections last year. And oh god, people were so uninterested in the elections. Just like at other places. Several years ago in Chili, they decided that participating in the elections was not compulsory. It was voluntary. If you wanted to vote, you could, but if you didn’t, it was okay too. When they decided that, the participation rates just dropped. And dropped. And dropped. All the way to the point where certain groups of the population, for example, the group of 18 to 20 years old women in urban areas, only 8% of these women would vote. So: no representation. People responded: ‘It’s crazy, people don’t care about elections.’ The response was to start a campaign to ask people to vote. That obviously made no sense. Those campaigns only said: voting is a duty, voting is a right because it is good. But people don’t go to vote because it is good or because it is important. People only vote when it is meaningful for them.
Change the dynamics
We started this huge project in which we tried to change the dynamics of the voting process. In general, the election arena looks like this: we have these candidates, super smiling people, that have all these amazing ideas. They present their ideas to the people, the voters. ‘I have this idea. I will do this. I will do that. And when you like this idea, vote for me!’ We decided to change that dynamic. What if we change the flow of the elections? We will ask people what they want. They would have to decide as a community. They would have to deliberate, engage and create proposals. And the people that have to decide are the candidates. Not the people. And if the candidate is interested in the project that is presented by the community, then they will commit to incorporate this project into their proposals and plans. We changed the dynamics. We got thousands of people to participate in delivering projects. Not as individuals, but as communities and as organisations.
What if we change the flow of the elections? We will ask people what they want. They would have to decide as a community. They would have to deliberate, engage and create proposals. And the people that have to decide are the candidates. Not the people. We changed the dynamics.
Nowadays, 20% of Congress has commitments that were generated by these communities and organisations. The now elected president has 20 specific commitments that have come out of these deliberations. Some of those took place in schools, some in neighbourhoods, some in organisations. What we wanted to change is, that you’re not going to vote because it is important or your duty, but because it is meaningful for you. You build that meaningfulness by engagement. By appropriating the process as a whole. Not as an individual, but as a member of a community. That’s a part of what we think democracy should be all about. These are a couple of ideas that I wanted to share; this idea of becoming a part of a community, having a rite of passage in which you understand the value of what you have to deliver and how that has to do with democracies nowadays. If you don’t believe that you have something to deliver and that it is important to the way that we decide, then it won’t be meaningful to participate in a democratic society.
Embrace complexity and diversity
I continuously work with governments, and they also have this question all the time. There is this global partnership, ‘the Open Government Partnership’, in which governments have to present their proposals and plans on how to make their own government more open, more transparent, more participatory and more engaging. And everybody is looking for that ‘golden recipe’: that amazing technological digital platform where people can go to, to participate. But that will only be available for a certain amount of people. If you’re not willing to understand that complexity and diversity of a community, then you would definitely go into the temptation of building that one fantastic path into participation.
You can’t have one way. You need a diversity of approaches, a variety of languages. Because there is a diversity of people out there.
Not realising that, if you are really willing to get that diverse community to participate, you need a diverse set of ways and paths. In which discussions can interact, but where the language is different. You cannot talk about the importance of, for example a public budget, with specialist and members of a migrant community in the same language. You have to change the way you talk. Valuing the opinions and the places they come from. You need to diverse set of options for people to engage. When you then look at large institutions, you have to follow a whole lot of protocols to get things done. No! You can’t have one way. You need a diversity of approaches, a variety of languages. Because there is a diversity of people out there willing to participate or potentially willing to participate. But when you offer only one path that looks like a circle and people are more triangular, you will not be able to make an interaction.
Communities and long-term is tough
In general, we’re just come to understand how we profit as an individual from very short-term issues. That you would be ‘happier’ when you can be part of the interaction of things. That having that access means you’re profiting and that it makes you happy. In general, we put the boundaries at an individual or family scale. And it is hard to break that boundary and to work on a more community level and on a more mid or longterm notion as well. We have difficulty to make ‘community management’ work over a long period of time. It is not enough to just sign a petition, it is not enough to put a sticker on your computer. We need this long-term community management that has a good feedback loop, that follows up after that first signature. Which then asks people for 20 minutes of their time. When the next level is then reached, we have learned some things and failed at some things. Then we need not 20, but 55 minutes of their time to go to the next level. And then to understand that there is a process of transformation.
It is not enough to just sign a petition, it is not enough to put a sticker on your computer.
Management of these processes is tough. Because you have to work with very different ideas. And it all comes down to this powerful moment where people get together and discuss. They will define things, which is the very first part of this powerful process. And to then take that into action while understanding that you can fuck up, fail, that things don’t work. And to then use what didn’t work to do something different. That will take time as well, what won’t be immediate. It has to do with understanding processes as a path that will go on and that also that will fail. But what’s important, is that you’re engaged and committed.