By Bruce Mallory, DDC Co-Chair
First and most important, I want to express my deep, deep appreciation to Wendy Willis, our superhero, super generous executive director, and CPO (chief poetry officer). Wendy took on the role of executive director last winter and has since built on the many contributions that Matt Leighninger made prior to her appointment. She has resurrected a moribund web site, reached out to old and new partners, facilitated our monthly executive committee calls, and led the planning of the research and practice meeting that brings us together tonight. She has flown around the country to make new contacts and hear from others about their hopes for DDC. She has worked far beyond the meager compensation we could offer, and for that we are deeply grateful and literally in her debt. Wendy’s assistant Roslyn Owen has also helped keep our communications and calendars coordinated, so we also extend our thanks to her.
I also want to thank Kyle Bozentko, my co-chair. Kyle stepped forward a year ago when I agreed to take on a leadership role on the condition that someone else would join me as co-chair, and Kyle generously came forward. Given our respective schedules, having two co-chairs has helped tremendously in assuring that at least one of us always available to Wendy and the Executive Committee. I also want to thank Kyle for arranging for The Jefferson Center at the University of Minnesota to serve as fiscal agent for DDC.
The planning committee for our R&P gathering included Val Ramos, Terry Amsler, Joseph Hoereth, Kyle, Wendy, and myself. Thank you to all for your time and wisdom as we prepared for this gathering, the first of its kind in several years. Joe, thank you especially for offering to host this meeting and making the local arrangements. I, along with others here I’m sure, am awed to be standing in Hull House, a place that I first learned about in college while studying the late 19th c. progressive movement and have since held in reverence for its founder, Jane Addams, and for the values and good works that it represents today. It is fitting that a gathering described as a research and practice convening be held here, in a place with deep and long roots in research and practice focused on people who are marginalized and dispossessed. Jane Addams and her close colleague John Dewey are among the most important forebears for the work of DDC, so it is really an honor to be in this space. Again, thank you, Joe.
As most of you well know, the DDC is an alliance of organizations and scholars working in the field of public engagement, participation, and deliberation. Our purpose is to build knowledge, strengthen networks, and forge collaborations among researchers, practitioners, funders, and public officials at all levels of government, in order to improve democratic practice and governance. We are part of a global learning community that is advancing the same values and goals, and we welcome our North American, European, and Australian colleagues here tonight.
When I thought about saying something about “why here, why now” as we begin our conversations, it was hard to know where to even start. The why here is easier, as I just noted. But the why now has so many answers I won’t even pretend to capture them. Many of you were present at the University of New Hampshire in 2009, when The Democracy Imperative and other partners hosted the national convening titled, “No Better Time.” We came together in a spirit of hope and anticipation as the Obama administration was getting its sea legs, and we thought that our collective work might actually align with the national political climate and context, producing new synergies of democratic values and practice. It felt like powerful forces concerned with participatory democracy, electoral reform, social justice, public sector transparency, and philanthropy might all be pulling the same oars together in the same direction, and that collectively we could make a real difference toward creating a more just and democratic society.
Today, 8 years later, things are a bit different. Democracy in the United States and elsewhere is not merely threatened, it is having the crap beat out of it. All the things I just listed—participation, voting rights, human rights, transparency, a sense of hope—are being directly attacked by those who fear collective will and action, who fear governance of, by, and for the people. The Constitution and its protections are being treated like a nuisance to be pushed aside and ignored, or even attacked. Racism and all its ugly and violent attributes have come out of the shadows and been excused if not outright embraced by the oligarchy in Washington. Black and Brown Americans, New Americans, Indigenous Americans, gay and lesbian people, transgender people, essentially all those who do not reflect normative white, European, Christian identities are being physically and psychologically harassed, told they are not true Americans, told that in fact they are what has made American lose its greatness. The narrative is obscene and dangerous.
So, this humble, modest group has the audacity to gather here in the spirit of Jane Addams and John Dewey to ask hard questions. How can deliberative democracy serve as an antidote to the anti-democratic forces that have been unleashed? How can we better understand the conditions under which deliberative democracy might flourish or fail? What investigative paradigms and methodologies will help us to answer these questions? How can we share our ever-evolving knowledge with other scholars and practitioners around the world? How can we multiply the power of DDC to impact disciplinary and trans-disciplinary partners in universities, government agencies, and community-based organizations? These are big questions, being asked in a time of wicked problems. I am so glad we are here tonight and tomorrow to begin to tackle them. I wish you all well as you listen, reflect, deliberate, and learn. Thank you.