The LWV Observer Corps & Living Democracy
Frances Moore Lappe, best known as the author of Diet for a Small Planet, a popular health-food cookbook from the 1970's, has also written about democracy. In the years just after the 9/11 terrorist attack on our country, she wrote Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad. This is a short book that I zoomed through on an airplane ride when I was Executive Director of Grassroots Grantmakers. What stood out for me was Lappe's discussion of two types of democracy - thin democracy and living democracy. The difference between thin democracy and living democracy is about us - you and me, everyday citizens - not elected officials.
Lappe describes what I have felt and seen but have found so challenging to describe - the difference between a community that is alive and full of hope and one that is stuck in a place of wanting and needing. Thin democracy generates communities where democracy is divorced from people's day to day lives - best left to experts with voting and spending as the two primary responsibilities of good citizens.
A community that is experiencing living democracy is a place where democracy is a living system that shapes people's lives and people in the active citizen role bring their voices and values to shape choices that affect them in very personal ways. Lappe says that "living democracy recognizes that all people have public lives and that only in public engagement can we fulfill our need to connect with others in common purpose, to make a difference, to express our values and to fully respect ourselves."
My community here in Lavaca County is full of wonderful people who are intimately tied to this place and care deeply about each other. I see that every day in so many ways - and that's what binds me to this place where I have had family since my German ancestors made their home here more than a hundred years ago. There is a lot that is alive and wonderful here. But I'm not sure that democracy is truly alive.
Here's are two things that I see that suggest that we have some work to do to breathe life into our local democracy in ways that will breathe even more life and vitality into our communities.
Our norm is uncontested local races - meaning people are reluctant to step up to run for office, incumbents are not challenged to defend their record and share their priorities, and citizens do not have the opportunity to voice their preferences in local elections.
Difference of opinion appears to be viewed as counter-productive and disagreeable instead of part of a healthy public discourse among citizens. We seem to have few opportunities for local citizens to engage in civil dialogue where differences are shared, common ground is identified, and solutions are crafted together. With so few opportunities to practice sharing and working through differences, it is easy to characterize people who do not share our opinions as "other".
We have a community with a very high percentage of registered voters, but where actual voting falls ways below expectations, especially among younger people here in our community. It appears that people do not believe that their vote - or their voice matters.
Our League of Women Voters, very new and still trying to find its way, is committed to helping our local democracy become more alive and vibrant. We have great role models for this work, in the thirty plus other local Leagues in Texas and the hundreds and hundreds of local Leagues in the United States. One League tried and true approach, designed to help add energy to the citizen side of public meetings, is the Observer Corps. A LWV Observer Corps is simply a group of volunteers who agree to attend and observe public meetings from time to time. Observer Corps members attend meetings, observe, take some notes, and share what they learn with their League.
In a nutshell, Observer Corps:
help citizens put a toe in the democracy water - gaining first-hand knowledge of decisions that elected bodies are making that impact their lives, how those decisions are made and how citizens can have input on those decisions;
promote government transparency and accountability; and
help Local Leagues tie their program planning and advocacy work to timely issues that are relevant to their community.
Observer Corps are not:
a criticism of how public officials are doing their work or what issues they are addressing;
vehicles for individuals to work on personal or partisan agendas.
As a new League in Lavaca County, we are introducing the Observer Corps practice this April by asking people to volunteer to attend just one public meeting in their community during the month. Just one city council meeting, one school board meeting, one county commission meeting, or one hospital district meeting. We are hopeful that people will go with a buddy - more fun plus going with a buddy provides an opportunity for two people to talk about what they observed. We are also asking for volunteer Observers to come to our Annual Meeting on April 30 and share what they learned - guided by some an easy questionnaire we provide up-front that are designed to help people know what to watch for when they are attending a meeting.
Are you interested in a democracy that is more alive, and less thin? If so, please volunteer to be an Volunteer Observer this April! Contact us to let us know that you're interested!