Rhiana Gunn-Wright On Participatory Democracy - The Years Project

Rhiana Gunn-Wright On Participatory Democracy

By Maya Lilly

“I thought I was taking a job. I didn’t realize that I would be fighting for the soul of America.”

This is something Rhiana Gunn-Wright remarked to me in passing. I had the joy of working with the intellect behind the Green New Deal on a series of digital videos recently, and she was everything I’ve come to expect from grassroots organizers: Warm, inclusive, and incredibly knowledgeable. We had a sisterhood from the start because, well, we were the only sisters in the room. She also reminded me of why participatory democracy and equity is so important, despite that it’s the piece of the Green New Deal that’s least understood. Rhiana believes everyone should have a place at the table to create policy, but particularly frontline communities.

When policy is created, it’s done in this insular way with majority white and older staff, think tanks, lobbyists and agencies. Rhiana reminded me that policy isn’t apolitical. When we’ve chosen a policy instrument, we’re also saying “these are the power relationships that I either want to stay the same or that I want to disrupt.”  For example, if you go to frontline communities and say, “Hey, here’s a policy. What do you think about it?” often you’re asking them to assent to power relationships that they don’t want in place anymore. But since the policy is already written, you’re not going to take it all apart. And so, even if there are objections, that still generally is what moves forward.  So then it’s left to the frontline communities, the folks who are directly impacted, to organize outside and push back on that policy, which is not fair.

What I’ve learned from my work on previous projects with Black Lives Matter is that communities of color wanted to build up the work of the marginalized and disenfranchised within their movements, moving away from the top-down, predominately male leadership structures. Ella Baker once said, “Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader,” and what she meant was a disinvestment from the notion of one charismatic (usually male) leader who shows the path in the long dark night to others. I’ve heard many Black Lives Matter leaders refer to their organizations as “leaderfull” not leaderless. These are the frontline communities. Who could be more expert than the people dealing with an issue day in and day out? That would be what my Jamaican father would call “street smart.”

The reason Rhiana was hired to work on the Green New Deal was because they wanted someone accustomed to eliciting and respecting feedback from frontline communities, as well as someone who thought about things not just as single issues, but as a system that cuts across many elements.  That’s why the Green New Deal talks about equity, because climate and the environment are intrinsically wrapped up in equity issues. The clearest way I’ve heard it explained is this: 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. The war on the planet has been a war of extraction for wealth purposes. Climate change has always been bound to a history of class war and colonialist violence.  When we say “extractionist economy,” it’s pointing a finger right at how we’ve extracted the wealth from poor people, communities or countries, enriching our own Global North nations, leaving those industries behind to poison the Earth. Extractivism is literally the process of extracting natural resources from the Earth to sell on the world market. Think about a time you know of when the United States has done that, and I’ve taken away your whole afternoon. 

And then the former colonies, poor folk or communities of color are left to suffer the consequences of living with the first impacts. As a recent article pointed out: “The staggering income inequality in the United States has produced a situation where the poor are destined to drown in the floods caused by the rich.”

Involving the people first to drown is in everyone’s best interests, not only for life’s sake, but also because you create stronger policies when you consult with people who can simply say, “Hey, that actually won’t work on the ground for these reasons.” Policy wonks aren’t always privy to that information…look at what happened in Flint. People in Flint communities knew that the water was off immediately, but they were not heard.  The decision to switch the water source did not involve the community. They didn’t even engage experts in Flint who had worked on that water system who could have warned them against it. But if you’d brought those folks in from the beginning, it likely would have changed the decisions and outcome.

We don’t need an Einstein to solve the problem. We don’t need a Martin Luther King Jr. One person is not going to figure out how to solve this issue on their own with a magical silver bullet.  This is going to need everyone’s knowledge to solve, at all levels of society, with all industries, and particularly with those communities hit hardest and first.

Rhiana is clear as a bell in her understanding of these issues.

And of course she is. She is now on the frontline of the climate fight herself.