- Expression of Gratitude
- I wish to thank Wolfgang Prauser for having invited me to this conference. I have learned a lot and met some wonderful people.
- Three Items Shaping My Reflections:
- Erstens meine 25 jährige Berufserfahrung als Community Organizier in den USA.
- Zweitens: Während der letzten 4 Monate habe ich viele Personen in ganz Deutschland besucht, die in Gemeinwesenarbeit oder in anderen Formen von BürgerInnenbeteiligung engagiert sind.
- Und schließlich : Dabei habe ich begriffen, dass in Deutschland sowohl eine zunehmende soziale Herausforderung (zunehmende Arbeitslosigkeit, Kürzungen der staatlichen Zuschüsse etc..) heranwächst als auch das Gefühl zunimmt, dass die politischen Parteien und andere traditionelle Gruppen nicht wirklich die Interessen von einkommensschwachen Personengruppen in Deutschland repräsentieren.
A: Difficult to Separate the Question of Citizen Participation from the Issue of Power
In my experiences, it is very difficult to separate the question of citizen participation from the issue of power. For example, in the United States often people say that the reason people do not become involved is because they are „apathetic“, implying that they do not care. But I have often found that people care very much about their families, their neighborhoods, and their city. They do not become involved, however, because they feel they are powerless. They feel that they cannot change the government or business systems that truly impact their lives.
I have heard many people at this conference say that government initiated and government funded activities that seek to encourage citizen participation are often somewhat superficial. This is because the government may be looking for advise on a particular community problem, but they are often not willing to share power in making important decisions. This leads to my second reflection.
B. Independent Funding for Greater Citizen Participation
I would like to encourage all of you to think about ways of obtaining money that encourages powerful citizen participation and community organizing. „Independent money“ is money that cannot be stopped if citizens want the government to do something that the government does not want to do. For example, I heard many of you who are doing Gemeinwesenarbeit, social work, and Quateriesmanagment say two things:
„I am doing tasks in my contract that do not give me time to truly listen to people’s needs and to organize them for change,“
„If I or my organization did organize people for change, I am afraid the government would stop our funding.“
The question is, „Where would this independent money come from?“ You know German financial operations much better than I, but let me suggest just a few possibilities. First, I was in Wuppertal on Tuesday and learned that Diakonia has 340 staffpeople. If they used just one of these staff as a community organizer, a lot could happen.
Second, perhaps the various social service providers in Germany (like Diakonia and Caritas) could lobby the government to create a foundation similar to the political party foundations in order to hire people whose full time job is to encourage democratic citizen participation. I am confident that if you came together for brainstorming that you could identify other sources of funding.
C. Self-Interest and Relationships as a Key to Citizen Participation
I heard many strategies and techniques about citizen participation discussed at this conference. In my experiences the most important are that of listening to peoples’ self-interests and building relationships of trust and respect. For example, in Jacksonville, Florida where I was working for the past nine years it took eighteen months to build an organization powerful enough that our mayor, police chief, and school superintendent would implement many infrastructure improvements, new police policies, and education reforms suggested by grassroots people.
The most important work in these eighteen months was my doing about 400 face-to-face visits and then training 200 volunteers to do 1,200 face-to-face visits in order to listen to people’s self-interests and visions for their neighborhoods, and to build relationships of trust, respect, and willingness to act on these community problems. This, I believe, is the hard but very rewarding work of successful citizen participation.