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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

A Growing Democracy Project

October 8, 2020
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A word before getting to this nutshell description of the project. I began working on this after the 2016 elections. The idea began percolating about 15 years ago during a period when I was disabled health wise. One thought kept needling me: we just don't know how to do democracy yet. The project has come together over the past four years by way of writing a workbook for the project. I am in the final stages of finishing that workbook, and beginning to set up a website. So what follows is like a sneak preview. Would love to hear any and all responses to it.




The Growing Democracy Project in a Nutshell


The Growing Democracy Project (GDProject) is a cultural and political program for developing a legion of everyday citizens who can generate sufficient collective power to make democracy the dominant political force in our country.

The strategy is to grow abundant, persistent, and effective citizen action to solve shared problems at all levels of our society.

The means is the continuous development of participants’ “habits of the heart” and skillful democratic practices. From this perspective it is a learning organization for enabling them to move, more and more overtime, from a mindset of scarcity, inadequacy, and fear to one in which they experience themselves as sufficient and prosocial.

To be clear, the GDProject is not about solving specific problems. It is about developing the motivations, dispositions, and skills for everyday citizens to address common problems together. That is, their capacity to govern themselves at all levels of interaction—one-to-one, group, community, organization, society.

This Project, like all projects, is a bet. More on this at the end.


The Vision

The Growing Democracy Project will become an extensive network of autonomous Transformative Communities of Democratic Practice (TCs, for short). Participants will learn with and through each other to grow the cultures they need to support, promote, and even demand their personal and collective development.

The Growing Democracy Network (GDN) will be a web of networks serving three objectives:  

  • providing a transformative educational system for the TCs;
  • carrying out in-depth, participatory Research & Development for using Transformative Learning (TL) methodologies; and
  • coordinating the overall project.

All of this will be for people deeply attracted to the values and ambitions of liberal democracy. Hopefully, they will come from across the political spectrum—purple, blue, red, and otherwise—as well as the spectrums of skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.

The goal is effective collective action to solve shared problems. As it grows it can become an active political force at all levels of our society.

Imagine 20,000 such transformative communities emerging across the country over the next 30 years. This would be something like 300,000 people from across the political spectrum. Networked together and connected with many other civic organizations, they would make a major difference in our political system.

This poses a critical question: Is this a project that we can do to the scale envisioned here? Not yet. The GDProject is a beginning, not an answer. It will take a substantial organizing and R&D effort to grow its capacity to develop and connect legions of citizens who can care and think reflectively. This calls for commitment, money, persistence, an innovative structure, and much love for the work it will involve.


Assumptions and Convictions


There are a number of convictions (or assumptions) underlying this project. An important one is that we are a biocultural species. We are inseparably our biology (body) and culture (mind). They are distinct forces, but inseparably woven together in our bodies and in every facet of social life. These two forces shape what we are and how we see ourselves, and we are also the shaper of those forces. This dynamic drives human development. Since we use them to become who and what we are, and we also need to use them for becoming who and what we want to become. In this context, ideologies are important but secondary phenomena.


An overarching conflict

Another conviction holds that our long and complicated biocultural history has left us with two primary political modes: domination and democracy. They are mostly contradictory forces working against each other. This dynamic underlies our endless struggling—personal and collective. It drives our personal lives as well as our politics. The novelist William Faulkner captured it in this simple phrase: “the human heart in conflict with itself.”


The Core Elements

The core elements of the GDProject are several:

  • Root Democracy
  • Culture-building
  • Transformative Learning (TL)
  • GD Network
  • Participatory Action Research & Development
  • Agency
  • Loving


Root Democracy

From the perspective of the GDProject democracy is primarily a way of living and relating. A cognitive understanding of democracy by itself is insufficient for understanding democracy. It must be lived as a reflexive practice. This is the path to success for the sculptor and the plumber. When we have a significant number of citizens living and developing democracy as a way of life, we can get to a solidly democratic way of governing our country. Not before. In spite of the stories we tell ourselves, we are not yet there. There is a long, long way to go.

So how do we get going?

In this project people from across the spectrums will be consciously and persistently growing a culture that is predominantly democratic. It will embed democratic dispositions and practices in its citizens so that they come to embody democracy more and more in all of their relating.

Teachers, medical people, musicians, carpenters, and others who love their work keep learning it as they practice their craft. They don’t simply teach, nurse, or play their viola. They keep becoming teachers, nurses, and musicians more fully.

It’s the same with being a committed citizen. Embodying, practicing, and discovering democracy as a way to live and relate is what we call root democracy.

By using a cultural strategy the Growing Democracy Project would build the long-term structures for this learning and empowerment.



We humans become who we are through our cultures. If our original culture is not adequately up to the task, then we can develop one to do what we want it to do. I know this can be done because I have been part of a small group that has been at it for 40 years. And I know we are far from being the only ones.

The GDProject will organize itself primarily by building a network of small but deeply democratic cultures, the TCs. These will be places where interested people can become the powerful and responsible citizens they want to be.

The project’s cultural foundation will emerge and develop through diverse groups coming together—face-to-face—in a conscious way in a variety of settings. They would grow small communities—like 10 to 20 people—around developing more democratic dispositions and practices together. Various settings would include community centers, civic organizations, unions, businesses, churches, etc.

Culture-building of this kind is a radically new breed of community organizing. Members of the TCs must be both learners and developers of this approach. The Growing Democracy Network will, therefore, carry out an ongoing R&D program of active participants and involved social scientists and civic organizations. It will also be the coordinating unit for the Project.


Transformative Learning (TL)

To move toward becoming a deeply democratic country we need a multitude of these TCs networked together. Their primary job is developing deeply democratic people. People who can hear, think, love, manage pain, and take risks. People who experience themselves as sufficient beings regardless of whatever oppression they have experienced or performed. People who can learn to recognize when they are preaching rather than listening; holding on to old ideas rather than thinking; habitually protecting self rather than reaching out to connect; avoiding loss or failure rather than embracing risk.

How would we, everyday citizens, become such people?

Members in the GDProject will use a variety of transformative learning processes within their culture-growing communities to make this possible. This will be the core work of the Growing Democracy Project.

TL embraces a variety of developmental methodologies. These are designed so people can discover ways for taking who they are now as a beginning point, and then move towards taking greater charge of becoming the kinds of people and citizens they want to become.

Citizens in the GDProject would use TL to learn to think critically, to want to listen and understand others, especially when there is conflict, and to be willing to move into one’s vulnerabilities by speaking her relevant responses to what she is taking in. In two words, speaking truth to one another, face-to-face as well as we can and learning how to do it better. Then wanting to hear back the responses to what we put out.

These abilities are both empowering and deeply prosocial. They enable small groups to care for one another, to hold each other accountable, and to think together. When a group puts all of this together, they can act with an empowered mutuality on the public problems that concern them.

This potential is inherent in the nature of small groups. It is why, when she was asked, Margaret Meade said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.


Partners in Health began as three college graduates volunteering in Haiti in 1983 and becoming a powerhouse of a small organization transforming critical segments of the world health system.

The Achuar people in Ecuador are an intact, prosperous, healthy, and incredibly wise ancient indigenous culture. They grasped the need to transform their life in order to protect their culture from being colonized, save the Amazon, and help achieve global shifts in how humans relate to Mother Earth. In 1995 they initiated the outreach and conversations that became an international force among the environmental movements, the Pachamama Alliance

The challenge he GDProject is taking on is how to grow this kind of dynamic Mead identified to scale. We have the capacity to do this, but we don’t know how to develop it to scale. This is why Participatory Action Research is absolutely essential for the success of this project. The GDNetwork will be the structure to house this work.



Here’s a fourth core element: We are agents in our personal and collective lives who are also shaped by forces outside of ourselves. We have to be shaped to fit into the world we are born into. We embody what it embeds. We go on to become active producers in our world through our livelihood and relationships.

But not only that.

We also become producers and transmitters of that world itself. A few of us become change agents in our world. So, who and what we are will always be a prime shaper of ourselves and our world. This inherent personal agency is the power source for the Growing Democracy Project.

For the most part, people don’t pay a lot of attention to our amazing agency. We focus mostly on getting on in the world as it is. Therefore, we don’t see the fullness of its potential or understand how it works personally and culturally. We don’t grasp that each of us comes into this world with a transformative potential to change our original conditioning in significant ways.

It is an inherent human capacity, regardless of how little this occurs and how little it has been developed as a conscious practice. We can change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself, personally and collectively. Who and what we are can become the primary target of our conscious cultural shaping. This is how we can transform ourselves and our politics. As a society we haven’t yet figured out how to do it. That is, how to consciously develop our transformative potential as a part of everyday living and learning. Therefore, the GDNetwork must serve as a participatory R&D program.

Our society is, however, on the cusp of doing that. The academy is producing remarkable new information and knowledge of how we use our biocultural self to do what we do. A wonderful example of this is a book of applied cultural evolutionary thinking, PROSOCIAL: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.

A vast range of methodologies for transformative learning has evolved since the 1940s. A Transformative Edge came out in 2020, and provides an extensive overview of them.

Since the 1970s there have been community organizing projects of scale, such as the West/Southwest IAF, that have informally incorporated transformative learning as an essential part of their organizing practice. They call it relational power.

Global networks of transformative learning such as the Presencing Institute out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the European based Possibility Management have emerged over the past 15 years.



Finally, there is loving. To love is to let go of blaming; to blame is to let go of loving. Loving is a force that seeks to unite what is separated. In its many forms it is the best of ourselves. Each of us is a distinct being just like everything else. But everyone and everything is, at the same time, connected. And everything and everyone are also absolutely precious.

We were born to connect and be connected. However, two factors make this very difficult, to say the least. Both generate an abundance of pain, ignorance, fear, and violence. First, we are physically fragile. We are always at the edge of serious harm and death.

Second, we have all grown up deeply impacted by disrespect, loss, tragedy, and abuse. Early traumas and the faulty conclusions we draw on how to cope with them become embodied. Once embodied we strongly tend to reproduce and transmit them. Trauma begets trauma.

Domination is a primary source of the worst of ourselves. When it overrides our relating, we call it patriarchy. When it possesses our way of governing, we call it plutocracy or oligarchy. At all levels of our relating is selfishness overriding the common good.

We are all of this: the best and the worst, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The core work of the Growing Democracy Project will be to grow the best of ourselves to manage and transform the worst of ourselves. We need each other to do this.


The Bet

The Growing Democracy Project, like all projects, is a bet. This bet is that the American people in the 21st century can make their world far more democratic through a transformative cultural strategy. It’s a complex undertaking, but as a species we have already demonstrated we have the capacity for such undertakings.

One example: virtually everyone across the planet now participates in a system of exchange we call “money.” It has been a major tool for all of our economic development. Its foundation is cooperation and trust, not economic wizardry. We can think of money as a vast and complex social field in which everyone embodies the basic dispositions for participating in it. It is a unique product in the four billion years of life evolving on our planet.

It took us some 500,000 years to evolve the prosocial software—sharing intentions cooperation, reciprocity, trust, etc.— necessary to make a money system possible. The hardware—the economic wizardry—took a few thousand years. At the same time, due to our conflicted hearts, money is an ongoing battle field between our “haves” and “have-nots,” between our selfishness and loving, between being driven by a primal law of scarcity and a primal law of sufficiency. Our overarching conflict is right here in our wallets.

That same software is available to change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself. The necessary hardware is now beginning to emerge. The Growing Democracy project proposes a way to bring the two wares together.

It’s a bet worth making. In fact, one can argue that since the losses of our underdeveloped democracy are swirling around and over us, losing this bet can’t be all that bad, and winning it would be so sweet.

the commons


Martin Meteyard

Hi Michael, I love the idea of this project, and seriously wondering how it might be applied in the UK (though as it happens I myself am currently disabled health wise). Please keep me in touch as this project develops. Thanks, Martin

Harry Boyte

This is promising, and has resemblance to the citizenship schools of the civil rights movement which drew on the Scandinavian folk school tradition.

Alec Billroth

Love, charitable work, and fundraisers would indeed help with democracy. Income correlates with voter turnout. Voter turnout correlates with government redistribution of income. Note studies from Kim Quailie Hill, James Avery, Paul Martin, Dennis Mueller, Valentino Larcenese, Navid Sabet, Vincent Mahler, and Ioannis Theodossiou.

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