"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Saturday, January 19, 2008


Planting a tree at base community of Totoapita

Small lay-led communities, motivated by Catholic faith and defined by participatory values, can be found throughout Latin America. Communities in the United States have much to learn from the participatory practices of these communities, especially their inclusion of the poor in education and problem solving.

With the goals of working together, improving the community, and establishing a more just society, community members respond to Liberation Theology's "option for the poor". In the 1950s, European movements within the Church stressed action around people's real problems, such as unjust treatment in the workplace or school, union struggles, or a coworker's needs. The defining values became "observe-judge-act". Observing includes discussing relevant facts, judging means deciding the situation's relation to the gospel, and acting means doing something, no matter how small, to change it. Regular meetings allowed evalutation of problems and actions a frequent practice. These movements spread to Latin American villages and barrios and by the end of the 1960s, the base community model gained widespread acceptance as the initial cell for builiding communities and became an important contribution to development efforts. While some priests travelled around the region helping people start organizing, lay people began to favor the defining values of commitment, personal growth, dialogue, and critical thinking. These values allowed them a sense of individuality that differs from being part of the masses gathered at a single community church and gave people the power to organize themselves.

The poor have been most responsive to the base-community format. The word "base" is often understood as the "bottom" of society, that is, the poor majority. Poverty motivates communities to struggle for their rights while the actions they take often go hand-in-hand with the religious aspects of liberation theology. A group may meet for Bible study and finish by discussing how to form a cooperative or fix a road for easier transportation. Also, as church members spread the gospel - or "good news" - people find that god is with them in their struggles and that change is possible.

While Catholic faith was a major force in founding base communities and giving an option for the poor, the most important piece is the empowerment of the oppressed. Through dialogue and consciousness raising (concientizacion), peasants and the impoverished learned to read and write without the hierarchical and paternalistic patterns of leadership. The Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and other developed a system in the 1950s and 60s that treated adults as intellegent despite their lack of linguistic skills. Through group discussions and individual curiosity, the community learns in a way independent of established structures. Learning words that denote the realities of a peasant's life (e.g. mother, father, land, corn, hoe) made the process applicable to daily life. As people came together to learn literacy skills, they experience the 'concientizacion' to help them articulate their needs and become organized as what Antonio Gramsci calles "organic intellectuals". This process empowered the poor community by giving them necessary skills to found a base community themselves.

Base communities have goals, values, and tools to make real changes in the lives of community members. These are imperative foundations for participatory democracy. Base communites may be seen as models for participatory democracy in cases where the people have the power to make actual changes. Depending on the case, this could mean control of funding for community projects, deciding what infrastructural endeavors the government should undertake, or gaining consensus on how the community can deter crime, collect trash, distribute water, etc. In their efforts, base communities are a positive step toward participatory democracy, but real decision-making power could fully distinguish them as a defender of communal rights. It is important to see how community organizing has the potential to form a power structure that stands as an alternative to both the church and the government. - Editor

For more information on base communities and liberation theology, see: Liberation Theology: Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond by Phillip Berryman.

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