"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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Monday, August 4, 2008


The Reverend Nelson Johnson spoke at Cornell University on subjects that touched upon the role of labor unions in promoting particpatory democracy. - Editor

ILR Union Seminars Explore Labor Crises And Economic Downturn

Source: http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=19866753&BRD=1395&PAG=461&dept_id=546876&rfi=6

Students at Cornell University's Union Leadership Institute (ULI) said a speech by Reverend Nelson Johnson was "energizing," as one audience member put it.

Johnson, a life-long activist for social and economic justice, is a Pastor at Faith Community Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Executive Director of the Beloved Community Center (BCC) of Greensboro, Inc. As the ULI's Web site says, Johnson centers his efforts on "facilitating a process of comprehensive community building, which includes a convergence of racial and ethnic diversity, social and economic justice, and genuine participatory democracy." Through the BCC, he works with the homeless, the imprisoned, impoverished neighborhoods, and other disenfranchised groups.

The ULI is a one-year training program for current union leaders and top staff that hosts a statewide summer seminar, sponsored annually since 2001 by Cornell's Industrial Labor Relations (ILR) school and the New York State AFL-CIO. Johnson's visit was part of this year's seminar, "Labor at a Crossroads," which drew a racially and professionally diverse group to the institute's home base on the Cornell campus. According to the ULI Web site, the seminar enlists ILR faculty and staff and national labor leaders to share wisdom and advice, and to teach participants how and where to tap union expertise statewide.

Joe Alvarez, an adjunct faculty member at the ILR school and friends with Johnson for quite some time, had numerous reasons to invite the Reverend. "The purpose of the leader training is to have speakers who are provocative and who challenge students to see different perspectives," Alvarez said. For one, Johnson has done significant work with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a labor union representing migrant farm workers in the Midwestern United States and North Carolina. Johnson is also president of Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that, according to its Web site, calls upon religious values in order to educate, organize, and mobilize people in the U.S. on issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers and, especially, low-wage workers. Alvarez knew that Johnson would be able to connect his audience of union leaders.

"Unions have to deal with a world that is radically transforming," Alvarez said. A lot of Alvarez's generation came up in the labor movement," he said, when they had pensions and were securely tied to particular locales. Now, companies are coming and going, and those that stay are adjusting wages based on growth and downsizing without warning - a transition that is, as Alvarez said, "pretty dramatic."

Fred Kotler, program coordinator of the leadership training seminar, felt that Johnson brought a positive, constructive message to the conference. "We encourage union leaders to think beyond the immediate self interest of their own union, which involves a vision and a commitment to social economic justice," Kotler said. "This requires strategies and tactics that reach out to build alliances and coalitions," - which is Johnson's forte. His message was loud and clear Thursday morning, with a speech entitled "Building a Movement for Social Change: Challenges and opportunity of the 2008 Presidential Election."

Unions have worked to bring about broad advances that help the entire society, Alvarez said. The 40-hour work week, the weekend, and social security are just a few of the developments where unions had a significant influence. Because they deal with employees and employers from all different fields, unions have a lot on their plates: from worker rights and justice to globalization, race, and ethnicity tolerance issues to housing foreclosure problems, not to mention the Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac crises and the ever-dwindling value of the American dollar. Johnson recognized the depth of the ongoing economic crisis, yet was able to transmit a message of hope.

"As we pan the current landscape, we see crisis after crisis," Johnson said. "Now people have to think in ways they never thought before; they have to ask the question 'what's going on?'" Johnson pointed out that all over the country, grassroots groups are "popping up to restore justice and beauty and grace." There are independent, organic farms going in their own direction, for example, and hundreds of thousands of environmental and social justice organizations, he said. "People are more and more getting in gear in little, small groups. They're not trying to argue with the government; they're not trying to file petitions; they're getting together and doing." Johnson said nothing much can be done dealing with the government. "I don't think it starts with a public challenge to representative government, but with stressing democracy in your own group. The voices of the people are increasingly heard."

Johnson urged the union leaders to try to recognize the present time as an opportunity for a mental shift toward a more proactive lifestyle, and to take every chance to make a forward move. He urged his audience not to bring yesterday's thinking into their lives if the goal was not to see yesterday's reality. The mentality he preached was one of confidence, faith, independence, truth, and equity.

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