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Social Activist Says Democracy is Key to Solving Global Problems


For more than three decades, social activist Frances Moore Lappé has been on a quest for solutions to global problems, from poverty and hunger to political and corporate corruption. Lappé's most recent book, Getting a Grip, makes the case that democracy can be an important tool for solving such problems – and bringing about much-needed reform.

The scarcity of resources is considered a major cause of many of the problems facing people around the globe. But that argument doesn't seem convincing to social activist and author Frances Moore Lappé.

"We have to confront this myth of scarcity in order to create a world that we all want," she says.

According to Lappé, problems like hunger, poverty, environmental pollution and political corruption occur because people do not share responsibility and accountability. That shared social investment, she says, is the essence of democracy, even more than holding elections.

"We understand that just having the right structure in place – say elections, multiple parties, and a market economy – does not itself guarantee democracy." she explains. "Democracy is the voice of people really shaping their own future, shaping the policies that create our world."

In her latest book, Getting A Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad, Lappé says democracy is a practice that can be learned.

"So what I talk about in Getting A Grip is the shift from democracy as simply a structure that we inherit, that requires very little of us – maybe voting, and that's not even required, and shopping, participating in the economy – that that's not enough," she says. "Actually human beings are hard-wired to enjoy being in a community and contributing to a community and carrying responsibility. In fact, the root meaning of the word 'community' is the sharing of duties."

In her book, Lappé outlines what she calls "the 10 arts of democracy." They include the arts of listening, negotiation, political imagination, public judgment and mentoring. Among them also is the art of creative conflict, which means the ability to negotiate differences.

"Coming together with different points of view is the essence of democracy," she says. "Totalitarianism is when differences are not recognized and appreciated. So, a key art of democracy is recognizing that conflict is inevitable and good, because that means that different points of view are being expressed. And when diverse views come together, you get better, much better solutions than a top-down imposition of just the most powerful view.

It's essential for society to train individuals early on to master these arts, Lappé says. Her organization, The Small Planet Institute, is helping translate these principles into reality in thousands of U.S. schools.

"Young people are actually being trained in one key art of democracy in their schools. It's called mediation," she says. "They are trained to mediate differences among their peers so that you don't have to just run to the authority figure, the teacher, to solve the problem."

Lappé calls this "democracy for the very young."

She says organizations also can create a work environment that encourages participation.

"From a small social benefit organization like mine – The Small Planet Institute – on up to national governments and the UN, the key is how you empower the best in individuals so that they feel they have a voice," she says. "And often it comes to very simple and yet empowering cultural practices that any organization can do. At the end of every meeting, you ask everyone to share, to feel that their views count."

When the whole society embraces a democratic culture, Lappé says, people will be able to identify their own problems and find the solutions.

"I'm a great admirer of what they are doing in the Indian State of Kerala, because it's very much based on this idea of democracy as something we engage in not just vote people to do to us or for us," she says. "They just had, a few years ago, a massive literacy campaign where it was very much people teaching their neighbors literacy and engaging people in planning, and especially women, bringing women in, in setting goals for the communities for healthcare and jobs, based on the interests of people."

Lappé says she also admires the Scandinavian countries where higher levels of political participation have led to a greater sense of well-being.

"You may note that the Scandinavian country Denmark is the highest-ranking in the world by happiness," she says. "You might think that is an unusual way to measure success, but of course this is the ultimate way to measure 'are we satisfied with our lives?"

Frances Moore Lappé says democracy is a journey that has no end. It evolves and gets more exciting as more people join in. Taking that journey, she says, is the only way the people of this planet will solve their problems and create the life they all desire.

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