The lure of the grassroots: Step beyond private life to public good

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Welcome to rabble.ca's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

In my first article on citizen engagement, we noted that many experts recommend it as the overarching solution to many public problems. But they rarely say how to increase citizen engagement. In the end, this is a recipe for going nowhere, since the vast majority of Canadians lead entirely private lives. So let's set forth where others have demurred. We want to know what attractions would encourage people to step beyond private life. On the flip side, we want to know what obstacles block the way, and figure out how to remove them. This won't be easy because there are many obstacles -- so many in fact covering so many aspects of everyday life, a visitor from outer space would marvel at our machinery for disengagement.

Two related obstacles are the bigness of public problems, and citizens feeling they are not competent to address them. Yet big problems are precisely those that require the tonic of citizen engagement. How do we address global warming? How can we prevent environmental destruction? How do we improve our educational system? How do we wrest our economic system from free-market evangelists? What do we do about increasing inequity? How do we improve our electoral system? For each of these there are many different courses of action affecting many different groups of people. Workable solutions can only be sorted out by large-scale public dialogue. But now we are talking big processes, on the scale of B.C.'s Citizen's Assembly, which was charged with the task of figuring out how to create fairer elections. When we faced with bigness we wonder: How can I make a difference? I'm just one small person. I'm not an expert. What do I know? What can I do? If I get involved I will probably just waste my time. Better to tend my roses; at least I'll have something to show for my effort.

Many books on grassroots campaigning try to tackle bigness head on. They relate numerous stories as evidence that individuals and small groups are quite capable of making major changes. At the beginning or end, they usually quote Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. It is true. If we look at the evidence, citizens can become just as knowledgeable as experts, and being small can be a big advantage. Nevertheless, I think it is the wrong approach to recommend that ordinary people go out and try to change the world. No matter how extensive the evidence, big will be disengaging for most people, unless it is a big emergency that demands an immediate response.

Real engagement usually starts out small. People step out of their own private lives to do something for their community that is immediate, local, and concrete. They initiate projects they can see their way through, will likely succeed, and need little time and resources. If all goes well and people enjoy one another's company, it will grow from there in an upward spiral as the success of early projects leads to other projects and the involvement of more people. Of course, the ever-lurking forces of darkness can drive people away and flip the spiral downward, but let's address this in a later article.

For now let's see what that first step out of private life looks like.

Let's say there is a wooded ravine near where you live that would be a good place to walk, except it is full of garbage. There's too much for you to remove all on your own. So, assuming your neighbours would also enjoy an attractive ravine, you decide to ask for their help. Now comes the hard part. How are you going to do this? You could stuff printed invitations into mailboxes. But that will only get a few people. Printed notices work for hot issues; garbage in the ravine is a chronic issue.

The best way to involve others is to invite them face-to-face. In this case, you need to knock on doors, introduce yourself, point to where you live and ask for help. It's an obvious approach but it doesn't happen very often because of a disconnect that is part of our culture. We don't want to intrude. We assume our neighbours value privacy over community. That used to be my assumption, until I was set straight by a long-term community organizer in Vancouver. He said people are very welcoming once they find out that you are a neighbour and not trying to sell something. He was right. When I first tried door-knocking I was surprised at how many people invited me into their houses. If privacy and separation from others were so important, I could see no hint of it. Our commerce driven culture emphasizes the individual over community, privacy over acting together. It's very good for business, but not much good for anything else.

Let's say you've overcome fears that you might seem impolite or intrusive. Are you really going to initiate this project all by yourself? That's no fun. Before you begin you need to find a partner who will door-knock with you. In Holland, where citizens are more iconoclastic and influential than in other places, they have a simple rule for community action: Do it in twos.

On the Saturday of the cleanup, you notice something else is happening. All the people you and your partner met door-knocking begin talking and introducing themselves to one another. After the event everyone is proud to have helped turn a dump into a park. But that's only a small part of what has been achieved. In addition to a better physical place, you and your neighbours have helped to create the beginnings of a social network; you have given shape to your neighbourhood as a social place made of people not just streets and buildings. After the cleanup everyone feels a new sense of belonging. Most Saturdays, most people head to the mall. This Saturday it was different; for everyone involved it seemed way better.

But what will happen next? Was this a one-off event? Will everyone slide back into private life? Will social connections fade to waves and hellos? Maybe. The cleanup was an unusual kind of coming together. A normal state of disconnection may settle in. To keep this flicker of community alive, someone in the group has to reconvene everyone in a setting suited to conversation. The excuse might be to celebrate the making of a more attractive ravine, but the real reason would be to help people get to know one another. It may seem obvious, but if people get to know one another and like being around one another, they will look for more opportunities to do things together.

Grassroots engagement can achieve a great deal beyond local projects, if we take care to create positive relationships amongst those who have stepped forward. If we want to see change happen, we need to focus on more than the task at hand. The most effective grassroots groups are those that stay together because they are made up of people who enjoy one another's company.

Charles Dobson is the author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, New Society Publishers, 2003.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

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