Building democracy one conversation at a time

We have made a start on our year’s training as community organisers. Five of us are hosted by Cambridge House in Camberwell and working in the community to develop a network of citizens. Our principle activity for the foreseeable future is listening to people we meet, listening to their dreams and hopes for the community, to their fears and worries and seeking out those who are willing to take action to improve things for themselves and their neighbours. We are using a carefully structured set of prompts to help develop the conversation in these productive directions.

IMG_0985So many conversations these days are driven by an agenda. Talking together with friends and family about how things could be, about the barriers in our way and how we might achieve our vision; this sort of talking has become muted and infrequent. In communities under pressure, uncertainty, rumour and mistrust have left neighbours silenced and unable to confront their shared concerns. Such natural exchange is a vital part of building trust and mutual respect between people who may indeed differ but hold in common far more than what keeps them apart.

Politicians and listening

Politicians are distrusted along with any other professional. Often seen as busybodies or only out for themselves, local politicians seldom have the time to listen to the opinions of their constituents with an open mind. Too often they rush in with explanation or defence when if they were able to drop their guard and join the conversation, they would create an opportunity for real encounter. The doorstep visits of electioneering just serve to reinforce a sense for many that ‘the only time they turn up round here is when they want your vote’.

IMG_0991Web conversations

The growth of the internet has also changed the way we hold conversations. For those with the skills and resources to get online regularly, their trips to the shops have declined, their conversations are now global and topic specific and their engagement with their neighbour is as a consequence more limited. But online they share their own creations, they collaborate to develop new products and services and they plan collective action. The conversations are most definitely different and of course not confined by proximity.

IMG_0988Professional indifference

Many oppressed communities have been asked their opinion so often that they now resent being interviewed. This week the community organising team walked through both the Aylesbury estate in Walworth and the Heygate estate in Elephant & Castle. In the Heygate, the huge empty blocks that until recently housed thousands were eerie and felt threatening, despite the gardening emerging everywhere (pictured above). On the Aylesbury (pictured left) now awaiting demolition in stages like the Heygate, the people were more unnerving. These are communities that have been talked at, hectored and bullied by professional technocrats for decades and their opinions then disregarded and ignored.

A different quality to conversations

So how are we to make our conversations different? I think there are three key ingredients.

  1. Our agenda is to unearth and encourage those shoots of community action that with support can become self-respect and confidence. We don’t want to know about opinions of a particular policy area or planning proposal; we want to know about citizens’ personal opinions about their community and what they are inspired to do about it. That requires trust and respect for each other.
  2. We are intrigued about the issues and the area, about the people and the context. We are captivated by the individual story and interested to open the conversation up further rather than sell a product or service. We are curious about the human scale worries and fears as well as the pride and determination of local people. We are genuinely inquisitive about the person and their world view.
  3. We are not empty-handed but rather have a range of suggestions about how anyone interested in taking the next step can act for the community. We are ready to provoke ideas for action – from listening to friends and family, bringing friends together for discussion, committing to using a local service, promising to vote or volunteering to help out. We are animating the community toward power, bringing it to consciousness.

If our democracy is to be revived at local level, such conversations are needed everywhere. I think this process is both deeply humbling and yet also fundamentally uplifting. As we gather the evidence of the community’s concerns and issues, the tough problems that face us together will become clear. The information is held strictly for the use of the community itself and not by any partial interest or organisation. As more people come together their voice becomes amplified. When we are in a position to discern the common good from all the opinions, then we will be able to tackle the things that really matter. Listening truly matters in conversations for democracy.


Stephen Coleman (2005) Direct Democracy – Towards a Conversational Democracy ippr

Samuel Jones (2006) Talk Us into It – Putting conversation at the heart of the public realm Demos

Perry Walker and Stephen Whitehead (2011) Connected Conversations – tackling big issues by linking small conversations nef

Margaret Wheatley (2009) Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (Second Edition) Berrett-Koehler

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2 Responses to Building democracy one conversation at a time

  1. Jess Medling says:

    Mark – thank you writing this post – we need much more of this type of sharing and communicating.

    From my experience in this area, I wholeheartedly agree with you sentiments of ‘listening’ ‘reviving’, ‘provoking ideas’ ‘unearthing and encouraging’ as without this intent and understanding and forging of trust in our conversations with each other in our communities – any further form of support is likely to be severely compromised.

    I hope you’ll be able to continue sharing insights with us as you progress – and that we all continue to have a richer understanding of issues as we strive for solutions.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Jess – great to hear from you on this. Conversation in the public realm has been reduced to platitudes and sound bites. When you want to engage people in dialogue about their lives together our current political culture pushes us into unsubtle and unflattering positions. We need to reclaim the spaces to have meaningful debate that touches on the personal and the private as well as on the public and the political. I think we live in two separate worlds at the moment, one focused on the domestic and the family and the other on the media and the public. They need to interpenetrate and become integrated again through a commitment to engaging with people in personal terms – having more conversations. Our political and economic leaders do nothing to help us talk with each other; rather they tend to talk at us with a hectoring tone and always trying to sell us something. I hope that organising can be a resistence movement to the incessant call of popular culture to be instrumental in each other’s lives and start to focus on our vision, emotions, hopes and dreams. Thanks for the comment.

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