In a sparse room on Halsted Street in Englewood, exactly one week before the Presidential election, a smallÂ group, leaning inward from a ring of swivel chairs, talked enthusiastically about participation and progress inÂ America.
The open discussion was aimed at exploring engagement in democracy–the meeting was the second ofÂ three talks across the city crafted by Chicago Public Media, Mikva Challenge, and the Project on Civic ReflectionÂ held during the weeks before Election Day. The common theme of the series was: “Beyond the Vote: a CommunityÂ Discussion on Voice, Power, and Participation.”
The event had started late, as a facilitator delayed locking the front door in the hope that stragglers wouldÂ find their way in. Through barred windows, the group of eight watched for latecomers, speculating on whetherÂ or not people had gotten lost on their way to WBEZ’s Southside Bureau.
Beneath posters of Zora Neale Hurston and John Coltrane, the multi-racial, multi-generational gatheringÂ engaged in freely flowing conversation, looking at participation through a gamut of lenses.
The initial inspiration was an excerpt from a popular speech of Frederick Douglass. Questions from two facilitators served as guideposts–Is struggle required for progress? Could drastic change happen here and now, asÂ it has half a world away, and in our own past?
Textual citations of Douglass’s speech cropped up throughout the conversation, even amid thoroughly modern references. Speaking about the Chicago Public School system, one Teach for America member quoted, “FindÂ out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrongÂ which will be imposed upon them.”
Though often punctuated by laughter, the dominant tone of the discussion was one of earnest frustrationÂ with what many saw as popular disengagement and an abandonment of the cause of progress.
The room held up education and violence as issues that deserved a struggle for reform, and wondered aboutÂ the roadblocks to that popular action: Apathy? A fragmented nation? Participants wondered aloud, “What couldÂ spark a true upheaval?” As one woman wryly put it, “Things get really, really bad, and someone gets really, really loud.”
The discussion closed with personal reflections on the duties of a citizen. All agreed that voting was a minimum benchmark: “Because we have a democracy, leadership at any level is a direct reflection on us,” pointedÂ out a facilitator. Another argued that voting is only one of many courses of involvement: “I think we don’t valueÂ the non-traditional means of participating as much as traditional ones.” The individual insights capped a conversation that covered participation, or the lack thereof, from a multitude of angles.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” reads Douglass’s speech. Over the course of the talk, onlyÂ one more person walked through the door.