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Living Democracy

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Lappé and Du Bois discuss the founding of the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont. They discuss the center’s American News Service, a service designed to send stories of successful citizen-initiated projects for social change to news outlets nationwide. The News Service sends stories to more than 500 newspapers. Lappé and Du Bois discuss the center’s dedication to bringing more people into long-term, active engagement in their communities.

Keywords: democracy, grassroots action

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Coming up in a little while, you’ll be hearing from one of the funniest feminists around, and that is Kate Clinton. But right now we’re going to turn to a weekly segment that we’ll be doing every Thursday, and it’s called “Living Democracy.” And to start it off, we turn to two people who have made this issue their issue and are working on getting stories of grassroots solutions around the country. We’re going to be looking at a wide range of efforts led by ordinary men and women, and in some cases children, who saw something that needed doing, and realized that if they waited for somebody else to do it, they might well wait a lifetime. “Living Democracy” is what we’re calling these grassroots programs and this weekly segment. “Living democracy” means democratic participation above and beyond the ballot box. It means solving problems by bringing people together instead of, as we all too often see in campaign talk, prying groups of people apart. Thousands of examples of living democracy are blooming all over the country. They include community-organized job training programs, a whole variety of anti-poverty programs, projects that get people of different races to come together and talk and then get to work on issues that vex us all. There are groups that, out West, help environmentalists and ranchers reach agreement on better use of the land. There are places where community residents sit on the boards of companies that pollute, and make them more accountable to their neighbors; house-building programs in which the homeless build their own houses, while learning a marketable trade; organizations that help poor city dwellers grow food on their own rooftops; and neighborhood groups that get kids off drugs and teach people how to resolve disagreements without violence.

And joining us to talk about this are two people who set up the Center for Living Democracy in Vermont. We’re talking about—and she’s one of my heroines—Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Du Bois. They direct the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro. In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé awakened a whole generation to the human-made causes of hunger with her Diet for a Small Planet, which has sold more than 3 million copies in six languages. And most importantly, I read it, and I loved it, and it really set me on a track of looking at nutrition and looking at food in the context of world politics and development studies. And also, Dr. Paul Du Bois, who holds a Ph.D. in public administration, he founded in the 1970s a community newspaper, a rape crisis center and an inner-city printing company in Rochester, New York. And he also served as executive director of one of New York state’s largest African-American community organizations, developing citywide programs in education, employment and housing. And he was a tenured professor at a university in Tennessee. He taught graduate courses while hosting regular radio and television programs. And we’re very thrilled to have both of them here with us.

Paul Du Bois and Frances Moore Lappé, welcome to Democracy Now!


PAUL DU BOIS: Well, thanks very much. It’s wonderful to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you. Let’s begin with Frances Moore Lappé. How did you end up in Vermont from the work you did all over the world and out in California with your establishment of the Institute for Food and Policy Studies?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, after, really, most of my adult life, two decades focused on why hunger in a world of plenty, I came to see that the cause of hunger is not a scarcity of food, not a scarcity of resources at all, of course; it is a scarcity of democracy. So, the key question that’s guiding my life, then, is: How do we create, how do we participate in shaping, a form of democracy that engages people, that is strong and inclusive enough to really eradicate hunger and end, of course, many other social, environment ills that are worsening? So, for me, there was a very logical step from asking why hunger to peeling away the questions to the fundamental question of: How do we create a democracy that works?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Paul, how did you come to the Center for Living Democracy?

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: Well, in a philosophical sense, almost in exactly the same way. When Frances says that what she discovered was that there wasn’t really a scarcity of food, there was a scarcity of democracy, certainly I, as an African American very, very concerned with civil rights and the terrible conditions within the inner city, could understand very readily that indeed there is a scarcity of democracy. And there is for all of us in this country. And, you know, that becomes so, so, so obvious during this presidential primary season, when we can feel blessed that indeed, in one sense, we live in a formal democracy, because indeed we get to vote for a small fraction of our leaders, but, on the other hand, what are we able to do that actually affects the quality of our life in very, very important ways? Where, for example, are our voices heard in our schools, in our human service agencies, in the 4,000 or 5,000 governments that we actually have at the local and state level, in our media and so on, and certainly in our workplaces?

And one of the things that I began to understand is that, indeed, if the problems of not just racial minorities, but of all of us, are going to be addressed effectively, we’re going to have to have millions of people interacting, listening to each other’s interests, developing solutions to common problems, that indeed that is democracy. That’s a democracy that we don’t now have. Instead, what we have is a sense of despair. Black people, certainly, are willing to say, “Well, what democracy? Nobody listens to me.” But then, when you poll all Americans and go a little deeply, you find out that, indeed, most of us feel that no one really listens to us, no one hears our voices. We feel powerless. We feel incapable of really affecting the large decisions that impact our lives and our children’s lives. And so, it was very easy for me to understand that, just as Frances could discover that the causes of world hunger are related to, in essence, not a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy, it was very easy for me to understand that the problems that I had focused on were also due, fundamentally, in very important ways, to a scarcity of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Frances, what are you doing at the Center for Living Democracy?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, as Paul said, that we cannot create a democracy that works unless millions of more people are involved. Right now, public life repels people. There’s profound distrust. We have felt, in founding the center, that our primary goals are to draw more and more people into public life, and that means creating two conditions: People must believe in the possibility of democratic change, and they must see a place for themselves in that, a rewarding place that attracts them. And so, one of the core projects of our Center for Living Democracy is the American News Service. This is now a national news service that is bringing stories of regular Americans who are part of problem solving in their communities. It’s taking these stories into now over 500 news outlets nationwide. This is very directly, for us, creating democracy, because we’re all social creatures, and unless we see—you know, we learn from each other, and unless we see other people involved, creatively, constructively, in a rewarding way, we won’t see a role for ourselves. And this is the underreported, this is the—this is the hidden reality in America today, the invisible revolution going on in our communities that is not covered by the mainstream media.

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: You know, Amy, the news service that we’ve just begun, that Frances was referring to, is already, I think, just in my personal opinion, a remarkable success, because we expected, after only a few months of operation, to have about 100 newspapers and radio stations and TV stations being willing, across the country, to take these stories of people who are learning to solve their problems collectively and collaboratively and democratically; instead, we have 550 of those news outlets already, because, in fact, the media know that indeed, you know, they’re not doing a very good job of covering what is hopeful, what is constructive, that’s really going on in this country, and that millions of people are involved in, but the media simply don’t tell us every day. And now, in fact, you know, we’re finding that if we can reach 550 of the several thousand media outlets in this country, maybe we can reach the others. I mean, at this point, our only limitation is funds. I mean, we’ve got to raise more money to try to get these stories to many, many more people so that they can, in fact, see the possibility of success, they can see that, indeed, you know, if their neighbors are doing it, somebody the next town over or somebody elsewhere is constructively tackling a problem that bothers them, that they in fact can see a place for themselves in doing that same sort of thing. And then—


PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: —we can have those people really, really beginning to problem solve nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, we’re going to go to some of those stories in just a minute, after our musical break. Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois will continue with us. And I also want to let you know that in a few minutes we’ll be going to the campaign trail, to the Clinton for President campaign trail, but we’ll be talking with Kate Clinton. The feminist candidate for the White House will be taking a moment away from her campaign to speak with Pacifica. All after this.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re still on the phone with Paul Du Bois and Frances Moore Lappé of the Center for Living Democracy, which is based in Brattleboro, Vermont. Let’s go right to those stories. Frances, would you tell us one of the stories that you’ve been documenting about grassroots action in this country?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, let’s see. One that comes to mind, because of the sort of discouragement about economics for low-income people in this country, is San Antonio, Texas, where a group came together and designed, themselves came up with what would be an effective job training program for low-income people in that city. And through that vision—and they met weekly and studied job training alternatives as far away as Europe, and they came up with a strategy that is now not only working to create jobs that really have a future for people, but they are also now seen as a model, and what they’re doing is being replicated in several other Texas cities.

A story now on my desk that we hope to get out tomorrow is about the growth of lending circles, low-income people who are coming together, and in a support circle called microloans, and managing to get a start in self-employed entrepreneurial situations through supporting each other. There are just a whole range of topics that we cover, from economics to education to human services.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, can you tell us about one that’s been particularly intriguing to you?

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: Well, yes. One that I’ve especially loved began in Seattle, where, in fact, people who were deeply concerned about some of the problems in their own neighborhoods finally decided to develop, in essence, a program, run by their Department of Neighborhoods in that city, that allows citizens to come together, figure out the solutions to problems that bother them—problems of drugs, problems of graffiti, problems of run-down parks and dirty streets and all the rest of it—figure out a project, figure out a solution, propose their contribution to it in in-kind labor and then have the city match that in-kind labor with dollars. And so the city winds up feeling that they’re getting three times as much value, but people are actively participating—three times as much value as the dollars they’re putting in, but people are actively participating in solving their problems, cleaning up their city.

And now, indeed, that kind of matching program, where citizens and the city work together as partners, not as, you know, either supplicants, on the one hand, or—how shall I put it?—or, you know, opponents, very often, are working together to solve real problems. And now that kind of program is being replicated across the country in a number of other cities, where government and citizens learn to work together. And it’s really very, very challenging. In Seattle, they have now had—they’ve now developed over 400 projects over the last few years that have dramatically improved the quality of life and the active engagement of thousands and thousands of citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, how—let me ask you both this question: How do you separate these kind of efforts around the country from the kind of politics that is being proposed today, that we’re hearing on the campaign trail? And that is about—they’re talking about community empowerment, too. You have—we were just talking about Lamar Alexander, who’s talking about ending welfare as we know it and giving, instead, money and power to local nonprofits to give out as they see fit, to the people that they think are appropriate to give money to. How would you separate—or would you—the kind of self-help groups that you’re talking about from the groups that Republicans and many Democrats are saying should take over for the government at a local level?

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: Well, I know Lamar Alexander just a little bit, and I know where some of the ideas come from. And I think the separation that you’re asking for here, Amy, is really very, very simple. There’s a difference between top-down decision-making and bottom-up decision-making. What works is when people come together, where they interact, they collaborate, they figure out indeed the solutions that are best for them, and they are actively involved in setting policies, changing expectations. There are profound consequences. That’s bottom-up problem-solving, bottom-up decison-making.

What these campaigners are doing—and it’s not just Republicans, of course—what they’re doing is, in fact, posturing, very, very often. They’re coming up with solutions that sound good or slogans that sound good, so that they can in fact attract some number of votes. That’s a top-down kind of decision-making, where they’re just throwing out ideas and hoping that those ideas will take hold. That has nothing to do with the bottom-up, really collaborative, engaged over time, truly, truly engaged, involved decision-making that these people, these active, living democrats across the country, are showing us actually works to solve problems. What the politicians are doing is the old-fashioned way that, indeed, surely, we should have gotten sick of by now, because, in fact—I mean, look at the problems across the country. We’ve been seeing their approach, decade after decade. What these other people are telling us is something brand new that actually works.

AMY GOODMAN: Frances Moore Lappé, do you think these groups that you’re chronicling and putting out in your American News Service can replace the government safety net?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: No. And I think, you know, one interesting difference between what we hear from national leaders and this very rigid sort of ideological formulation of being anti-government or for government, what we’re finding with these grassroots initiatives is that they don’t start from that ideological either/or position. They’re saying, “What works? And how can—we don’t come predisposed to simply get rid of government; we come to hold government accountable to our interests. And how do we define those? And how do we learn how to hold them accountable?” And so, it’s much less ideological in that sense, and much more out of how can we create a community that works. And certainly, in all the initiatives that we are chronicling—for example, the one I mentioned, on this job training program, it’s heavily dependent on government funds. The ideas, the direction, the shape emerged from the community, and then made very real demands on government to shift resources into that program. So, that is a fundamental difference. It’s not a knee-jerk sort of either/or sort of stance. It’s what works and how do I hold government accountable to my interests.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve both been active for many decades now, active in grassroots organizing, in bringing a different perspective to world politics and the global economy. Do you see—and maybe this is a question that we can’t answer, but do you see a difference in the activism of the '60s and ’70s than the activism you're seeing today?

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: Well, Frances, do you want to start?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Yeah, I definitely do. We are so impressed today at the level of sophistication, the understanding among community organizers, that in fact the process is a long-term one of building relationships, drawing people into public life engagement for the long haul. It’s not a '60s or ’70s idea that, oh, we have the truth; we're going to go mobilize people around our agenda. That is a failed concept of community change. What people are understanding now is that communities change as people develop their own capacities. And I think that’s what Paul learned from his experience also.

PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS: Mm-hmm, that’s right. And in our book, The Quickening of Democracy, we mention those 10 arts of democracy that these people across the country, these success stories—literally thousands of them, thousands of success stories—have taught us are absolutely essential for effective participation in public life, things as, you know, dealing with conflict creatively and mediation and engaging in public dialogue and evaluating and public judgment and mentoring and negotiation and so on. It’s a very, very different sense than the ’60s. We are talking about building the capacities of people, about them building their capacities, to be engaged over their lifetime to take some control over the important aspects of their lives and to behave truly as, you know—and I love the phrase of your series, of course, “Living Democracy”—to be engaged truly in a true, living, vibrant, engaged, active, involved democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Paul Du Bois and Frances Moore Lappé, we want to thank you very much for joining us. Again, they have set up the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont. And one of the things we’re going to be doing on Democracy Now! is working with the internet, because this is a public space now, and if we don’t use it, it very well may be privatized. So we will be giving out internet addresses for you to be able to get in touch with different groups and people. And the Center for Living Democracy can be reached at cld—that’s Center for Living Democracy—cld@saber.net. That’s cld@saber.net. You can also reach the American News Service, which they’ve begun, which puts out these American success stories, these grassroots success stories—you can reach them at 1-800—this is a phone number—1-800-654-NEWS. That’s 1-800-654-NEWS.

And while we’re on addresses and phone numbers, we wanted to put out something that we did yesterday, and that is Project Vote Smart. They’ve gotten lots of calls, and we wanted to give people an opportunity to call in again. This group, Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan group that believes accurate information is key to a healthy democracy, it’s put together a voter self-defense manual, where you can find out how your members of Congress have voted in the past, on everything from defense spending to abortion rights. And the manual also lists contact information for all declared presidential candidates, so you can get out there on the campaign trail yourself and ask candidates questions. Now, to find out how the candidates stand, you can call Project Vote Smart at 1-800-622-SMART. That’s 1-800-622-SMART. You can give them a call and simply ask them about a particular candidate’s position, by the way, or you can ask them to send you a copy of the voters’ self-defense manual. That’s Project Vote Smart at 1-800-622-SMART.

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