True Democracy for One Day

What will it take to rebuild the American Dream for our communities?

A standing room only crowd of 150 people.  “This is the best forum I have been to” repeated again and again. Real dialogue between community members and 4 of the candidates running for Congress in District 1.  Testimony from community members alongside speeches from candidates. Questions that get to the heart of tough issues, from “what are the industries that will build our future economy” to “do you support the Occupy Wall Street movement?”  This is what democracy looks like. And this is what it takes to rebuild the American Dream.

Last Tuesday, ROP member group Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity (CCCHD) hosted a “different kind of candidate forum” called Voices of Rural Oregon: A Kitchen Table Conversation (inspired by the monthly ROP Kitchen Table Activity).  Participating were 4 candidates running for Congress – Suzanne Bonamici (D), Brad Witt (D), Delinda Delgado-Morgan (R), and Brad Avakian (D) – and 150 District 1 residents representing every county in the district!

With Representative Wu’s resignation earlier this year, District 1 is in a unique position – we’re having a full round of warm-up elections this fall & winter to fill the seat.  We used’s Rebuild the American Dream platform as a starting place for discussion and selected 5 speakers from our district to sit among the candidates and take part in the event, framed as a dialogue, not a debate.

The goal of CCCHD was to build off of their 20 year history promoting democratic participation.  We wanted to set the tone for 2012.  We wanted to talk about the things on our mind – how to rebuild our country, and get out of this economic crisis with our dignity intact.  As host and co-moderator Craig Frasier of CCCHD said:

Our country is at a pivotal crossroad in our history.  The elections of 2011 and 2012 will re-define the role and scope of government in our society.  Our elected leaders will be asked to make crucial decisions regarding the future of health care, education of our children, military deployments, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, Social Security, creating a fairer tax structure for families and businesses and most importantly, putting our people back to work in living wage jobs . . . The strength of a democracy is in an educated citizenry that actively participates in the election process.  It is through the ballot box that each of us can have our voices heard in the decisions about the future directions of our government.

Yes, we wanted to hear what these 4 candidates had to say and make the best decision when our ballots arrive in the mail.  But our goal was also to give candidates an earful of our own, bring our values into the spotlight, and to model the accountability between constituents and politicians that makes a real democracy.  At a time when the OCCUPYmovement’s rallying cry is “Money out of Politics,” it feels especially poignant to show what it is we DO want: the peoples representation in our democracy; politicians accountable to active, informed citizens, in dialogue on the issues that ACTUALLY matter to us, not just the hot-button manufactured talking point topics.

In our forum, candidates responded to 2-3 minute long testimonies from residents of the district – a nurse, a youth from an immigrant family, a school board chair, a caregiver for a disabled family member, the wife of the owner of a local mill, which has been drastically downsized.  After giving testimony, speakers asked a question that sought to peel back the layers of political rhetoric:

Do you agree that it is wrong to scapegoat immigrants for our economic problems?

“Do you have the same concerns that I do about our neglect for public infrastructure leading us towards third-world standards and privatization?  What can we do in the United States to avoid this chain of events?”

This truly was a different kind of forum.

And this is a model for how we keep our American Dream alive.  It’s those moments when we set the stage, we decide the priorities, and we build our democracy from the inside out.  It’s a thrill to see the vision that a human dignity group can bring to the key political discussions of the day – and to add our grain of rice to the true democracy movement we see emerging from the Occupations.

And as for CCCHD – they’re deciding what event is next in their series of Kitchen Table Conversations.  A forum for the general election?  A storytelling event to bring real immigrant experiences into the limelight?  A series of conversations on peace-building and how to honor the peaceful warriors of our society?  A teach-in on the Occupy movement?  Whatever it is, it will build on the strength that CCCHD members called out last night in a debrief meeting:

“We elevated the political dialogue, just a bit, out of the mud where it has been.”  “We succeeded in doing something on the local level to make politics more of a conversation instead of a fight.  That is what we need to keep doing.”

To hear what candidates said, or if you think your community could use a dose of human dignity this election season and want to get some ideas, check out a recording of the forum online at the Saint Helens Chronicle.

Thanks also to the many many people and groups that made this forum happen.  Sponsors were the Rural Organizing Project, Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, Working Families Organization, and Rebuild the Dream.  Participating groups were Yamhill County Contractors for the American Dream, Columbia Pacific Alliance for Social Justice, CAUSA: Oregon’s Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, Adelante Mujeres, Family Forward Oregon, Basic Rights Oregon, Good Grief America, and the Yamhill Valley PeaceMakers.  It takes a village!