Changing the Story on Democracy: Reflections from Facing Race
By Lawrence Barriner II
Our movements need space to gather, to reflect, to share in joy and grief. It’s easy to feel like the pace and urgency of our work today make these moments fewer and farther between.
One of these opportunities is Facing Race, the US’s largest gathering of people building the racial justice movement. In 2016, it happened, as it had for many years, during election week. Eyes all over the country had been watching the poll numbers roll in with held breath and tight chests. For many folks at Facing Race 2016, election week was devastating.
This year, the election results were mixed and so was the atmosphere. Just as in 2016 when we collectively questioned the legitimacy of the electoral college, there were many fights still in progress (Stacy Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, etc.). But this time we had some serious wins (LGBTQ candidates running and winning, women of color candidates making so much history, return of voting rights to 1.5 million humans previously convicted of felonies in Florida, etc.) along with some losses. Everyone (well, everyone who wasn't still fighting for their voices to be heard) was still making sense of the results and their impacts.
But throughout the conference, including the opening plenary, the conversations were focused in a different direction. We returned to a question as old as the Federalist Papers: What is this government and can we, the people, trust it?
From a story-based strategy perspective, I think the conversation was really about the story/ies of our democracy. What are the memes and are they working for us? Below is a recap of the stories contained in the memes and some of my analysis of what was really going on. If you were there (or not), please get in the conversation: agree, disagree, flip the tables, talk it up on Facebook and Twitter or over the (flipped) dinner table.
Voting is a complicated issue. On the one hand, we know voting matters.
“Elections are so important that [the opposition] tries to pull the rug out from under us.” — Alicia Garza
On the other hand, we know that even when we put our people into office, the system is solidly centered in the logic of white supremacy and extraction. Even on its best days, even with a Black president, the system perpetuates oppression.
So what is the story that voting, as a meme, offers?
Quick digression: At CSS, we think of memes as more than just internet graphics. Memes are any capsule for a story to spread. And every story contains underlying assumptions, the things one must believe in order to believe the story is true. And it’s in those underlying assumptions that the power of a story lies.
“Voting”, as meme then, is a capsule that holds a ton of underlying assumptions. The story of voting contains ideas about what valid and full participation look like and what exactly constitutes democracy. Some underlying assumptions (as opposed to facts) the Voting meme often holds:
Winner-take-all competitions are sufficient if everyone votes
Choosing between two options accurately captures the stances people hold
People who are counting the votes care equally about everyone who voted
Votes will be counted accurately
We know that voting offers us one road to participation. And in most communities, it's a really, really important road. Particularly in communities where voter suppression is rampant, the right to vote matters. And our opposition knows this, which is why they implement rules that remove our ability to make our voices heard in this way. Despite serious setbacks, we are still making progress (see Florida’s Amendment 4).
But, as brown and Ash-Lee Henderson, Executive Director of the Highlander Center, and many others said, we must not confuse the story of voting with the story of liberation. Brown reminds us that the work isn't about winning and losing; it's about the perpetual struggle (i.e. organizing) for more and more liberation. What’s outside the frame of the story of voting is that wins and losses are both just part of the process. We must see our work as bigger than whether or not we won (or lost) today or yesterday or tomorrow.
Democracy & Authoritarianism
Voting as a meme fits within a larger narrative of democracy as a collective decision-making structure. And from the Facing Race stage, several people challenged the idea of democracy in some very serious ways.
Henderson noted that the American democracy as we've seen it has never worked for oppressed peoples. When we talk about voting, we necessarily include the histories of the American slavocracy and the fights that countless groups of people have had to wage to be seen as legitimate voices. Don’t forget, at the federal scale: women couldn’t vote until 1920, African Americans couldn’t until 1965, and 18 year olds couldn’t until 1971. There were wealth requirements to vote until 1966 and residents of Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the USVI still don’t have full representation in Congress. Seen from a different perspective than the dominant narrative, one might see the story of the American democracy as one that has wanted as few voices to be heard as possible...
This gem, shared by Henderson from one of her teachers, Vincent Harding, is worth its weight in ... everything.
More than any other conference I've been to, Facing Race centered the stories of the peoples indigenous to this land. And the fact that since before day 1 of the experiment currently known as "America," First Nations peoples have had to fight to be heard and included. They've also had to (and continue to) fight to not be destroyed. The rest of us are fighting on stolen land. I heard over and over again this year that if we're not including that reality in all of our thinking and strategies, we're missing the mark. As Crystal Echo Hawk and Judith LeBlanc made clear in the Reclaiming Native Truth in the 21st Century workshop stated (paraphrased): Turtle Island's Native Peoples are the longest standing examples of land-governing democracies we have. It's no wonder they're [the dominant power holders] trying to erase us, our stories, our knowledge, our wisdom. These ideas, in some way, actually challenge the idea that voting and democracy go hand in hand. What might democracy look like without voting as a story we hold to? What other structures and systems would we need to make all voices heard and still make decisions together?
So what do we do we now?
The same thing we were doing before the election: build power. And how might we do that? One idea: lean into different stories.
“We can’t confuse winning for liberation. Those things are different. Grace Lee Boggs used to sit in her house and do this move (see graphic) tryna teach me about dialectical humanism… it’s the difference between the pendulum swinging, ‘We are the losers, we are winners, now we’re the losers again,’ and doing that same dance from one side to the other but having the loss and the win is all part of how we evolve and learn to be a liberated species.”
What if we started telling that story: that winning and losing is part of the work of moving towards liberation and building power. As Henderson said, by the next Facing Race, we need to be able to come together and say "Hey, we tried some sh*t. Here's what worked. Here's what didn't. What did we learn? What are gonna we try next?"
The story of continually moving towards liberation moves us beyond the false binary of voting being everything and voting being useless. Voting, and even democracy, are just pieces of the work of building power. They are pulse checks: “Hey, here’s where we are. Issue X is clearly where there’s conflict and we need to keep exploring together. Issue Y is where we’ve figured out something that works well enough for all of us.”
For some folks, building power looks like organizing. For some folks, building power looks like creating the new from the ashes of the old. For some folks, building power looks like doing the internal and interpersonal work of transformative justice. Wherever(s) you fall, we’ve got work to do.
Midwifing a New America - https://sojo.net/articles/midwifing-new-americahttps://sojo.net/articles/midwifing-new-america
Florida Amendment 4 - https://www.fl-counties.com/amendment-4
This essay was edited by Shana McDavis-Conway and Angus Maguire.