Democracy in the Park, Sept. 30

Press release from Community Roots: 

On Sunday, September 30th, community members are invited to Democracy in the Park, a public gathering at the Carrier Park Pavilion from 12 – 6 pm. Democracy in the Park is a convergence space for community members to engage with local activist and organizers about City government, how it works, how it could be improved, and to discuss with each other ways to expand public participation in the process. All are welcome.

Too often in today’s world the only options presented for participating in our democratic process are getting out to vote, making calls and writing letters to elected officials, or participating in some form of street protest. These activities are essential parts of our current democratic system, but there is a wide range of activities outside of voting and protesting from which most people are excluded. Democracy in the Park is the place to explore those opportunities together.

Voting is not enough. It is important to do but only one way we can engage in guiding the decisions that affect our lives. Voting for one person to represent all our complex values and concerns while they write policies and budgets gives us very little say in what actually happens. Large Corporations on the other hand have entire teams dedicated to engaging in lobbying and law writing (e.g. ALEC). “Representative democracy as it is practiced currently in America does not represent the voice of all citizens and ultimately disempowers us as we are painfully aware of our lack of power. At this point in American history Corporations have more Rights to decide what happens in the places we live than we do” says Kat Houghton, co-founder of local nonprofit Community Roots.

Locally, the City of Asheville drafts and approves a budget for each fiscal year. However, public participation in this process is almost nonexistent. Outside of voting for City Council members (who vote whether or not to approve the budget presented by City Staff) the public has very little say in how funds are distributed. The budget work sessions held by the City of Asheville prohibit public comment. The only opportunity to have one’s voice heard is to attend the public hearing on the budget. There, community members are given three minutes to share their thoughts and opinions on the allocation of resources. Once the public hearing is closed, there are no further opportunities for the public to comment on the budget, and City Council votes whether or not to approve the budget. Rarely, if ever, is the presented budget not approved.

The process was clearly not designed with participation from citizens in mind. If you could manage to get to City Hall by 5pm on that particular Tuesday then you could say your piece (or at least some of it) but have no confirmation that your thoughts have been heard or will be acted on. If you couldn’t make it to City Hall that day then there were no other options available. In other US cities, including NYC, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago citizens can work together in a process called Participatory Budgeting to propose and vote on projects which improve the community and is funded by the City.

“Making meaningful decisions together is the key to vibrant, sustainable communities” says Kim Roney, piano teacher and activist who serves on the the Multimodal Transportation Commission.

No such process exists in Asheville. Community members are held out of having meaningful input about what to fund. While some recent City Council campaigns and elected representatives have run on a platform of participatory budgeting, there has been little to no movement at the level of the City to explore its potential in Asheville. Democracy in the Park attempts to answer where in Asheville do we go to engage with other citizens who want to be involved in making collective decisions about our shared resources? We can go to the twice monthly City Council meetings and make a 3 minute public comment but it’s not a conversation and we don’t get to make any decisions together.

“Democracy in the Park is a place for us to get together, listen, discuss, ask questions and begin to think together about how we can push the limits of of current system of governance to facilitate the emergence of the new one”, says Mic Collins who is part of a group organizing the gathering. “Our goal is to politicize public space outside of City Hall. We hope to create a space where people can come out from behind their screens and keyboards to gather in person and dialogue, exchange ideas, and collaborate for innovative solutions about the needs of our community,” says Collins.

“Democracy in the Park is a safe, inclusive container for local citizens to engage in dialogue around local government, understand how it works and vision how we’d like to see it change,” says Houghton.

“There are many people and groups in Asheville talking about social change and how to create the world we want to see, one that is more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and spiritually fulfilling and some adminarable work being done towards these goals. However, a fundamental system of how we relate to each tends to be dismissed from those conversations – our local government.” says Houghton.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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