This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy. Find it through our Community Publishing Campaign here>>
The Democracy Lab’s Forum took place in an old chapel which had been stripped of religious iconography. It had been converted into a theater-in-the-round by removing the pews and circling concentric rings of chairs around a central open space.
“Our mission, here at the Democracy Lab,” Olli informed them, “is to empower citizens to engage in vast experiments in democracy, as if they were searching for remedies for what ails us.”
The Democracy Lab was a wild, unruly beast. The people were boisterous, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. They were all ages and backgrounds. They had come to explore one complex subject: democracy.
“There’s no wrong way to make a democracy,” Olli told Charlie and Zadie, “and no singular right way, either.”
The more experiments, the merrier; that was the Democracy Lab’s unofficial motto. Charlie and Zadie had been invited to speak at the Forum. Zadie planned to use the time to relay a request from Elisha Adams, Meera Sundaran, and Frankie Mirelli. The three teens had been following the cross-country journey avidly all summer. A couple of days ago, they had phoned Zadie.
“We’ve been thinking,” Frankie began, their voice tinny on speakerphone. “Now that you’ve riled up the country for real democracy – “
” – you should ask everyone to do it,” Elisha interrupted.
“Like the constructive programs that Gandhi did,” Meera put in. “Every day, each citizen should do real democracy, practice it a little bit, put it to work in their lives.”
Charlie and Zadie had explored this idea with the teens that day on the beach. They’d strolled to the far end, down by the breakwater jetty where the crowds thinned out. The wind had swept over their skin, siphoning off the seawater, leaving the salt, gritty and primordial, a reminder of the long journey of humankind’s evolution. Meera remembered rubbing her forearm with her palm and thinking of her great-grandfather who had stood on the beach with Gandhi, lifting a fistful of sand and seawater, poised to shake the foundations of British rule. Salt and homespun cloth had set India free, giving millions a symbolic and tangible way to stop paying the British for imported cloth and the daily necessity of salt. By wearing the homespun khadi and making salt in defiance of the British monopoly, the two campaigns made a significant dent in the colonial government’s tax revenues. They also galvanized people into opposing unjust laws, demonstrating their support for independence and defying British authority.
The question that kept Meera up at night was: what is our salt?
For the United States, a nation struggling to end the rule of rich people and giant corporations, what were our versions of Gandhi’s salt and spinning wheel? Local food and small business, of course. At the heart of all constructive programs was the principle of self-sufficiency. Frankie, Elisha, and Meera had chatted about this as they beachcombed.
“A community reliant on imports, giant corporations, slavery, or other injustices is weak,” Meera commented as they strolled northward along the curving shore. “It is dependent on those systems when it should be autonomous. Gandhi saw that. The early American Independence movement recognized that. If we’re going to keep off the yoke of corporate and oligarchic control, we must build local self-sufficiency.”
Charlie glanced westward toward the sedge-crested dunes, the dark forests, and the distant city. Ninety percent of their daily goods came from somewhere else. It made them dependent on the corporations that produced these goods. What would the nation be like if ninety percent of their food, clothing, entertainment, products and services were created within a hundred-mile radius of their homes? It would be a startlingly different world.
“Beyond local production,” Meera went on, side-stepping the next brush of a salty wave, “Gandhi had programs for education because the colonizers shouldn’t control the knowledge of the people.”
Zadie nodded. Her Indigenous friend, Kinap, had spoken to her at length about the efforts for food, water, energy, and education sovereignty among the Penobscot Nation and other Indigenous Nations. Local power built resiliency and responsiveness to the unique characteristics and strengths of an area. In many ways, local resilience was democracy in action.
“Gandhi also restored the local justice systems,” Elisha put in, remembering her father speaking about this, “so the Indians could take the fate of their people out of the hands of the British court system. For us, the parallel is restorative justice. My dad was big on that. He helped keep kids out of the punitive justice system and used restorative justice to get at the underlying problems.”
Now, Meera, Elisha, and Frankie thought it was time to add democracy to that list of constructive programs. A constructive program had to be symbolic and tangible. It had to be something everyone could do. With dialogues, public policy crafting, participatory polling, wisdom circles, and more, real democracy was as tactile as making salt from seawater or spinning cotton into thread. A constructive program should build the strength of the people and lessen their dependency on their oppressors. It should have revolutionary potential even if it wasn’t directly confrontational. Participatory democracy was all of these things.
Democracy should be a daily practice. It was a family collectively deciding the week’s dinner menu. It was teachers asking their students what they wanted to study. It was unhoused persons setting group rules for their encampments. It was joining an artist collective that created community-designed murals. It was the old guys on the block pooling their tools and turning one person’s garage into a tool library. It was holding listening sessions with coworkers to find out how to improve life at the office. In the United States, these kinds of democracy projects held the keys to ending corporate rule, the rule of the rich.
These day-to-day democracy practices weren’t just about democratizing the bread-and-butter staples of our daily lives . . . they were the training grounds for the skills we needed to self-govern as a nation on every level and scale. The ability to listen deeply could be used by the manager of a hair salon as much as by the president of the United States. The capacity to reflect on contrasting opinions was a skill both church members and congress members should have. Every schoolchild should learn how to be part of a student assembly, how to listen, how to use hand signals, how to speak succinctly and to the point, how to learn from others and how to share their truth. Then, when they grew up, they would know how to participate in a workers’ assembly, a citizens’ assembly, a neighborhood assembly, a street assembly, and more. The skills we learn in local democracy serve us in every other place real democracy erupts.
But Americans couldn’t just read about real democracy online. They had to do it in their communities.
“Doing democracy is our version of Gandhi’s salt,” Meera told Zadie and Charlie. “It’s our spinning wheel. It’s something we can all do that helps us build our independence from the people who want to exploit and abuse us.”
There were dozens of ways for communities to make decisions together. The problem was, people weren’t using them. Like the Indians who nearly starved their traditional spinners and weavers to death because they wanted to buy imported British cloth, we had outsourced decision-making to politicians and bosses. The average citizen had little direct participation in the rules that affected their lives, and they were suffering because of it.
In order to have real democracy, the populace needed to learn how to listen to each other, talk with each other, and solve their problems, together. Like spinning yarn, democracy had to be a daily activity, part of a way of life. Like knowing how to work the fibers and turn the wheel, everyone should have practical skills for making decisions together. And, like wearing khadi, the plain-weave cloth in traditional style that became symbolic of Indian independence, every US citizen should find pride and powerful symbolism in the act of doing democracy.
Charlie and Zadie listened as the three youths explained. The teens wanted the pair to issue a call-to-action: don’t just read about democracy. Go out and practice it. Try it on for size. Take democracy for a test drive.
“If we’re going to scale up the movement,” Zadie replied, “we’re going to need more troubleshooters, teachers, and democracy repairmen than just Olli.”
Fortunately, Oliver Lang had friends at the Democracy Lab. The organization had started as a street experiment and grown into a loose network of scholars, trainers, and practitioners. They crowd-sourced the funds to buy the old convent when it came up for sale, securing a roof, a common kitchen, and rooms for both office space and residential study programs. In the Forum, the community gathered to debate and discuss the best practices, emerging experiments, and challenging questions around this thing called democracy.
“It’s not always this argumentative,” Olli apologized as the lambasting harangues made them wince. “They’re debating whether or not non-humans should have rights.”
“Non-humans?” Charlie queried as they walked down the narrow aisle from the door toward the center.
“Oh, not corporations,” Olli clarified, seeing the hard look on Charlie’s face. “We’ve debated that many times in the past, but today they’re talking about trees, animals, ecosystems, rivers, that sort of thing. Should the forests have rights and if so, then can the Loraxians really speak for the trees?”
“The Loraxians?” Zadie asked. The word evoked childhood memories of a fuzzy orange creature warning about the dangers of chopping down the Truffula trees.
“They use Seuss’ Lorax as a name, but it’s really the concept of humans offering representation to other species. That’s controversial. I mean, can the Beef Industry be trusted to speak in the best interests of cows? What about PETA or other animal rights groups? Who knows what wooly sheep dream about, let alone electric sheep – and don’t get me started on tech and robot rights!”
Olli rolled his eyes and slid into the second row from the front. Zadie squeezed in after him. Charlie eyed the stained glass windows and wondered if gods and angels, devils and mythological creatures would get representation some day – or maybe that was a good reason to maintain separation of church and state.
Olli glanced at the time and began rapping his knuckles on the back of the chair in front of him. The man to his right picked it up, then the next person.
“It’s a point-of-order signal. You’re on the schedule for the four o’clock slot,” Olli explained as the whole assembly replicated the metallic rapping.
As a single person, the tapping was barely audible. Multiplied by the whole room, the din was deafening. The heated exchange of the debaters faltered. One glanced around as if emerging from a deep-sea dive of logic and argument. The other blinked, then stuck out his hand. The pair shook and sat down. The people in the front ring of chairs gathered notes and coffee mugs then shuffled back into the secondary rows.
“If someone wishes to enter the debate,” Olli explained, “they step into the ring and sit in the first circle of chairs. The rest of us listen in the back rows until we have a point to make, then we step in. If we’ve had enough, we leave. It’s a bit like boxing, I suppose, but without the violence.”
He shrugged. It was one model. They used over a dozen more. On a whiteboard affixed to the stone columns of the cathedral ceiling, the names of the other formats were posted: the Ring, the Shuffle, the Tides, the Soapbox, the Classic Debate, and so on. Someone stood up on a chair and wrote a new model on the whiteboard. Their dry erase marker squeaked as the word Matchstick was scrawled across the surface. Charlie and Zadie had been invited to introduce their concept like a matchstick in a haystack and see what unfolded from there.
The knocking din died down. Zadie admired the elegance of it. If the assembly wished to disregard the point-of-order, they simply didn’t knock. But, if they supported the shift, the noise quieted the debate and they could move on. Unlike a bell or loud whistle, it took general agreement to make the transition.
Olli nudged the pair onto chairs in the center ring and stood up to address the crowd. The floorboards beneath him had been worn black and shiny by countless feet. The hall quieted as Olli held up his hands. He introduced the visitors and thanked the assembly for allocating floor time to them. He did not mention their purpose, leaving the explanation up to them.
“As you undoubtedly heard,” Zadie said, rising to her feet, “Charlie and I have been traveling the country, writing about the participatory democracy stories happening all over the place. Our young friends, Elisha, Meera, and Frankie, think it’s time for participatory democracy to become a constructive program for this country, something everyone does, everyday, to build local and community control, self-reliance, and people power.”
In the folding chairs, a keen-edged focus settled on the room. Faces stilled. Fidgeting stopped. Beyond the arches of stained glass windows, the rain slowed as if listening. The sky lightened. A kaleidoscope of diffuse colors painted the chapel.
“I’ve come to ask for your help,” Zadie said, humbly, quietly. “Our nation has a steep learning curve ahead of us. The greater parts of our lives are deeply undemocratic. Will you . . . can you escalate the nation’s learning curve? Can you scale up your experiments? Can the members of the Democracy Lab help us as we expand the good work already happening? If every single town or city in this nation called you tomorrow, how would you deal with such a glorious onslaught of interest?”
A hush of reverence hung, suspended over the gathered. Breaths poised in chests, hoping, longing for such a miracle.
“Because,” she mentioned with a wry grin and a wink, “tomorrow, Charlie and I are thinking of asking millions of Dandelions to give you a ring.”
Create, copy, improve, share; that was the viral operating principle of the Dandelion Insurrection. It’s what had fueled their wild and unruly growth. All summer long, she and Charlie had told the stories of those who were creating new democracy practices. Now, by issuing a call-to-action, they could invite millions of Dandelions to take these ideas to the next level.
Zadie gestured for Charlie to speak up. He stood. The wind hissed through the trees outside, sending a shower of raindrops over the old slate roof, the drumming fingers of Earth, impatient and waiting.
“Democracy is the science of our times,” Charlie said, “a social science, a field of inquiry and experimentation that involves all of us. The United States has fostered many waves of scientific curiosity from the natural sciences to atomic physics to space exploration and genome mapping. We can expand our laboratory to include the entire nation. We can catalyze a mass experiment – or rather, a mass movement of thousands of experiments.”
“So, what do you say?” Zadie challenged them, flinging her arms as wide as she could stretch, a matching grin on her face.
The sunlight broke out from the clouds in luminous brilliance. A dazzle of gold and emerald, ruby and azure showered through the grey hall, illuminating smiles and grins. A murmur of excitement swept through the members of the Democracy Lab. A thrill of anticipation shifted through the group, an eagerness to begin. The conversation opened to the whole Forum. Ideas raced forward. Concerns over capacity were raised, met, and dealt with. When the vote came, they ayes had it . . . the Democracy Lab was in.
Charlie and Zadie released a new essay, a call-to-action to the nation to use one small act of democracy each day, and to add one more democracy practice to their lives each week. In one year, they pointed out, we, the People, will have infused fifty-two new practices into three hundred and twenty million lives. That math equated to more than nine billion moments of democracy added to our world.
It was a match laid to a web of fuse lines. The projects exploded in all directions at once. When the change agents in a system reach a tipping point of interconnectivity, it only takes one final spark to trigger an immense catalytic reaction. The democracy effort was in a primordial soup moment, a point in the evolution of this field, when the catalyzers and multipliers connected with the readiness of the nodes to transform. Everything was poised for change. The examples existed. The test models had been tried. One last touch and . . . poof! It was an evolutionary leap for both the Democracy Lab and the Dandelion Insurrection.
Elisha, Meera, and Frankie launched out of the gate with an enthusiasm that set the tone for the nation. They inventoried their city, giving out one-to-five star ratings in democracy to every business, institution, club, nonprofit, social network, and governmental department. They mobilized the youth and seniors in an intergenerational effort to infuse democracy into their city. The community centers launched public surveys to determine programming. The summer camps held world cafes with youth, parents, and camp councilors on next year’s activities. One of the newspapers put together its first-ever community advisory board in a bid to beat their rival journal in moving from one star to two.
Small, daily acts of democracy catalyzed larger projects. Vermont burst into a wild frenzy of action; doing democracy was a local pastime, right up there with maple sugaring. Long known for its rebellious autonomy and local self-determination, towns across the state were the first to scale up participatory democracy practices in town councils, local schools, worker coops, and more. Milton, Vermont was the first municipality to declare a town-wide Democracy Revolution. Others swiftly followed.
In New Jersey, a state long regarded as a mere bedroom community of the New York behemoth, a Black and Brown-led housing justice movement shut down planning and zoning commission meetings with a Renters and Residents Assembly. They demanded immediate public referendums on anti-gentrification and rent control measures.
In Minnesota, the youth walked out of school to demand that the state hold intergenerational dialogues before approving any new pipelines or fossil fuel infrastructure. The youth of today objected to getting stuck with the long-term bills and cleanup costs of fossil fuels, and an unlivable planet, to boot.
Alabama’s university students took the administration by surprise with an occupation for participatory budgeting. “We’re paying for it,” was their slogan as the students argued against budget cuts for the health center and the failure to pay graduate teaching assistants a fair wage. Their itemized list of suggested cuts included eliminating the million-dollar ice cream bar.
In Alaska, citizens demanded veto power on oil drilling. Since state law mandated that each person received a cut of the tax revenue on extraction, organizers launched statewide kitchen table conversations about economic justice, transitions to wind power generation, and what would happen when the ice melted and their unique way of life vanished along with the permafrost and polar bears.
State by state, city by city, the campaign for real democracy took off. In Detroit, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix, citizens demanded public governance of privatized water utilities. Towns and cities in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado launched stakeholder meetings on nuclear waste, giving downwinders equal say to nuclear scientists and public officials from the Departments of Defense and Energy. In the College Belt, students at Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire colleges formed student assemblies to meet with administrators on governance of higher education. Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri workers went on strike for the right to bid for worker co-operative ownership of corporations put up for sale. In New York, Houston, and Los Angeles, renters unions and land coops launched occupations at public offices, using world cafes to hash out policy for housing justice laws. In Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, and Baltimore, citizens demanded direct control of police departments.
After two hundred and seventy-five years of the representative republic, corporate dictatorship, and hierarchal domination at work and throughout their culture, people decided they didn’t just want “voice”. They wanted choice. They wanted agency. They wanted self-determination. They wanted more than input. They wanted to make the decisions. The screams of outrage from the Constitution-loving faction reached new heights of histrionics. They hollered bloody murder over the “treasonous insurrection” . . . and they weren’t entirely wrong. It wasn’t an insurrection. It wasn’t treason, but it was a revolution. It was the only truly revolutionary change the Dandelion Insurrection had ever called for.
Their critics complained about the project’s complexity. Why not just implement wisdom councils everywhere? Weren’t the two dozen formats confusing to everyone?
“You don’t put out beach chairs in a Montana snowstorm and you don’t hand out snow shovels to Floridians,” Zadie answered. “Every place is different and these differences can and should inform what practices we try first.”
The Dandelion Insurrection has never shied away from a certain unruly madness, Charlie wrote, championing the complexity. We are a vast and complex country, with peoples as unique as the terrains we inhabit. We can embrace our diversity and use it as a saving grace. The trap of homogeneity is for authoritarian regimes, not us.
But every action had an equal and opposite reaction. When Charlie and Zadie’s article on The Revolution of Democracy hit the Alternet, it exploded like a sonic boom in all directions at once: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Democracy – real democracy – put decision-making capacity into the hands of those affected by the decisions. If implemented broadly, it would rattle the foundations of the entire structure of the United States.
It was simple, really, and yet, almost beyond imagination. If the shape of the world was made by an undemocratic ruling class, adding democracy would radically alter it.
“Business as we know it will collapse!” the critics shrieked as consumers called for greater say in what stocked the shelves. They demanded that businesses take responsibility for their products from “cradle to grave” and acknowledge that there are no externalities. They insisted that the full costs be taken out before profits, not shifted onto consumers and workers while owners raked in fortunes. Companies had to pay for cleaning up mine tailings and effluents. Corporations had to account for the particles churning from their smokestacks, the plastic packaging on the shelves, and the ultimate resting places of worn-out products.
Humanity had constructed ivory cities built on the bones of the exploited and oppressed. Glittering fortunes amassed atop hidden toxic waste dumps. By ignoring the outcry against the innumerable abuses, humanity had built a shiny hell, a global economy whose maintenance required endless destruction, despair, and death, poison, pollution, lies, and war. Suffering was the hidden fuel shoveled into the furnaces of this economy. Why should humanity grant its continued loyalty to this?
“The economy keeps billions alive, day in, day out,” the business moguls claimed, launching a massive counterattack as Charlie and Zadie’s article crashed websites with its popularity.
The slave owners said the same thing, claiming they kept the enslaved alive as they fed them cornmeal mush in pigs troughs, Charlie wrote in his rebuttal. That does not mean the enslaved should support their enslavement.
“Millions have a high standard of living because of us,” the pundits of money claimed.
But Zadie argued back:
“We have constructed a trap in which those who enjoy the highest standard of living require others to live in misery to maintain it. This is not normal. It’s sociopathic. It behooves all of us to dismantle this so-called civilization and build a better world that works for all of us.”
Democracy – real, functional, inclusive democracy – transcended arbitrary boundaries of state lines and even national borders. It offered the only governing system that could, by its very nature, end the current abuses and prevent new ones from arising. The process of identifying who was affected by a decision demanded a full accounting of the impacts of any action.
Humanity had circled the globe, met people who lived upside down and backwards to one another, gone to the moon and seen Earth rise on the horizon, stretched their imaginations to the ends of universe and inside atoms. There was no terra nullius anywhere. There was no place for adolescent fantasies of narcissistic freedom. There was only community and interconnectivity, a web of life and relationship that could not be ignored.
In a world where there was nowhere left to run, how would humanity live? What would people’s lives look like when they took full account of their actions? When every place was somebody’s backyard, how could there be any more sacrifice zones?
This, Charlie and Zadie discovered as the online commentators screamed in vitriolic protest, was the true revolution of their lifetimes. It wasn’t about replacing one political party with another. It wasn’t about inventing fancier technology. It wasn’t even about ousting oligarchs or corporatists from power. It was about the rise of an ancient understanding, a truth so self-evident that the Founding Fathers in all their racist, colonialist, patriarchal, classist, Christian supremacist madness could not acknowledge or else their entire pseudo-nation would unravel at the seams. It was an idea that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would articulate so clearly and poetically on scrap paper in a Birmingham jail in 1963: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
A living democracy was the only choice when presented with that reality. It was an inarguable, self-evident truth in a world where everything matters. In such a world, no one should abuse the next, or profit from another’s misery, or ignore the destructiveness of their actions. In such a world, we can no longer justify war, exploitation, poverty, or ecosystem abuse. It sounded like a fairy tale as they sat in the midst of the current nightmare, but it was so, so, so very close, only a heartbeat away. The revolution would be a revolution of the heart, a remembering of ancient truths, a coming full circle for humanity, a healing from the millennia-long sickness of the soul, a return home to our one-and-only planet, a reunion of brotherhood and sisterhood with each other and the Earth.
This was the revolution of democracy.
This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy. Find it through our Community Publishing Campaign here>>