Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Costs of Democratic Participation (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[To read the entire series, go here.]
If we persist in our inquiry as to what is meant by a people’s program, raising a series of questions—“Who thought up the program?” “Where did it come from?” “Who worked in its creation?” and other similar queries—we rapidly discover that too often the program is not the people’s program at all but the product of one person, five persons, a church, a labor union, a business group, a social agency, or a political club—in short, a program can be traced to one or two persons but not to the people themselves. The phrase “people’s program” has become well worn with lip service, but whether such a program actually exists in practice is something else again.

--Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 53 (1946)

There is a tendency among education scholars to genuflect before the idea of “democracy.” If we are going to participate in community or school change, the “progressive” position generally supports the idea that projects must emerge from “the people” as Alinsky argues here. And, in a general sense, it is difficult to challenge this desire. Of course it is important for those who are affected by a program to participate in its development.

But it is also important to understand that “participation” is not a costless activity. Furthermore, in complex areas where one needs extensive technical knowledge to make decisions about better or worse projects, effective decisionmaking by the “people” is inseparable from extensive educational activities. And then come difficult questions about how one is to ascertain what the “people” want or even who the “people” are. For example, as I have noted before, the organization I work with, MOVE, is made up of mostly middle-class church members. Figuring out what they want is not the same as figuring out what those who are most needy in our communities want.

I’m beginning to think that different levels of participation may be required for different kinds of interventions. With respect to some broad social service issues, it seems to me that it may be less important for the “people” to participate in deciding about which projects to pursue. For example, is it necessary to have long discussions about exactly what kind of dental service program we need for kids in school or about what kind of class size reduction plan we need, as long as we get one? Of course, it would be better to have these discussions. But lacking resources, doesn't it make sense to just “do it” when opportunities present themselves for fighting for new programs as opposed to stopping and engaging in long drawn-out community education and engagement efforts?

In general, it is usually less important to people exactly how new services are provided as long as they are provided. Kids need dental care and smaller class sizes. And parents don’t necessarily care whether we start with dental care or small class size--even if neither of these would be at the absolute top of their initial list if we did a survey of their desires for change.

For example, we have begun a process of developing an approach to providing dental care to students in the Milwaukee Public Schools. In focus groups, another organization found that many parents would rather take their kids to a private practitioner rather than have them treated in school. And this is fine. But we have almost one hundred thousand kids in MPS. 64% of them have significant tooth decay problems and less than 25% have even seen a dentist recently. The fact that some parents won’t want to use the service (or might use it even if they would prefer something else) won’t change what seems the undisputed fact that it would reach an enormous number of children who are not now served. I haven't heard anyone who actually opposes offering such services.

The fact is that this is the project that the most involved members of our organization think we can feasibly fight for—even if it isn’t the “perfect” program for everyone. The fact is that no one seems to know how to substantially increase private dental access directly for poor parents with state insurance. In part because there doesn’t seem to be any coherent alternative to a school-based plan, other groups have failed to put forward a comprehensive plan for student treatment at all (although they have recommended a patchwork of disparate changes that would be difficult to fight for as a collective). To some extent (from my distant and limited understanding) these other groups seem to have been paralyzed to one extent or another by a particular vision of democratic collaboration between institutions and local people.

It seems crucial to make sure that all programs include avenues for public participation so that they can be influenced by those they serve. But you can’t influence a program that doesn’t exist. You can’t fight for changes in service provision that doesn’t exist. It may be that the capability for local participation on an issue like this comes after the service is created and not before.

Other issues seem likely to require more extensive education and dialogue. For example, we are thinking about joining the fight of a couple of local school board members to reinstate arts programs and/or other extracurricular activities in MPS schools. An effort like this, which would involve shifting $$ from one area of the school budget to another (instead of providing new $$ like the dental plan would, above) seem problematic to pursue without extensive and broad input. There is deep disagreement out there about what schools should “do” or “be.” Should they limit their focus to the three Rs exclusively, or do they have a responsibility to provide more broad-based experiences to students? And do extracurricular activities really matter on an academic level? Are they simply add-ons that are fun, or do they, for example, keep students in school that might otherwise drop out? To me, it seems problematic for a few leaders to decide what the general population of their organization believes without engaging with them in some way.

There may be three different kinds of issues, here.

  1. There may be issues like dental care or class size that don’t require as much intense democratic engagement or education. Anybody on the street can see why they are important and they don’t need to learn much to understand what needs to be done in a general sense.
  2. Then there may be issues that require education and some democratic dialogue, but that revolve around issues that people generally will support unproblematically. People need to understand the complexities of these issues in order to participate effectively in the fight, but don’t need to have extended discussion about whether this particular fight is worthy.
  3. And then there may be issues that require both education and more extensive democratic dialogue, like whether an organization should join an effort to bring extracurricular activities back given a limited pool of $ to do everything a school needs to do. They need to have discussions about whether this campaign is worth getting into in the first place. And they need to understand the structure of the budget—the specific details of where the funding will come from and the implications of this act for other programs—both to have the dialogue in the first place and to effectively fight for the change if they decide to pursue it.
To complicate this even more, as I noted above, it may be that democratic participation for different issues becomes important at different stages of a project. In some cases this may even happen after a particular campaign has been won so that there exist real opportunities to work on influencing a service that has not existed before.

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