"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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Thursday, March 20, 2008


When gentrification efforts by real estate developers and specualtors threatened the integrity of a long standing Puerto Rican community in Chicago's Humboldt Park, The community organized against the threat using models of participatory democracy to develop and execute their struggle for self-preservation and self-determination. The following article and related links describe their efforts and the participatory philosophy and practices behind them. - Editor

Exercises in Self-Determination:The Humboldt Park Participatory Democracy Project

Michael Rodríguez Muñiz

Who should determine the future of a community? In our complex world, this seemingly simple question is rarely posed, and even more rarely answered. However rare, I believe that the overwhelming consensus, and the only ethical response, would be that a community should determine its future. But like all systems of oppression, the forces of colonialism and its urban overseer, gentrification– continue to contradict our ethical sensibilities.

In Chicago’s Humboldt Park/ West Town area, gentrification is threatening the future of the Puerto Rican community. Gentrification, a process of spatial de-concentration, destroys inner city communities (often of color) through various methods. Without so much as a vote or an opinion poll, developers and speculators are attempting to determine what is to become of Humboldt Park. Obsessed with the construction of luxurious condominiums, they have developed strategies to displace the long-time residents of area. As property taxes rise, so do rent costs, resulting in more and more families being economically forced out, against their will. Still more, gentrification does not end with displacement; it continues with the confiscation and subsequent obliteration of a community’s legacy.

The recent and repeated attempts to obstruct the oldest Puerto Rican mural in Chicago with a condominium, teaches us how this process destroys community symbols, public art, and popular culture. This lesson is driven home further with the example of Lincoln Park, which was once a vital Puerto Rican community but today has lost all vestiges of this history; ask anyone in Lincoln Park today about that fact and you will realize how gentrification erases history.

For over 40 years, Humboldt Park has been synonymous with Puerto Ricans. Here, like no other place in Chicago, this area has been the focal point of Puerto Rican activity– culturally, politically, and economically. In a sense, this area is akin to Boston’s Villa Victoria and New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Being one of the largest Puerto Rican communities outside of New York City, Humboldt Park boasts a long Puerto Rican history, including the yearly celebration of the Fiestas Patronales and Puerto Rican People’s Parade, which grew out of the 1966 and 1979 Division Street “riots” (rebellions). The most recent of these historic developments has been the establishment of Paseo Boricua and the movement to build a stable, viable, and autonomous Puerto Rican community.

“Paseo Boricua,” the term that affectionately refers to Division Street between California and Mozart, is marked by the two towering Puerto Rican flags erected in 1995.2 Vigilantly cognizant of the movement of gentrifying forces displacing Puerto Ricans from Wicker Park and most of West Town, community organizers established Paseo Boricua to be the anchor of the Puerto Rican community, el barrio boricua.

Along with the transformation of Division Street into a cultural-economic corridor, community efforts have resulted in the organization of a community-wide revitalization plan known as the Humboldt Park Empowerment Partnership (HPEP), as well as the formation of the Puerto Rican Agenda. In particular, the Puerto Rican Agenda, an ad-hoc committee made up of professionals, students, community activists, and local politicians, has worked tirelessly to help maintain and stabilize the Puerto Rican community.

Together, these organized bodies have developed numerous strategies; for example, several new programs seek to increase home ownership and affordable housing, while other programs address health and employment needs. This reclamation of space, both geographical and cultural, is all the more impressive when understood within the socio-economic context of this Puerto Rican community. As an internally colonized people, the Puerto Rican community suffers from astronomical dropout rates, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, rampant gang violence, poverty and unemployment. Though the challenge is great, community efforts have made substantial inroads in addressing these needs and strengthening its economic infrastructure. Lamentably, however, gentrification is a persistent foe.

Armed to the teeth with outside financial and political force, gentrification has begun to displace many Humboldt Park residents. In actuality, Puerto Ricans, once the majority group, have suffered over the course of the last decade a significant population decline.3 Nevertheless, as history has proven, Puerto Ricans are determined to remain in Humboldt Park.

A new initiative of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), a long time beacon of resistance, is focused on further engaging residents by posing the following question: who is to determine our fate in el barrio? The PRCC, espousing the concept of participatory democracy, believes that this question can only be answered and fulfilled by the collective participation of the community. Without increased participation in community development– gentrification will not be stopped.... To read full article click

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