Susan Clark says the idea of comparing local democracy to the Slow Food movement came to her while working in her garden. And, why not? Just as many cooks and food lovers have become more intimately involved in local food production, Susan and co-author Woden Teachout saw an opportunity to help citizens sow and grow a healthier democracy in their own towns and communities. The result was their book, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home.
Susan, an NCDD Sustaining Member, will be our guest during a free online book club on Wednesday, March 5, from 2-3 Eastern (11-12 Pacific). So sign up today!
NCDD is excited to be partnering with Chelsea Green Publishing on this event, but we’d also love to hear from you ahead of time. It’ll make for a richer conversation when we all come together, so take a look at our Q&A with Susan below, see what engages you, and offer your own experiences, insights, and questions.
Susan, what does “slow democracy” look like? What are its major characteristics?
Slow democracy weaves together three key elements of local democratic decision making:
- Inclusion–ensuring broad, diverse public participation
- Deliberation–defining problems and weighing solutions through a public process, based on sound information and respectful relationships
- Power–defining a clear connection between citizen participation, public decisions, and action
Did you struggle with any aspect of comparing democracy to the Slow Food movement, or could you immediately embrace the whole concept?
For a time, the Slow Food movement had an elitist reputation–local arugula and artisanal goat cheese are nice if you can afford them. But they have worked hard to overcome the myth that only rich people deserve healthy food, with slow food activists organizing across the world in low-income neighborhoods, schools and prisons. They are raising awareness that each of us can share in the responsibility–and pleasure–of nourishing ourselves. In the same way, we understand that in today’s economy, a person with three jobs doesn’t have time for democratic engagement through a lot of evening meetings.
That’s why Slow Democracy focuses so heavily on creative inclusion techniques–meeting people where they are; and on power–making sure that participation is worth citizens’ precious time.
Which of your ideas might prove the most challenging for members of the D&D community?
Power is hard to talk about, and can have distasteful connotations (“power corrupts”). Many people claim they want nothing to do with it. It can be an especially troubling concept for women. Power is, perhaps, less in the forefront in a dialogue than it is in deliberative decision making. But of course, power is critical to be aware of in both dialogue and deliberation. Power might be camouflaged by terms like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” or “control,” but whatever you call it, it is worth careful exploration.
What are the greatest obstacles facing the Slow Democracy movement?
Paradigms left over from the Industrial Revolution. For instance, that speed and efficiency are all-powerful. And that change is made from the top down… It’s interesting: On the right, the Tea Party hates big government. And the activists on the left, for instance the Occupy movement, despise big corporations. Slow Democracy worries about “big” in general. We argue that centralization and privatization are both enemies of local democracy. And the only way past them is by coming together.
What gives you hope about democracy today?
“Emergence” is the term used by systems thinkers to describe the exciting phenomenon of many local collaborations producing global patterns. In the same way that schools of fish or flocks of starlings move in sync without a leader, we’re seeing small movements adding up to meta-level patterns, fueling and informing each other like a wiki. What I loved best about writing Slow Democracy was hearing so many stories about communities putting aside worn-out labels, identifying common values, and making inspiring positive change. Getting past our old paradigms offers very hopeful possibilities.
What do you think of Susan’s book, or of her responses to our mini-interview (conducted by our board member Marla Crockett, by the way!)? What questions do you want to ask Susan on March 5th?