In the nightmare of participation, political subjects become caught in the logic of an iconic participation, a representative participation that has been exaggerated to the point of hollowness.
The power of this participation is the power of the mesmerizing icon: It sustains the nightmare that we cannot wake up from, and it compels us to go on playing our assigned roles. Why has participation become a nightmare? The history is longer than we can tell here. Start looking a few decades back, to the 1980s, when the Western political model of participation as a legitimizing force emerged—a significant step in the evolution of late capitalism’s political theater.
It is participation as instrumentalized political practice. Participation becomes a scripted scenario of liberal democracy, into which you insert the necessary actors, props, lighting, cameras, and mechanized monsters.
Last week’s Civil Beat Cafe on homelessness reminded me that one major frustration I have with public forums and discussions is our tendency to only accept efficient/rational/articulate/unemotional communication as legitimate. How do we create spaces for democratic discourse and participation when the only kind of participation desired is one that requires Speech & Debate rhetorical abilities. Is storytelling legitimate? Is swearing ever allowed? Can your personal history be foregrounded? Is anguish legitimate? How about rudeness? If you cry, will people listen more carefully or dismiss you more easily?
I’m not immune to the feeling of “hurry it up and get to the point.” I will squirm during an endless “3-part question.” But in general, as long as the panel discussant or audience member abides by the implicit or explicit rules of meeting etiquette, we will just silently roll our eyes. In most cases, it is the people who violate those rules of polite politics who are dismissed as illegitimate.
In fact, facilitation techniques like the notecard Q&A session (hand out notecards for people to write down their questions, then the organizers or speakers consolidate or select questions in the interest of time) are often used specifically to manage potentially contentious or long-winded audiences. Though my efficient soul thrills to these types of time management tools, my community planning brain says "wait a second, what is the effect of taking the words out of an individual’s mouth and having those words spoken or even revised by a person on stage?" Notecards narrow down the kinds of possible communication even further. Written words only please! And nevermind language access.
This is an ongoing concern in community planning. Are public meetings actually accessible to all publics? How do you go beyond words to practice inclusiveness in a meeting?
So this article “This is how I want to live my life”: An Experiment in Prefigurative Feminist Organizing for a More Equitable and Inclusive City got me excited as a case study on how one organization, City for All Women Initiative (CAWI), attempts to bring the often neglected voices of poor women and immigrant women in city decision-making. They did this by not only demystifying City Hall for their members, but also by enacting the kind of inclusive politics they wanted city politics to become.
Siltanen, Janet, Fran Klodawsky, and Caroline Andrew.
“This is how I want to live my life”: An Experiment in Prefigurative Feminist Organizing for a More Equitable and Inclusive City
Excerpts below, with images and emphases added. For some reason the CAWI website is down, so I’ve pulled images from multiple other sources.
Prefiguration* is an effort to bring desired futures actively into being in the present. It promotes valuing the quality of everyday experience, and the processes of achieving change, as central to the doing of politics.
The work of prefigurative feminist politics, perhaps particularly at the local level, is in many ways an example of the spectacular of the mundane (Rowbotham 1989) and the “modest beginnings” and “small achievements” involved in “starting where you are” (Gibson-Graham 2006:195–196). It is in the mundane, minute, everyday decisions about how we speak with and listen to people, acknowledge their life experience, feed them, celebrate them, collaborate with them that the personal becomes political.
[Ottawa City Hall]
CAWI also consciously tries to keep a visible profile at City Hall and does so by making use of City Hall resources. One reason for doing so is to help its members feel more at home within City Hall premises—to be seen as, and to feel themselves as, insiders who know their way around. Another is to keep the presence of CAWI and its interests visible to city staff and councillors.
…although CAWI works to keep a visible presence at City Hall, its heart is in the community. This is marked symbolically and practically by having its “office” in the home of the Executive Director. Finally, CAWI does not receive any form of core funding from the City. Although it is a struggle to remain so, it is financially autonomous, which brings it greater liberty in terms of its self-definition.
In articulating CAWI’s effort to support the creation and expression of new subjectivities, a CAWI woman says of the organization “it’s a place to become someone”. A strategy CAWI adopts in order to encourage confidence and self-valuing is to always think carefully about how each meeting can communicate the worth of the participants. Food is usually offered and presented with care. Religious and other food requirements are addressed. Introductions—of everyone—are always made. Provisions to support inclusion—language translations, accessible meeting venues, covering the costs of child/elder care and transportation—are anticipated and provided as much as possible. The message aimed for is that you are welcome, you belong and your skills are valued.
[Ottawa City Council meeting from OttawaCitizen.com. Does this kind of meeting space welcome attendees from the community?]
Examples of this type of prefigurative political engagement are hard to capture, as they often involve a quality of interaction and public presence that is not easily conveyed. Quite often CAWI presents alternative possibilities visually, tangibly and creatively: speaking to a meeting as a group, when a single spokesperson is expected; singing their views to council, when a more formal presentation is the norm; requiring that attention be paid to cultural, religious, adaptive and language needs; engaging in pointed symbolic gestures, and using artistic media (spoken word poems, music, dance, poetry, video, theatre, drawing) as ways to generate and communicate ideas and sentiments.
* [I have to thank John for introducing the concept of prefigurative politics to me via a recommendation of Wini Breines’ book Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968. So, thanks!]
A suggested pairing of two recent articles, one set in Hawai’i and one in China
FLUX HAWAII's summer series “Make It Last: ways to consume better” has some saliva inducing suggestions for how to make less waste while making more deliciousness.
As the NY Times article on the rise of refrigeration in China details, traditional food preservation techniques — “everything was dried, pickled or salted” — that had been ubiquitous just 20 years ago are becoming supplanted by reliance on refrigeration.
“Food waste is a justification for refrigeration,” [Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History] said. “But at the same time, there are studies that show that, over the longer time frame, the cold chain encourages consumers to buy more than they’re going to eat.” Tara Garnett, who runs the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University, says there is a “safety net” syndrome of refrigerated storage. In the refrigerator, she writes, “the food can always keep longer, goes the thinking, except that suddenly one finds it has gone off.”
The article’s author Nicola Twilley also blogs at Edible Geography where she’s posted a companion piece, including video on the factory floor where 100,000 dumplings get made every hour, photos of the live seafood tanks at Zhengzhou’s Wal-Mart, and the front wall was covered with scoop-your-own seafood tanks.