by Jessica Stuart
The American democracy that has been embraced by citizens as a means of equality and justice is in a state of decline. In our flawed democratic system, certain groups of citizens are deprived the opportunity to participate and have their voices heard in the political process. The growing economic inequalities in which wealth becomes increasingly concentrated at the top while the poor encounter income stagnation may be to blame. Money has the power to influence and facilitate access to political decision-makers. In turn, government leaders are disproportionately responsive to the wealthy few while the voices of the many are disregarded and essentially silenced. The democratic process becomes tainted, resulting in inequitable and unjust outcomes. As the government continually neglects the needs and concerns of under-resourced citizens, feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness give way to an acceptance of injustices.
Citizens should refrain from relinquishing hope despite this seemingly desperate situation. Power can be reclaimed, and the government can be held accountable to a broader range of citizens. The answer lies within community-based political movements in which organizing efforts bring community members together to address common problems, giving cohesion and direction to unheard voices emerging from unacknowledged people. By building a collective voice and taking political action, a community can bring pressure upon decision-makers whose activities often institutionalize inequities. The key to successful organizing efforts is a process that enables community members to assert control over decisions that impact themselves and their community.
As a member of society, I aspire to assist my fellow citizens. As a student, I contemplate the role members of the university community can play in fostering political participation that will improve the quality of life for community members in local under-resourced neighborhoods. Luke Cole’s model of “lawyering for social change,” which explains how lawyers can support communities in ways that produce sustained and effective efforts to address environmental injustice, has inspired my conception of the appropriate role.
Good-willed actions taken by members of the university community should facilitate rather than take over the tasks involved in articulating and achieving a community’s self-defined goals. University members should focus on providing a community with knowledge and information that helps them efficiently and effectively fight injustices. However, exercising caution is necessary to avoid imposing one’s own views, as an outsider to the community, regarding the appropriate purposes and means of political organizing and action. Furthermore, the experiences and opinions of community members should be heard and validated as equally important as the views of academics with specialized expertise, thus acknowledging community members as experts on their own lives and community. In effect, collaboration is a two-way educational process in which academics provide information to increase awareness and knowledge of particular issues to the community while the community educates academics on perspectives that only insiders can recognize. In this way, members of the university community can provide resources that foster the strength of community voices in a manner that will help sustain these voices over time so that they are able to organize for further political action around other important issues in the future.
By providing otherwise inaccessible resources and skills to local communities, the university community can help empower residents, and hopefully, instill confidence into members of the community who are willing to assume leadership positions. When leadership comes from within the community, mobilizing for political change spreads from neighbor to neighbor. This solidarity among community members is necessary to confront political leaders about the injustices that result from power inequities. In turn, by finding a way to facilitate the process in which a community takes control of its own problems and demands that political officials address these problems, I hope that I, as a member of the university community, can help reclaim democracy at a local level.
Jessica is a political science Master’s student at Lehigh University and Community Fellow working on a joint asthma project at the Community Health Department of St. Luke’s Hospital & Health Network and Lehigh Valley Hospital & Health Network.
(Published in the 2010 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)