Slow Democracy: Citizen-Powered Communities for the 21st Century

This post appeared on January 30, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see original post here.

This is the first of a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The “slow food” movement began in the mid-1980s with protests against the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, but it has since inspired untold thousands of supporters across the globe.

Slow food argues that fast food symbolizes much of what’s wrong with the world today. We’ve taken the goal of “efficiency” too far, advocates argue. We need to slow down and understand where our food comes from, and recognize our connection to agriculture, to communities, and to our natural systems. We have a responsibility to do so, for human, economic, and ecological health.

I was thinking about slow food while thinning carrots in my garden one weekend, listening to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on my ear buds. That’s when it hit me: the work I had been doing in community development was perfectly aligned with the efforts of the slow food movement. Local, human-scale, interconnected…the metaphor was inspiring, and it brought a wave of fresh, exciting ideas to mind. Slow Democracy!

I ran inside to test the idea out on my husband Mark. He seemed impressed, saying enthusiastically, “Slow Democracy? Great idea! Hey, I bet you could even get the domain name—SlowDemocracy.org!”

Then I noticed the twinkle in his eye as he added, deadpan, “While you’re at it, why not see if you can get PainfulDentistry.org, too?”

Okay, he had a point. Who wants their democracy to be slow?

Still, despite Mark’s teasing, I remained convinced that “slow democracy” was a concept that should be part of the public conversation. I found a co-conspirator in my coauthor Woden Teachout, and our book Slow Democracy is the result.

Slow democracy invites us to bring the advantages of slowing down, listening, understanding and connecting from our dinner tables to our communities. Just as slow food encourages us to understand the production of local food, slow democracy calls for firsthand participation in the local decisions that matter to us, encouraging us to govern ourselves in ways that are inclusive, deliberative and citizen powered. Reconnecting with the sources of decisions that affect us is at the heart of 21st-Century sustainable communities.

“Slow” is a wise, almost tongue-in-cheek term—a raised eyebrow at what “fast” has come to mean. Slow democracy is not a call for longer meetings or more time between decisions. Instead, it is a reminder of the care needed for full-blooded, empowered community engagement and decision making.

Slow democracy observes that as we move increasingly toward centralization and privatization of public resources and decision making in the name of “efficiency” we give only lip service to citizens’ wisdom. As a result, we can wind up with unrepresentative decisions that we need to revisit again and again, and a discouraged, democratically anemic citizenry.

Over the past twenty years scholars and practitioners have discovered a pent-up demand among citizens for authentic community action; we want to make a difference. Given today’s deliberative innovations and extraordinary technological tools, we are more skilled in self-organizing than ever before. Communities now have the ability to make choices that are more ecologically, economically and socially resilient. And as importantly, people have the will to implement them.

The message from slow democracy’s grassroots is clear: it may take time, but it’s worth it. This is evident in towns like Damariscotta, Maine, and Victor, Idaho, where Orton’s Heart & Soul Community Planning approach guided residents through thoughtful face-to-face conversations, and careful analysis of the issues that were unique to their towns. This is how communities can ensure that project outcomes reflect community needs and visions.

Slow democracy can set off a positive upward cycle: discussions that reveal creative new solutions; citizens who open up their thinking and are ready to help solve problems; and smart, lasting results that could, slowly but surely, change the world.