Here is an extract. You can read the full introduction here and Della welcomes feedback. Thanks to Della for allowing us to reproduce this extract here. We cannot wait to read the book.
…..look at what we do to those people who do try to participate in our own cities, our own counties – the places where political involvement is most direct, where it should be easiest. See through their eyes for a minute, and see what it looks like from their perspective:
Meeting rooms that look and feel like courtrooms. I must have done something wrong… did I do something wrong? I don’t remember doing anything wrong. But this place feels like I did something wrong. I’m getting nervous.
A stage-fright-inducing microphone in the middle of the room. Dear God, I’m going to have to go up there and talk… my stomach hurts…. I’m afraid… Do I know enough? Part of what that other guy said could be right in some cases… I, uh… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?
Be there in Person or You Don’t Count. I know I should go, but I’d have to miss my continuing ed class… who can I get to coach the kids’soccer team while I go? If I ask for that night off from my job, will my boss punish me later? Who can I find to watch the kids?
An agenda that could go on for hours. Can I get there at 7:30, after my class, or do I have to be there right at 7? How long is is going to take to get to… oh, no one knows? What am I going to do if they’re still talking about other things when I have to leave to get the babysitter home? Dear God, these chairs are uncomfortable….
A confrontational, argument-focused environment I have to be right. They have to be wrong. I’m white hat, they’re black hat. I can’t admit that they might have some good ideas. I can’t propose a compromise… what do you mean, my three minutes is up?
And even when we’re not doing the conventional zoning commission or City Council or other standard government meeting, we’re still sending that same message:
Welcome to the Open House! Here’s a whole lot of maps, and here’s what they’re going to do. I’m no good at reading maps… where’s my house? Maybe finding that will help me make sense of it. But this map shows the “Preferred Alternative…” In that case, why did I bother to come? OK, the sign over here says “We want your feedback!!!” So I guess I’ll give them some feedback. Can I ask a question? How would I ever know what the answer was? How the hell are you supposed to write on this card with this little golf pencil anyways??
Vague, disconnected-from-reality questions, like “What do you think this spot on the map should be?” Geez, I don’t know… what’s there now? What is around it? What do we need? Am I really supposed to just pick something out of the air? I’d like an ice cream shop, but is that really a good idea for that corner? Am I just supposed to say anything? Are they just going to build whatever we say?
We make clear that whatever real opportunity to influence what we’re doing depends on you being at the meeting in person. OK, there’ no way I can make it to that meeting (thank God… only crazy people show up for those things. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea). They said I could send an email. But how do I know if anyone ever read it or thought about what I had to say? Will they use that online survey thing to actually maybe change the plan? Does anyone look at that stuff? Is anyone actually listening.
When we do try to open the doors of participation, we let a few people get crazy. No way am I going to that public meeting. The last time I went there was this guy who wouldn’t let anyone else talk. He kept interrupting other people, he kept insisting that he was the only one who knew what was really going on, and the people running the meeting didn’t do anything to give anyone else a chance to talk. It was totally frustrating – a complete waste of my time.
None of this works. None of it makes our plans and decisions better, makes our governance better, makes our communities better.
In fact, it has probably made a lot of things worse.
Got a hated urban renewal project from the 70’s in your town? Then you’ve got an object lesson in the damage that a bunch of Experts can do without the moderating influence of residents who know the community.
Got a development proposal in front of your committee that is bringing out a rabid NIMBY attack from the neighbors? Then you have a demonstrated case of inadequate or lip service public involvement when the project was first being developed.
Have an economic development strategy that’s been recruiting businesses that the residents fight over and over again? Chances are you have an economic development strategy developed by a Star Chamber that was, of course, way, way smarter than the average resident.
Have public meetings, Open Houses, council sessions, where only two of three of the same nut jobs as always ever show up?
Do you wonder where all the reasonable voices went?
The reasonable voices didn’t come because they are not dumb.
We have made public involvement miserable. We have make it painful. And we’ve held out to them a lousy return on the investment of their very limited time. And we’ve been giving them that message for decades.
No wonder that they avoid us until something happens that threatens them. And no wonder that when they do, they don’t trust us, they don’t want to cooperate with us, they get fearful and angry and confrontational.
It’s almost like that’s what we wanted to teach them.
Image credit: CAGE THE ELEPHANT by MARK C AUSTIN
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