Meet the New Boss: You

How and why the people are taking charge

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

If you want to change the world, start sitting in on county board meetings -- and leave your protest signs at home. That's the advice of Matt Leighninger, who has attended enough school board meetings, city council hearings, and neighborhood gatherings to leave even the most energetic grassroots activist awestruck.

Leighninger is a local government triage worker -- a facilitator called in by nonprofit organizations and government units to help solve problems in communities across the nation. In the past decade, he's helped citizens and local politicians hash out zoning ordinances, launch new schools, and fight crime -- and he's noticed a dramatic shift in the relationships between citizens and their government: Instead of leaving policy and lawmaking to the 'experts,' average Joes and Janes are engaged in the hands-on work of building bike trails, writing education policy, and reforming health care plans.

'Culturally, people are more skeptical and less likely to blindly accept authority,' says Leighninger. 'But it's a funny kind of combination that I'm seeing out there. Citizens have less time for public life, but they bring more skills to the table; they're less connected to their community, but they're better able to mobilize and find the resources they need to make change; they feel somewhat more entitled to what government has to give them, but less confident in government's ability to deliver.'

This shift to what Leighninger calls 'shared governance' emerged from a grassroots, ad hoc desire for a new kind of inclusive politics, and he caught the first whiff of its significance at a mayor's forum in Lakewood, Colorado, where a citizen snapped: 'What we've got here is a parent-child relationship between the government and the people. What we need is an adult-adult relationship.'

In Leighninger's book, The Next Form of Democracy (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), he argues that anyone who wants to make change had better understand this new age of adult conversation. Traditionally, politics has been a game of confrontation and negotiation. Community organizers rallied the politically disenfranchised to confront power and compel negotiation: In the words of Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals is the bible of community organizing, the goal is to help 'the Have-Nots to take power away from the Haves.'

This approach, which is still the dominant ideology of the left, assumes that a class of people, the Haves, jealously guard power that they use to their own personal advantage. It also requires that a second class of people, the Have-Nots, are excluded from power and so must seize it. Finally (and this is where the ideology gets its romantic juice), it assumes a third class of people, we'll call them the Organizers, can intuit the needs of the Have-Nots and, given the right issues and skills, marshal them into a force to be reckoned with. It's easy to see why these assumptions remain compelling: You've got a villain in the Haves and a hero in the Organizers. But the Have-Nots? Well, at the end of the day, they're basically extras in this drama.