The Growing Democracy Workbook
A Word About the Workbook
A Work In Progress
At 140,000 words the GDWorkbook is unfinished. Not all of the planned work was finished due to just not enough time. In addition, the whole thing keeps evolving because 1) writing it keeps producing more understanding, and ) engaging with others adds more and more insight and perspective.
“Unfinished” and “in process” is the very nature of democracy, is the case for any serious kind of work but especially for one that is so outrageously ambitious as this one, and is what “growing” is all about.
On Using the Workbook
I’m calling this publication a Workbook to distinguish it from being a book. The main idea is for it to be used as a tool to rethink democracy, your life, and what kind of world you want to live in, provide for others, and transmit to the generations to come. More than that, it is a tool for building and sustaining a small community of like-minded citizens connected to other such communities.
Two things follow from this. First, it was not written to be read and put on a shelf, or to be passed on to others. It’s a manual for building a project.
Second, it is your tool. Use it the way it works for you. Think with it, argue with it, praise it to others, and throw it against the wall when it frustrates you. Let it put you to sleep at night, unless you have better options.
Consume it. Digest it, and eliminate it. Live with it through thick and thin, but only as a limited tool, not some kind of bible. Let it go when it has served its purpose. Think of it as a guide for getting started on a long journey, and then help rewrite it as needed after you are on your way.
Grow with it to grow democracy, and then grow it into being a better tool.
And, as we noted earlier, this Workbook does not stand alone! There is another “workbook” already out there, that is an extraordinary work in itself as well as in how it complements the GD Workbook. (Or, how the GD Workbook complements it.)
A Sister Workbook
We have already referred to the work of three evolutionary scientists, PROSOCIAL: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups. I have read and perused many books and countless number of articles as well as explored more than one hundred websites. Although it is not about growing democracy per se, this is the only work I have found that is culturally focused and points to some kind of transformative change at both the individual and group levels.
It is truly a sister project, but very much its own self. Moreover, Atkins, Wilson, and Hayes cover much vital territory that this Workbook doesn’t, especially the foundational work of Elinor Ostrom. Their opening summary shows how deeply aligned it is with Transformative Learning (TL) and the design of the Growing Democracy Transformative Community of Democratic Practice (TC) and the web of TC networks:
In this book we describe core design principles for building better functioning groups, based on the Nobel Prize–winning work of Elinor Ostrom, as well as behavior change techniques that also enhance group functioning. We call this the Prosocial process, which works on three main fronts and is focused on building better small groups, or groups of small groups, in this new evolutionary environment humans are creating:
First, the Prosocial process helps groups build a sense of “us” beyond each member’s individual self-interest and determine the group’s reasons for existing. No group can perform well unless its members have a clear sense of shared purpose and identity.
Second, this process improves cooperation within groups by helping members balance individual self-interest and the interests of the collective through the application of the core design principles. The Prosocial process strives to build upon the passion and motivation that arises from acting in line with one’s own needs, values, and aims, while also satisfying the needs, values, and aims of others in the group, and the collective as a whole.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the principles and the behavior change techniques of the Prosocial process help individuals coordinate between groups, allowing for the possibility that we as humans might create more equitable, effective, and satisfying systems of cooperation regionally, nationally, and globally.
Their book is written for anyone who wishes to improve cooperation within and between groups. No special background is required. We will have much more to say about the Prosocial project throughout the Workbook here, especially in chapter one.
The GD Workbook
The Growing Democracy Workbook is structured in a particular way only because it had to be organized in some kind of way. You don’t have to read it that way.
Read and work with it in the way that works for you. I did not write it the way it is being published, but I always had some kind of structure to work from. What emerged in the writing of the book kept changing whatever structure I was working with at the time. The final structure used for publishing the contents was the 8th or 9th version, and choosing that structure was rather arbitrary. Several other ones could have been chosen.
Writing the GD Workbook turned out to be a journey that I was taken on. Maybe your working with it will be like that. I was never both the Captain and the Navigator of the ship at the same time. A Captain has the authority to decide where the ship will go, and the Navigator has the critical information of where the ship is and how to get to its destination.
At least it seemed to me that’s what waws going on. My roles flipped back and forth between these two, but someone was always playing the other role. I guess that’s why many writers refer to having a “muse.” Whatever, whoever the other was, it was quite a force.
I suggest you approach it the same way. As you work with this tool, let your Navigator and Captain roles flip back and forth between the Workbook and yourself. Take the journey, and allow yourself to be taken on it.
And beware: your experience may only be a beginning.
Summary of the GD Workbook
Part I – The Elements
All of the chapters in Part I develop the seven basic ideas that structure the Growing Democracy Project.
Chapter one, A Cultural-Political Perspective for ReThinking Our Politics, argues that all of our political thinking needs to be grounded primarily in who and what we are biologically and culturally. Its argument weaves together six different ways of seeing how our politics are bioculturally shaped. The weave is rich and complex. Keeping all the connections may be a bit of a challenge. When this happens, I think it will be due primarily to the whole chapter talking about politics and change in a very new way.
In Why Transformative Learning, chapter two, we look deeply into “why becoming the change we want to bring to the world” is essential to growing democracy. It talks about matters close to home, the struggle for living a good life and how we can empower ourselves to better serve our families, neighbors, and communities. The chapter seeks to illustrate the mostly untapped potential of everyday citizens to continuously learn to use the best of themselves to manage their worst. At the same time it points to the necessity and vitality of using small groups (TCs) embedded in a prosocial web of networks for the combination of personal growth and large-scale transformation.
ReThinking Our Democracy, chapter three, may pose another kind of challenge for you as the reader. This chapter works from a historical/philosophical perspective. It requires coming to grips with some lines of unorthodox thinking that undermine many assumptions we have about how good our democracy is. I talk about a small personal crisis in this regard that significantly reframed my writing of the book. First, the chapter develops the notion of root democracy—that is, democracy as a mode of being, a way of living our lives and relating to others grounded in mutual respect and love. Next, we dig into the deep incompatibility between our democracy and our current political field (or system). This enables us to see two key factors: how our constitutional system is frozen by the predominant role of domination, and how our basic politics is controlled by our class system. As a result, If this is accurate, the most our democracy can be for the foreseeable future is a countervailing power. It cannot be a contender for being the dominant force.
Chapter four, A Both/And Strategy for Growing Our Democracy, develops a strategy for applying the core ideas of the Growing Democracy Project to the pressing issues of today in a way that feeds into the transformative change strategies of the project. Specifically, it proposes a class-race approach for addressing some major sources of our current political distress. It seeks to forge a Win-Win coalition among all our people, but especially in the lower 70% of our income/wealth. In other words, it would be multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, and multi-class. It would also create openings for a more transformative approach grounded in producing an empowered mutuality among them.
Chapter five, Transformation, which is not written yet, will be the final chapter of Part I. It will present the full implications of a GDProject, spelling out the transformative program for producing legions of empowered, intelligent, and loving citizens in and through transformative communities of democratic practice (TCs) embedded in a prosocial web of local, regional, and national networks (GDN).
This chapter presents a description of how individuals are socialized into a given culture—you & I, for example, into our American culture—and how that relationship between the individual and her culture is the means by which all of us reproduce, adapt, and transmit our culture. It is how we become who we become and keep on becoming who keep on becoming.
Culture accomplishes this by embedding its structures, norms, and practices in us. At the same time we uniquely embody this package in the form of dispositions for being and acting in our world. These dispositions shape the patterned ways we respond to our daily life events, and, to a large extent, orient us ideologically.
In order to grow democracy it will be crucial to know how this process works just as a architects and carpenters need to know how to build a house. Culture is how our lives, our politics, and all of human history happen. Embedding/embodying are two dynamic, interdependent, and inseparable movements like a double-helix. Understanding and using this process is the engine the Growing Democracy Project seeks to use.
Developing a deep awareness of how culture works, then, is be a central focus of this Workbook. It’s one of the Project’s three pillars. Ideologies will come and go, but this is
- how we become who and what we become,
- how we sustain, develop, and even sometimes transform that identity over the trajectory of our life, as well as
- how we reproduce, transform, and transmit our culture.
So we need strategies for growing democracy that are grounded in the biocultural nature of our species. This chapter takes several threads of thought to weave a cultural-political way of seeing what we need to see to develop such strategies. The rest of the Workbook evolves from this way of seeing our political realities as well as the impossibilities and possibilities for our democracy.
Specifically, the chapter draws on several disciplines and perspectives:
- a body of biocultural thinking (drawing especially on Joseph Henrich and the thinkers from Prosocial World);
- the Core Design Principles for successful functioning groups that Elinor Ostrom’s team identified;
- the sociology of the vast research enterprise developing the brilliant work of Pierre Bourdieu;
- the moral psychology synthesis of Jonathan Haidt and others;
- the geo-cultural discoveries of historian Colin Woodard; and
- the practices that Brené Brown is discovering in her grounded theory research into wholeheartedness, power, vulnerability, empathy, courage, worthiness, and shame.
Using these resources we flesh out how an embedding/embodying dynamic plays the primary role in how a culture and its individual members become deeply bonded. This gave us a picture of how both conditioning and personal agency are the primary forces that inseparably shape both personal and social life. And this picture suggests how we might develop a transformative strategy to free our democracy from its entrapment within what Bourdieu called the field of power.
Two stories, one apocryphal and the other real, help to demonstrate the theory developed in this chapter in concrete ways.
As human beings we embody an overarching conflict. We embody it biologically and culturally, in the form of two action forces that are in great tension with each other: domination and cooperation. We live our lives by way of these two action forces. We use cooperative capacity to organize and distribute our power and resources in a way that strives for a dynamic balance between the group and individual interests involved in a situation of any size and complexity.
We use domination to organize and distribute our power and resources more for the benefit of an elite Overclass. Patriarchy (a way of living) and oligarchy (a way of governing) become dominant cultural patterns when domination can persistently overpower cooperation. This arrangement often goes very far in enabling our drive to dominate use cooperation in its unequal organization and distribution of power and resources.
Democracy is both a way of living and relating as well as a way of governing. At its best it tends to use our drive to dominate for a society’s objectives.
Domination has always been the primary action force in American culture, and therefore in its politics. At birth we begin embodying our culture through our interactions with our world. It embeds in each of us its particular arrangement of domination and cooperation practices as filtered and modified by family and other cultural agents as well as our own uniquely individuated body.
This embedding/embodying process—often called socialization—is a complex dynamic that yields a great deal of variation but within the dominant cultural themes of our culture. Since our culture falls far short of embedding/embodying strong and deep democratic orientations, Transformative Learning (TL) is required to change our In-Here dimension to becoming more and more democratic—that is, love, cooperation, and other prosocial elements being in charge of our domination elements. This inner transformative work enables one to democratize the Out-There dimension of our existence with less and less contradiction.
Chapter two goes into some detail in explaining the necessity for TL methodologies. (TL as a learning process and the kinds of methodologies involved will be discussed in depth in chapter 5.) This special kind of experiential learning works at the core of the Transformative Communities of Democratic Practice (TC) as outlined in chapter one.
This kind of learning enables individuals to embody democracy more deeply by joining with others in creating small democratic cultures. This makes the TCs the basic sites for growing democracy culturally, but to deepen and sustain these small cultures over time requires they are integral parts of a growing democracy web of networks.
The Workbook explains the TC element in other parts. It is the subject of chapter six, while chapter seven imagines how the web of GDNetwork could work as a cohesive organization in a radically democratic way. In chapter nine I share stories from the 40 year life of my Ganas Community to illustrate how it worked as a transformative community of practice.
Several themes interweave with the core ideas of TL throughout this chapter:
- our overarching biocultural conflict;
- empowered mutuality;
- respect and abuse;
- how essential our connection to life is, how all of us will inevitably suffer disruption and loss of connection, and how vital repairing connection is to personal and social fulfillment; finally,
- how owning responsibility for our lives, for our personal transformation, and for democracy are our alternatives to our embedded/embodied patterns of disrespect, abuse, deliberate disruption of vital connections, and oppression.
The final part of the chapter identifies a political framework and six key democratic practices to give specific shape to what transformative democratic learning entails.
Although the chapter is heady, several stories are used to illustrate key points. In addition, a short, intensely dramatic video brings a gripping emotional vibrancy to our discussion. Overall, the chapter challenges us to see how important it is to suspend everything we think we know about democracy, and make room for what we don’t.
This will involve finding out things we think but haven’t known that we think them. This is the work of transformative learning. For example, there are deep assumptions we hold that lead us to seeing people who disagree with us as enemies, not just opponents pursuing conflicting interests. Another: how love is understood as a sentiment rather than a driving force in human life.
Identifying and rethinking these assumptions is a major part of the work. The six habits of democratic practice are key tools for that transformative work.
Our democracy is in severe crisis, maybe even in trauma. This chapter addresses this huge problem with a controversial interpretation of our country’s culture and political system. Our democracy is a cultural-political force that is subordinate relationally, structurally, and constitutionally to the cultural-political force of domination. I call these two deep forces “root democracy” and “root domination.”
More viscerally, our democracy is in the jaws of a profound trap. Our whole way of life promotes this subordination. The top jaw bone is a class structure that enables those at the top to dominate. The bottom jawbone is the deeply embedded and embodied deference everyday people gives to those at the “top” that enables them to dominate. The jawbones are inseparable: no deference, no domination; no domination, no deference. Part of this entrapment is our Constitution. It is both the foundation and a major obstacle to our democracy
So rethinking democracy is essential.
As far as I can tell nobody knows how to grow our democracy so that it can become the dominant political force in our country. for this project, and this chapter begins that work. We will explore four themes or lines of thought for rethinking democracy. These lines involve re-evaluating some basic assumptions and convictions as well as identifying important questions.
We treat three of these themes here, and devote chapter four to the last one.
a) Root democracy.
ReThinking democracy for the Growing Democracy Project begins with seeing two distinct but inseparable modes of democracy. It is first and foremost a mode of being, a way of living our lives and relating to others grounded in mutual respect and love. I call it root democracy. Governing is the secondary mode.
Both domination and democracy are part of our human core. Root democracy draws on love as the desire for and the pleasure of connection. It is the force within us that seeks to unite what is disconnected. The core practices come from a deep and robust commitment to hearing and understanding others, especially when we are in conflict.
What has been the overarching conflict in our democratic experiment is the struggle to make root democracy the more powerful force in our culture.
The history of our democratic experiment is the struggle for primacy between democracy and domination. The current structures of our society, especially those in our political field, make it impossible for democracy to become the dominant force within our culture.
Domination is dominant and cannot be overturned from within our political field. Virtually all of our social fields structure and distribute power and resources primarily to the benefit of the elite people and institutions. This is especially true for those in the most influential positions within the field. Patriarchy and oligarchy prevail.
In our society (and most societies) this arrangement has evolved to the point that domination has permanent leverage over democracy. In this section we will see how this is this case culturally and constitutionally.
c) Democracy as countervailing power
We follow Michael Lind’s class analysis to develop this perspective and how we can develop our democracy as a countervailing power. He provides this primarily in his book, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.
Given the lock that domination has on our current politics, democracy’s role within that field—and virtually all of our social fields— is relegated to a secondary role. If this is accurate, then promoting democracy as an organizing force within our political situation in the 2020s requires viewing democracy only as a countervailing power, not as a contender for being the dominant force.
So we need a strategy out of the jaws of our predicament.
The fourth line of thought is a speculative and ambitious one. It argues for a class-race strategy rather than the cultural/identitarian strategy, both “Woke-antiracism” and MAGA-nationalism pursue.
At this time in our history two problems face us as proactive democratic citizens. The first is immediate problem-solving in the field of mainstream politics: pulling our country out of the highly polarized state it is in. The second is building a transformative movement for growing our democracy that is grounded in root democracy, not in politics as usual.
Each effort needs a distinct strategy, but they need to dovetail into mutually supporting strategies.
First: if developing a countervailing democratic power is to be our means for forcing neoliberal elites to the bargaining table, how can we pull the many disparate elements that make up the working class and the poor—that’s 90% of our population—into a cohesive and effective majoritarian coalition? This means unifying a fierce diversity of interests: skin-color, ethnic background, class, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, religious, and so forth.
Second: The kind of creative solidarity a countervailing democratic movement needed can only come out of thinking and acting together to a significant degree. Achieving this demands leaders at all levels who see those with whom they disagree as opponents not enemies.
This is no easy task. It is a continuously transformative one. One that calls for developing deep commitments to root democracy: wanting to hear and understand each other, a willingness to speak truth to each other, and to compromise.
The immediate challenge of overcoming our polarization, then, can be an opportunity for beginning to develop a transformative path for growing our democracy. That is, developing legions of everyday people who want our democracy to become the dominant political force in our country.
Opportunity and strategy alone, however, aren’t enough by a long shot. The essential work in building such a coalition will require diffusing the conflict-promoting practices and dispositions of both the “woke”-left and the MAGA-right. This will require the best of us. We would be negotiating the complexity of differences and conflicts among our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi gendered populations who inhabit 11 distinct cultural regions throughout our society. This will be a most challenging task. It is about bringing the grand diversity of America together to work our way toward forging a new kind of civic nationalism. In short, re-inventing America once again.
Yes, this is a very ambitious and speculative proposal. Maybe at best this dual strategy can only provide a way of thinking about how to move forward into the deep dilemmas of our times. However, if there is indeed a pot of democratic gold awaiting us at the end of our long democratic struggle, just that would be progress.
Working with this chapter, then, will require our stepping back from some old ideas in order to see democracy in new ways. If our political field and constitutional order are full of both democracy and domination, then how does that affect our thinking about democracy? What does it imply for how to be politically active? If democracy is, at least, as much a mode of being as it is a mode of governing, where does that line of thought take us?
What if “being” democratic” is primarily about how we live and relate than it is about governing? One powerful democratic writer, Sheldon Wolin, concluded that our democracy is “doomed to succeed only temporarily.” If that’s true, where does that leave us? Where are we headed if we join Cornel West who sees being democratic as a “prophetic” calling?
The last section of Chapter 4, “Leaving Our Complicity,” lays out an explanation for how our domination and violence persist in overpowering our democracy. This is the crucial question for growing democracy into the most powerful political force. The section brings all of the large themes of the GDProject and this Workbook to bear in its search for an alternative that works.
The usual answer to the persistence question from both the democratic Right and democratic Left is that the Overclass has the power and is willing to use that power ruthlessly to maintain its dominative position. This is true. So true. Thousands of years of our history attest to it. This reduces the role of democracy to being a countervailing power.
There is also the long history of various revolutionary paradigms that have argued changing the system requires overthrowing the Overclass so a more equitable system can be put in place. So far every successful “overthrow” ended up being another dominative arrangement.
But all of this is not the whole picture.
The Growing Democracy Project, following the work of many thinkers and organizers, argues that it is not just the Overclass by itself and its ruthlessness that achieves this persistence of our dominative politics. Rather, we everyday citizens are deeply complicit in producing these persistent outcomes.
This and more leads to a provocative question:
Although political and economic control is the key lever in our system of political domination, it requires a fulcrum to move the world. Might that fulcrum be our active but extensively unconscious “complicity” in our dominative political and social fields?
If this is so, then the possibility of a new kind of action appears: change the fulcrum. The GDProject argues that you and I and other everyday citizens can learn how to do this to scale. It involves us
- seeing that we are deeply complicit without blame or guilt,
- taking full responsibility for being the fulcrum for dominative politics,
- building a thorough and explicit understanding of how we are complicit, and
- persistently developing proactive democratic practices throughout the populace.
The long term need for growing our democracy is for a transformative civic education system that can reach large numbers of everyday people. Its task is to enable us to develop our potential beyond what our everyday culture was able to accomplish. Our democracy is underdeveloped because we have not developed enough as human beings. Our physical technology generates more and more power and resources, but our social technology does not yet produce enough adult maturity throughout our culture to manage the unprecedented growth in our power and resources.
Growing up involves moving from the ways of a child to those of an adult. Arrival into adulthood does not need to be an end state. It can be a beginning of continuous growth in awareness, competence, sense of justice, love, and power. This is what we call maturing.
Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard who has developed a model of adult development. His model has three plateaus of development: the socialized mind, self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind. They constitute three profoundly different ways by which we make sense of the world and operate within in it.
The definitions and expectations of our cultural upbringing do most of the shaping of our “socialized mind.” Our sense of self and our basic experience of belonging, comes from how we are aligned with and loyal to those definitions and expectations. This determines much of how we live and relate. In a way, we can think of ourselves as being a box.
Studies using Kegan’s model show that almost 2/3 of us are stuck at this level of development. That is, our life experiences have not provided the transformative experiences that drive our development beyond how we have been socialized.
Those studies show that almost a third of us evolve “self-authoring minds.” This growth enables us “to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal ‘seat of judgment’ or personal authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations. Those of us who reach this plateau do so by discovering how to expand our box. Now we can shape how we align with and are loyal to our original and deeply embedded definitions and expectations because we can shape and adhere to more self-chosen beliefs and personal codes.
Using Kegan’s model we can think of growing democracy in some concrete ways. For example, how can we enable another 1/3 of our everyday people to develop “self-authoring minds.” I think our democracy will remain critically underdeveloped until we start devoting a lot of attention, time, resources, energy, competence, passion, and power beyond fixing it.
This chapter—Transformation—seeks to chart a course for that work. Transformation is the process of shifting our hearts, communities, organizations, and institutions from hating to loving, step by step. The connections between our love, our need for continuous transformation, and growing our democracy are clear, direct, and deep. Hating drives polarization and disvaluing others. Loving drives connection and democracy.
We know What need to achieve. It’s the How we are stumbling with, the How of taking our love and democracy to new levels. The job of this chapter—and of the Workbook and the whole Growing Democracy Project as well—is to chart a course for that work.
Part II – Reflections on the How
Chapter 6—Democracy As a Way of Living and Relating—focuses on the lynchpin of the entire Growing Democracy Project, the Transformative Community of Practice (TC). In it I lay out what I see as the essential learning these peer-to-peer cultures need to generate so we can grow our democracy into the primal force we have been envisioning for 250 years. Each TC would serve as the home for developing peer-to-peer democratic cultures. It would be the site for personal and collective transformative learning, and some might serve as a base for members’ civic and political work. Inspired citizens can locate their GD communities within geographic communities or within various kinds of organizations.
Chapter 7—Imagining The Growing Democracy Project, Inc.—is where I imagine how a web of such transformative communities and civic networks would be structured and could evolve into a national organization that would embody a cultural approach to growing democracy. A robust Participatory Action Research program would be an integral part of this web. R&D in transformative learning, culture-building, and democratic organizing would need to be continuous because there is so much we don’t know about all of that work. I also speculate on how that work could become the foundation for a national movement for transforming our structural democracy.
Chapter 6 –
Chapter six—Democracy As a Way of Living and Relating—focuses on the lynchpin of the entire Growing Democracy Project, the Transformative Community of Practice (TCP). In it I lay out what I see as the essential learning these peer-to-peer cultures need to produce so we can grow our democracy into the primal force we have envisioned for 250 years. I share my basic thinking about the fundamentals of democracy—loving, thinking together, and acting together—which will tell us a lot about how to grow it.
The chapter has two practical objectives with some philosophical and psychological comments along the way. First, to get a firm grasp on why humans both value democracy so strongly that we have persisted in inserting it into the center of our civic lives for millennia, and how and why we keep trying to strangle it. The more we can understand this contradiction, the more we can make democracy work better. Second, to identify what we need to develop within ourselves and our relationships in order to make democracy work well.
The first of the chapter’s three sections, “Loving: The Groundwork of Democracy,” will argue that we value democracy because we are quite aware of three things: the gift of life is a basic, we are social beings through and through, and yet we struggle constantly with hating and loving each other and the world we live in. So we share a deep need and a common ground to make the collective dimensions of our lives work well.
“The Core of Democracy” discussion that follows goes into how a functional democracy marries our loving and thinking, how it can be a tool for hearing and understanding each other, especially when we are in strong disagreement.
This section moves into “The Action of Democracy.” This discussion touches on how democracy is a space where we encounter each other in our power and vulnerability. When we come together to act collectively to make things work as well as we can. It’s how we design a system to share a natural stream of water for a collective of people irrigating their separate pieces of land, or how we regenerate our economy so it serves everyone much better. We use justice to guide us in this.
I think that is why people come to value it so much. It goes deeper than even the issues of liberty, equality, and social justice. We sense that democracy is about what is fundamental to life as did Tocqueville, not just its body of laws and structures. About people living and working together to make things work well enough so that the goodness of life shines for all involved in spite of all the struggles we have.
When we are successful in working together we can see that freedom (or liberty) and the common good are not opposites. They are the two poles of a fundamental polarity that require constant adjusting and balancing. At the core of this working together is listening to each other deeply when there is difference and conflict within our group, organization, or nation. Deeply enough to where we can truly understand each other in some meaningful ways. And then come to trust each other enough to think and argue together, even vehemently, until we can act together. That has been, in fact, the only way that we have held this land of varied and even antagonistic cultural regions together for 250 years as well as through one of the bloodiest of civil wars.
Chapter 7 –
This chapter—Imagining The Growing Democracy Project, Inc.—will be different from the previous ones. Its job is to imagine how something that has never quite existed before could be implemented, but to do that in a way that is realistically convincing.
The people who will eventually take on implementing this project haven’t heard about the project yet, but when they do it will resonate deeply within them. People with enough “crazy wisdom” to want to take on growing democracy in the cultural and transformative way I have been describing will possess at least these three features: uncommon common sense; a strong, and maybe urgent, drive for more meaning in their life; and some deep sense of the potential of the notion of root democracy—democracy as a way of living and relating.
In the chapter I imagine how a web of small transformative communities (the TCs) and civic networks could be structured and could evolve into a national organization embodying a cultural approach to growing democracy. I also speculate on how that work could become the foundation for a national movement for transforming our structural democracy.
Each TC would serve as the home for developing peer-to-peer democratic cultures. It would be the site for personal and collective transformative learning, and a base for members’ civic and political work. Inspired citizens can locate their GD communities within geographic communities or within various kinds of organizations.
Each one would also be an integral part of a web of various networks grounded in Participatory Action Research (PAR). Some of the networks would focus on supporting the internal development of the TCs. Others would take on the work of developing and experimenting with methodologies for transformative learning. Along the way others would explore how to share the project’s learnings with established democratic groups, organizations, and movements. And so on.
Throughout all of this activity and experience our imaginations would play with envisioning large scale political action. However, reasonable expectations of success would have to wait. Such a project would have to reach a tipping point at which it has evolved the legs, breadth, and depth to engage responsibly and effectively. That is, from an embedded/embodied root democracy.
Part III – The Lived Experience
Chapters eight and nine make up Part II, The Lived Experience. In chapter eight —“My Journey”—I tell my story of how I came to this transformative learning work. Then in chapter nine—“The Ganas Experiment”—I describe the transformative community of practice I have been a part of.
This brings us to the most personal part of the GD Workbook, Part III, The Lived Experience.
In chapter 8—My Journey—I tell my story of how I came to this transformative learning work. I begin my story when I was 16 and had a disturbing experience regarding the notion that “the world does not work.” Then I tell of my first transformative experience while a monk in a Benedictine monastery. It unfolded from recognizing that a spiritual crisis I was in was due to my “feeling guilty because I wasn’t feeling guilty.” My second such experience came while participating in the student uprising at Columbia University in 1968. On my way from one meeting to another one I was suddenly struck by a realization that what we were doing was attempting to dominate the “establishment” of the school because they were trying to dominate the students and residents in the surrounding area as part of a whole dominative system: “OMG!” I realized, “This is just domination trying to defeat domination. It’s a politics that just can’t work.”
Then in chapter 9—The Ganas Experiment—I describe the transformative community of practice we developed and maintained from 1980 to 2000. Seven of us started a research project into finding out why people’s love and energy collapsed so much of the time when confronted with critical feedback. The course of my life from 1968 to 1980 led to my being at the core of this project. Starting with one-half of a house in Staten Island, NY we expanded into being a transformative community of practice within a larger community of people living together in 8-10 houses with several commercial properties and three retail businesses that recycled everyday merchandise. A cooperative and transformative culture emerged during these years, and I describe some of the practices and dispositions we developed. The community has continued on to this day
In chapter 8—My Journey—I tell my story of how I came to this transformative learning work. I begin my story when I was 16 and had a very unusual experience regarding the notion that “the world does not work.” It was disconcerting but left a very important impression that has affected my whole life.
Then I tell of my first transformative experience while a monk in a Benedictine monastery. It unfolded from recognizing that a spiritual crisis I was in was due to my “feeling guilty because I wasn’t feeling guilty.” With this realization I began deconstructing the religious belief system I was born into and deeply embodied. Within two years I left the monastery, my home territories in Texas and Kansas, and the Catholic religion. All of this brought me to a new beginning that I worked out on the Upper West side of New York City between 1968 and 1973.
The pivotal event of this period came early and was as transformative as my monastic experience. It came while participating in the student uprising at Columbia University in 1968. On my way from one meeting to another one I was suddenly struck by a realization that what we were doing was attempting to dominate the “establishment” of the school because they were trying to dominate the students and residents in the surrounding area as part of a whole dominative system: “OMG!” I realized,
“What we’re doing is the same thing we are protesting them doing!!!”
It came as an announcement just as when I was 16 and when I received the insight about my struggle with guilt in the Monastery. A clear, sober, and loud bulletin with enough penetrating power to touch every cell in my body. Something was profoundly wrong with what we were doing at Columbia in the name of democracy. And I sensed there was more: that there was something the whole counterculture was failing to grasp, me included. I was as lost as the next revolutionary, but I had just received a bulletin that somehow all of us were lost. We didn’t know how to build a truly transformative multi-faceted change movement.
I discuss two dreams in this chapter which highlighted the transformative changes I was going through while I lived in Manhattan from 1968-73. I see those changes as transformative because they were working with very foundational aspects of my conditioning. The changes involved my most basic notions about: the nature of politics; certitude and dogmatism, which I was still holding onto; and the essential role hearing and understanding others plays in how people live and relate.
For the next two years I explored various paths and projects for clues to a way forward from my predicament. In the Fall of 1969 I found a place that did just that. Well, more accurately, a place that took me to new levels of growth and struggle: an extraordinary school based on experiential rather than instructional learning, called Group Relations Ongoing Workshops, or G.R.O.W.
Over the next three-and-a-half years I would go through 1200 hours of training in group dynamics, numerous methodologies for group problem solving, personal development, various kinds of body work and much more. Above all there was a vibrant, joyful, and creative community of students and faculty that whirled all of this training out and about. On my thirtieth birthday in February of ’72, everything seemed in place, and I felt I now had a blank canvas to create the life I wanted.
Alas, this venture came to a jagged end in a political fight the New York State Psychological Association started with GROW in which everybody lost. So, 18 months after my 30th birthday I arrived in Tempe, AZ, the southern part of the Phoenix metro area, in a rundown Studebaker, with a canvas bag of broken pieces, and holding my sense of self together with blind self-confidence. I title this 1973-80 section of the chapter, “Bottoming–out: healing, separating, new bonding, new traumas, reconciling.” This period ended with a devastating divorce that freed me to focus once again on figuring out how the world and I don’t work and what we might be able to do about it. And sure enough, a new placed opened up, this one in 1980, one that I was part of starting, and one that is still going 43 years down the road.
Then in chapter 9—The Ganas Experiment—I describe the transformative community of practice we developed and maintained from 1980 to 2000. Seven of us started a research project into finding out why people’s love and energy collapsed so much of the time when confronted with critical feedback. The course of my life from 1968 to 1980 had led to my being at the core of this project. Starting with one-half of a house in Staten Island, NY we expanded into being a transformative community of practice within a larger community of people living together in 8-10 houses with several commercial properties and three retail businesses that recycled everyday merchandise. A cooperative and transformative culture emerged during these years, and I describe some of the practices and dispositions we developed. The community has continued on to this day even though it has lost much of its original transformative energy, a complex and important story in itself.
We started out setting up a place where people could experientially research why it is so difficult for people to talk about and work through what is going wrong when strong bad feelings arise. But we had much more in mind than just that. We wanted to find out what people might do to turn the negativity that emerges during such breakdowns into substantial, long term positive change. We called it “self-determined behavior change.”
Many of us saw this problem as the major reason why people fail to make cooperation and democracy work, and end up with well-meaning projects and organizations dominated one more time by dissatisfied members and elite decision makers.
We were fortunate that one of us, Mildred Gordon, had several decades of in-depth experience with personal and group behavior change. She had crystallized her years of thinking and exploring into the first draft of a comprehensive change methodology, Feedback Learning. So our coming together to live and work as a cohesive group also became the laboratory for testing and developing that methodology. With her leadership we built our community of practice around this methodology.
So we talked a lot about what wasn’t going well, and tried to do that as soon as something surfaced. And we learned how to talk, think, and work together. Some of the key elements included
- sharing what is really going on (transparency) when a conflict or event disrupts the group’s harmony; mutual exploration to identify key factors (research);
- the protagonist(s)’s struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, and denying as they are seeing a “worst” part of themselves come to light in the presence of others (resistance); and
- the best parts of the others coming forward to unpack the underlying patterns and help the protagonist(s) grasp the learning inherent in the incident (mutuality).
Grappling with each one of these factors day-in and day-out and evolving a coherent cultural practice became essential to the success of our project. And, even more: creating a highly participatory, individually transformative, and self-sustaining community. In turn, this slowly resulted in many lasting personal changes for those involved in the practice as well as what it means to be a human being. For example:
- A strong humility rooted in owning the worst parts of ourselves and knowing we can use them to become more of who we want to be. This includes knowing that our perceptions and opinions will never be more than partially true.
- A willingness to move into our vulnerability rather than stay protected from the fear and discomfort of pushing one’s envelope.
- A deep shift from the unexamined belief that our status in the group lies in being one who comes up with the “right answer” toward seeking to contribute to our discussions by asking questions that helped open up and further exploration.
- A trust in our capacity for handling critical information of all kinds as we learned to use new information to change behavior.
- A gut-level understanding that our dependence on our mutuality is empowering, not a weakening dependency on them.
- A growing awareness that we are more than what is inside our skin: self-sufficient individuals inseparably intertwined with others.
- A deep understanding of the difference between blame and accountability that enables one to see that the first is a path toward polarization and the latter a path for taking more and more responsibility for one’s life.
- A baseline appreciation of the basic goodness of life that gives one a realistic positive orientation to draw on to when things are going rough, and to be habitually open to the many little beautiful things that happen around us moment to moment.
None of this was easy. None of us were terribly good at doing this work, but there were ways in each was. What worked more than anything, I think, was the conviction that if we could be there for and with each other in the face of difficult problems, we could 1) make things work better in the immediate situation, 2) improve the necessary dispositions and practices for doing that work, and 3) accept our limitations and failures.
The chapter devotes a lot of discussion to the key values, dispositions, practices, and institutions we developed to make our work a substantial and severely limited success.