[Commentary] Thinking outside the ballot box: exercising everyday democracy - Generocity Philly

People

Mar. 23, 2015 12:30 pm

[Commentary] Thinking outside the ballot box: exercising everyday democracy

For example, our economy, badly needs more democracy and accountability.

The next mayor is extremely eager to answer your questions right now. Candidates’ forums are happening throughout the spring leading up to the May 19 municipal primary. I’m particularly interested in the forums focusing on equitable development (April 1), arts, parks and recreation (April 22) and small business development and sustainability (April 25).

Election season is an exciting time in a democratic society: you get to ask candidates your questions in public forums and they must answer them, or at least try to. You get to talk with your friends and neighbors about issues that are important to you. You get to evaluate multiple candidates on their ability to serve you and represent your needs, and then pick your favorite one.

Unfortunately, once you cast your ballot, the distance between you and the new mayor is vast; 1.5 million people live in the city of Philadelphia. Most people don’t engage with officials after they’re elected. As a single citizen, such efforts don’t yield much. An impassioned phone call to your senator’s office might result in a “thanks, I’ll let the senator know where you stand.”

At the governmental level, we should increase opportunities for democratic engagement by using tools like participatory budgeting, automatic voter registration, and online petitions. However, democracy can and should go beyond government. Our economy, for example, badly needs more democracy and accountability.

Is your internet slow and expensive? Too bad for you. Do the restaurants in your neighborhood treat their workers poorly and serve mediocre food? Tough luck. Has your landlord raised your rent again? Bummer.

What are our options in the face of these less-than-ideal economic choices? Certainly, we could choose to do without internet or restaurant food, or try to move to a new apartment. We could also organize to demand faster, cheaper internet, better treatment of restaurant workers, and affordable housing. We could lobby government to regulate businesses that don’t meet our standards. Or, we could create our own democratically-controlled alternatives.

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Cooperative businesses are places where people can practice democracy in their everyday lives. As a member and owner of a co-op, you have an equal voice and vote to every other member-owner. If you’re a member of a worker-owned co-op, you and your coworkers decide together how to set your own wages. If you’re a member of a consumer-owned co-op, like a food co-op or energy co-op, you probably elect a board of directors from among the other member owners. Your vote empowers them to make decisions, and the biggest decisions are brought back to the membership at large to discuss.

Co-ops are built for democracy. They are people-powered by design. But even within co-ops, we still have to work to create a culture of participation and engagement. We have to devote ourselves to the fifth international cooperative principle, which calls for education, training, and information. The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, an organization I’ve been involved with for the last three years, is currently developing a Cooperative Leadership Institute. This training program would bring cooperators together to build skills like financial literacy, project management, community organizing, facilitation, and governance. We think this is a necessary service to ensure the success of businesses owned and controlled by people who aren’t necessarily business people.

In his recent article, “Scaling-Up Democracy through Empowerment,” Michael Johnson writes that we need people “to model everyday democracy block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace, agency by agency, legislature by legislature. All the way up and all the way down.”

I really like that sentiment. It reminds us that democracy is a muscle that atrophies without use. So, vote in the May 19 Municipal Primary. Vote in the November 3 Municipal Election. But also, vote and consider running for the board in your co-op’s next elections. Participate in the institutions you belong to. And next time you’re choosing the lesser of two evils, get a group together and create a democratic alternative: a co-op you own and control.

Upcoming Philly area co-op and credit union board elections:

  • Sun Federal Credit Union board election is April 25.
  • South Philly Food Co-op board election is in May, date to be determined.
  • Weavers Way Co-op board election is May 31.

Image via Flickr User Keith Ivey


Caitlin Quigley is a proud co-op fanatic. She helped launch the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and is a member-owner of Mariposa Food Co-op, The Energy Co-op, and Philadelphia Federal Credit Union. In her work, Caitlin has focused on organizing to strengthen local economies and fundraising for social justice movements. Caitlin lives in West Philly and is a dedicated but slow-moving bike commuter. You can follow Caitlin on Twitter at @cequigley.

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