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Build Real Democracy

Photo by R

Democracy is about so much more than the act of voting every few years. It is about building real people power that advances social, economic, and environmental justice. We believe that real democracy is about the inherent rights of all people to understand the issues and forces that impact our lives and have the opportunity to shape the world around us.

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Beyond Elections: People-led democracy

Building real democracy involves moving beyond the electoral cycle and opening the doors to a much wider understanding of where power lies, who exercises it, and why. This implies both having access to information and analysis on the issues which impact people’s lives, and understanding what the conditions and possibilities for action are. The impacts of injustice – whether economic, environmental, health-related or otherwise – are linked by common structural factors, especially the concentration of corporate power. These same structures undermine and threaten real democracy. Bringing those structures to light, and supporting activists to identify where and how they can be challenged and changed, is how the Democracy Center wants to contribute to a growth in people power.

Democracy requires making common cause and working in partnership. Building real democracy is about exploring new ways of structuring our groups, organizations and communities, building power together, and making decisions and taking concrete actions collectively.

There are grassroots battles against imposed mega-infrastructure projects all over Latin America

For Indigenous Peoples, Megadams Are ‘Worse than Colonization’

People-led democracy has many variations. Having a presence in Latin America helps us as a group to think about the meaning of ‘democracy’ from different contexts and perspectives. There is a wide range of debates and experiments around democratic participation across Latin America, from which there is a lot to be learned. Right now there are popular resistance movements against extractive projects all over the continent. The people involved in these struggles are regularly risking their lives and freedom. The debate over democratic rights, democratic participation, and the ownership and use of natural resources is a defining one in Latin American politics – one which has implications for people all over the planet.

The Crisis of Corporate Power

Democracy as an idea is in crisis today around the world, a crisis that we must all take seriously. We believe that the practice of serious and people-led democracy is fundamental to renovating it for a new era and against new challenges. The accumulation and exercise of abusive power by transnational corporations is one of the gravest threats we face. Corporations and the global elites they serve are relentlessly working to advance their powers – for example through skewed trade rules and investment arbitration tribunals (ISDS). Helping people understand these powers and how to challenge and dismantle them is something the Democracy Center has been doing for many years

Corporations that wreak environmental and social havoc on communities through massive extractivism projects sit at the core of our current climate/ecological crisis. It is a model that tramples on democratic rights and is creating enormous conflict in Latin America and elsewhere. Confronting the climate crisis means supporting and strengthening the efforts of directly affected communities to halt climate-damaging extractive industries and infrastructure where they live. As an organization working in both the global South and North we see huge potential in connecting particular struggles and movements across borders, building people power on a global scale in order to confront the transnational operation of corporate power.

Three essential questions to move from tactics to winning strategies.

The Art of Advocacy

Strategy and Solidarity

People-led democracy must also be strategic in its approach if it is going to make gains in the face of these huge challenges. Over its 25 year history the Democracy Center has worked with thousands of activists across countries and movements to support them with the tools and skills that can be used to build power and create change. Our Three-Question strategic planning model for advocacy is a flagship resource which we have developed and refined across decades and contexts.

Our vision of real democracy is one of people working together to secure ecologically-just societies free of oppression based on race, class and gender. At the heart of this is solidarity, which is key to building a more democratic culture in a globalized world. But what does genuine solidarity look like, solidarity that rebalances rather than reproduces power relations? This is a crucial discussion that we want to contribute to. At the same time we are also actively involved in international solidarity campaigns around extractivism, and are sharing our learning from those experiences.

Our own Power

One of many great resources from our Build Real Democracy Collection

Self-Organisation Beyond Hierarchy

Building real democracy implies a commitment to identifying what stands in the way of people being able to change where power lies, and working out how to alter that. In so many cases it is those who are most affected by the climate crisis, for example, who also face the most challenges in acting on it, or who face the most risks if they are able to act. It is also necessary to recognize that organizations and groups who want to help build real democracy in the world outside need to look inwards at how they do or don’t reproduce oppressive power relations in their own ways of working, both within organizations and in how they work with others.

In the midst of multiple crises there are localized experiments happening all over the place in how to build real democracy by rethinking social and economic structures in ways that don’t reproduce oppressive power relations and imply ecological destruction. We want to highlight and celebrate such efforts, and hopefully pass on some inspiration. The capacity of each of us – as individuals or organizations – is limited; but if we focus on strategic effectiveness and build power together as a movement then we can change things. As well as our own Reads and Resources below, we invite you to explore the collection of materials from other people and organizations which we are always adding to.

Reads and resources

The Real Democracy Collection

This Collection is our little effort to showcase some of the brilliant thinking, tools and other resources that exist out there across the various movements for social change. And in turn provide you, the active and the curious, with some entry points into current debates, access to excellent strategy and planning tools, and ideas for improving your facilitation or working together better as a group. We have Spanish resources too.