As he pounds the streets of Oxford, Adam Ramsay has been reflecting on how to get people talking democracy…
I have recently been knocking on lot of doors and asking people to vote for me. It’s local council elections in Oxford, and I’m standing as a Green. I always enjoy this process – it is one of the few times I ever get to talk to lots of strangers about the problems in our lives, and how to fix the system which creates them.
Sometimes, I take friends with me – friends who have never knocked on a strangers’ door in their life. Usually, they are scared – they think people will be rude to them, or that they’ll get into some big argument and won’t know what to say. I am of the ‘Stranger Danger’ generation – at primary school, we were taught to fear everyone we don’t know. We were told to ‘say no’. In our utopian Thatcherite economy we move job and house annually, never getting to know the people next door. But I always reassure my friends: people are lovely – just ask them questions and have a chat. And my friends almost always love it, and usually come back for more.
Whilst I love this process, it makes me sad – partly because it is about the only time I have conversations with people about how we are going to organise our community. But also, because it reminds me that I am in a tiny minority. Most people never get to have such conversations – hence the fear my friends have.
Is that not terrifying? Almost all of our conversations about the way we structure our society and our communities are either mediated by the media, happen one to one on doorsteps with politicians (if you live in a marginal seat), or down the phone with pollsters. That’s why Democracy Outside excites me. It is a way of creating space for strangers to begin to ask those questions – to talk together for what may well be the first time.
I am sure people who take part learn lots about the subject areas they talk about. But I am also certain that they will learn something else. If they are anything like my friends, they will elarn to stop fearing their neighbours, and that when we chat, we can sort things out together.
In Argentina’s second biggest city, Rossario, they set their whole municipal budget this way. A study of this process found something remarkable: it made everyone better, more caring citizens. And perhaps we can hope that Democracy Outside will start that process here.
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