Rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy


by Greg Coleridge

From the local to the global, the ability of people to govern ourselves has been under assault for many decades. We can expect this to intensify for multiple reasons, including:

• Business corporations seeking huge profits by converting what once had been “public” to “private” (called privatization, though a more descriptive term would be “corporatization”), including traditional public assets such as water and sewer systems, roads, police and fire protection, airports, hospitals and schools.
• Individuals looking to increase their power, status and/or privileges by concentrating decision-making from many (“We the People” and government) to a few (their own) hands.
• Continual legal and constitutional definitions that further restrict and redefine “public” arenas as other “p” words: private, property, proprietary, privileged—and thus [place them] beyond the reach of public planning, shaping and evaluation.
• A national government that uses the excuse of “terrorism” to stifle dissent, intimidate dissenters and interrupt efforts of self-determination, even at the local level.
• A culture that tells us public policies are too complicated for ordinary people to understand (thus restricting policymaking to “experts”); distracts public attention from self-determination, toward the trivial and inane; worships “the market” as the sole route to financial and economic salvation; defines economic arenas as outside the scope of public input; erases the memory of historical examples of citizen control and self-governance; denigrates anything that is “public” as inefficient, wasteful, outdated and dangerous; celebrates anything “private” as efficient, modern and safe; and encourages social isolation, keeping us from learning from each other and organizing to (re)assert meaningful changes.

There is another side to this—an existing democratic/self-determination culture or “infrastructure” that perhaps many of us seldom think about. Alternatives to corporations, corporate governance and elite control exist right now in our communities and states.

Scores of documents, policies, institutions, structures and groups reflecting inclusiveness, accountability and responsibility are commonplace—[and provide] examples [of] where those who are affected by decisions and policies have a legitimate role in the making of those decision—or could [have] if we made the effort. They are where “We the People” have a voice—or could if we merely flexed our self-determination muscles.

Examples of a democratic infrastructure abound right here in the Heights, including:

• A legacy of active citizen engagement over many decades, on many issues, through block or street groups and communitywide campaigns.
• Municipal charters (our local constitutions) defining the cities’ overarching governing rules, including provisions for charter amendments.
• Council elections, open and televised meetings, public records, and multiple boards and commissions composed of citizens who advise and assist our city councils.
• Public fire, police, water and other basic municipal services.
• Municipal courts and citizen juries.
• A public library system.
• Public schools with an elected school board, active engagement of parents and even a student union.
• Labor unions of city workers, teachers and others.
• This publication, the Heights Observer, a volunteer, not-for-profit hyper-local news source.
• P.E.A.C.E. Park and other public spaces where events that build community occur.
• Vibrant groups of residents, such as Noble Neighbors and the Cain Park Neighborhood Association, who have formed to fight foreclosures and revitalize their neighborhoods.
• Community gardens and the City Fresh community supported agricultural (CSA) program.
• Nearby community credit unions, which, unlike banks, are member-owned and governed.
• Active social action or change organizations, including Sustainable Heights Network, Heights Community Congress, the Heights Coalition for Public Education, Reaching Heights and FutureHeights.

It’s all too easy to take the above examples for granted, even if some are not (yet) perfect democratic expressions. When we fail to utilize or be involved in them, they will wither and die or will be manipulated, eliminated, replaced or co-opted by corporations, top-down government and/or the powerful few.

To really make the Heights the “Heights of Democracy” will require us all to be actively engaged in strengthening our democratic infrastructure.

Guest columnist Greg Coleridge, a Cleveland Heights resident, is coordinator of the Move to Amend Ohio Campaign and writer of the blog Create Real Democracy ( He can be reached at

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