Nurturing Democracy’s Wetlands
David Mathews’ book The Ecology of Democracy looks at ways to strengthen civic participation at the source.
Book Review: Mathews, David. The Ecology of Democracy: Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 2014.
So it is.
The book, by the president and chief executive officer of the Kettering Foundation, is an enjoyable read. The questions are provocative, addressing potentially successful paths toward enhancing the processes of active citizenship in communities, including rural places. The book is about, as its subtitle says, Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future.
The book title’s reference to “ecology” is curious. According to Mathews, in an informal address to attendees at the foundation’s Deliberative Democracy Exchange (DDNX) in Dayton, Ohio, ecology is an analogy adapted from his experiences as a child along the marshy Gulf Coast – the rich “wetlands” of community life are where political life really begins. In communities, people deal close up with each other, their hopes, their dreams, and their frustrations.
Institutions do most of the work of democracy at the national and international levels. Citizens do the work in the wetlands, “what goes on every day in the political environment, which is both good and bad,” according to Mathews. “Community is what citizens do.”
Unfailing dedication to community building is what makes this book refreshing. Mathews is forever optimistic about citizenship and has dedicated much of his professional life to enhancing democracy at the national and local levels. He recognizes that getting citizens involved is difficult. The questions posed in The Ecology of Democracy point the way toward overcoming that problem.
The first question the book addresses is citizens’ self-interest. Mathews, speaking at the foundation’s week-long DDNX meeting on July 8, put it in terms of: “What bothers you? What concerns you?”
The next questions lead to naming the problems and issues. “Who gets to name the problems?” Mathews asks. “Am I going to be heard? What are the options? How are the options chosen? Who is making the decision?”
In Mathews’ view, these questions are intended to broaden participation, to bring more citizens into active participation in community building. Democracy is all about the process of conversation, in the philosophy of the Kettering Foundation, “dialogue and deliberation.”
Mathews’ questions describe the development of community conversation aimed at problem solving. Community dialogue continues in an effort to draw citizens into the developing conversation. According to Mathews, dialogue merges with deliberation:
“Where would you look for opportunities to do something about what concerns you? What are the resources we need to solve the problem? Are we using all of the resources we need to solve the problem?”
Although resources from outside the community might be useful, The Ecology of Democracy stresses the importance of using local assets to make the best use of the time and talent of citizens and to broaden participation.
Mathews’ book is rooted in research on citizen action, but it is in no way a cookie-cutter approach. If citizens create a climate for collaborative discussion and action, the odds for successful outcomes increase. Community building depends on citizens choosing to work together.
Above all, Mathews has written a hopeful book with helpful guides for the work of citizens in better communities. He put it best in his DDNX luncheon presentation to several hundred people:
“The Ecology of Democracy does not have a theory of change. It has a theory of life.”
The point, according to Mathews, is that it is important to think about reform. But it’s more important to “think about revival, to build on what rose.”
The Ecology of Democracy outlines a pathway for the daily work of citizens building community, what Mathews calls “politics of building on what grows.”
Communities as a fertile place for growing citizenships and a better quality of life: Good message, this. This optimistic book is well worth the read.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.