John Lewis was part of a movement in which people literally risked their lives to achieve basic human rights. Democracy is not a state,” Lewis wrote in his own eulogy: “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
What was transformational about those sit ins, the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge? People made a choice: they made the choice to change the reality or die!!! These acts of courage and commitment are much more than that…these are acts of transformational decision-making which led to action, which led to change. The acts were not a debate…the acts spoke for themselves. The acts led to bloodshed and death. There was no turning back.
What can we take away from this notion that “democracy is not a state, it is an act” for our times?
It is nearly 60 years since Lewis and so many others risked everything… and everything today is going in the wrong direction.
Over the past fifty years at least, our social, economic, and political direction has evolved whereby we now live in a nation where most economic activity is driven by finance and consumerism. We live in a nation that has had no systemic approach to solving the major challenges of economic and social activity which people experience each day:
Sustained good wages and retirement (pensions);
Affordable high quality health care;
Solutions to wasteful and dangerous energy consumption and production;
Affordable high quality housing;
High quality education for all, Pre-K-12;
High quality, green infrastructure;
Paid time off and leisure.
And we must add to all of this, that depending on where you live, depending on race and national origin, the disparities remain and intensify.
It will take more than Rooseveltian leadership.
No, we must have transformational vision and action, Like civil disobedience as a transformational act, we must invent a kind of civil disobedience against a paucity of ambition and what passes for “pragmatism”.
Democracy demands action. It is not a state in which we can somehow take comfort
One transformational example I’ll offer is this: either the nation makes education a national effort to fund and standardize the ability of all parents/caregivers to read to kids from the time they are born, and have very best teachers, facilities, and curricula everywhere, or we will continue with separate but unequal for the next 100 years.
How can we make this work?
Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times yesterday and connected John Lewis’ views on democracy with John Dewey: “I am reminded, by all of this, of John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist who devoted his long career to the explication of life in a modern industrial democracy and its implications for a wide range of social and political activity.”
When kids are denied quality education, of course division and inequality follows, same with everything else.
It is very inconvenient to confront that which must be transformed…such confrontation means that we must risk a great deal, including power, including decision-making.
Dewey and other great philosophers of education like Paolo Freire, like Myles Horton, understood and articulated what we actually know to be true: that humans are perfectly capable of learning through experience, most importantly shared experience. Kids learn to problem solve through play and through the collective experience of learning in school. Adults learn to problem solve by using their accumulated knowledge…when given the chance to do so.
What makes the adult experience more difficult is not a lack of capability; what makes the adult experience more difficult is reaching agreement on the problem to solve…and that is largely a function of living and working without a voice through most of their lives. So people lose the ability to problem solve not because they lack the capacity to do it, but because they do not have the power to choose problems to solve.
The most important act in democracy is to act democratically…every day…and create the environment for the there to be human actualization of problem-solving.
I have always believed that local control of schools was based on race and racism. I still believe that.
Is this human nature?
That I do not agree with. What if we decided as a people that the disparities in education, health, housing, work, wealth, and opportunity were unacceptable? I believe that we as people have the capacity to solve problems, and if we did, we’d have a chance… as a people.
What is the risk to try?
There is risk aplenty…but until we take the risk, we’ll be having the same condition for a long time to come.
And the current state is not working. Because we are not attempting to problem-solve as a people, we allow ourselves to be divided and as a result, disparity and inequality grows and grows. And with it the condition for tribalism and hatreds.
We know it costs far more to put people in jail than to send them to great schools.
We know that if we prevented chronic health conditions for everyone, we would spend far less on health care.
We know that if we eliminated weapon systems that are both obsolete and unnecessary we could find much to do with those savings.
We know that the oceans are rising, drought is increasing, and the earth is burning up due to models of production invented 200 years ago We can transition our entire way of life to eliminate fossil fuels, and build everything we need from reusable energy and other resources that we either have or we must invent. High quality housing, transportation, community organization, and overall public health depend on such a transformation.
How do we do this?
We must build consensus based on discovering shared interests. We must create governance structures that reflect the consensus and the evolving state of shared interests. This can be done in the workplace. This can be done in the community. We must make the leap as a people to intertwine the workplace with the community. We must adapt to the inconvenience and discomfort that comes with shared voice and the shared power that comes with such shared voice.
And where will the leadership come from to build consensus-driven outcomes based on shared interests?
From those who take the risk to do so.