To See Takes Time: Re-Imagining Democracy and Its Future

After several years of headline-grabbing research, intensive strategy development, and project incubation, WDN’s Reflective Democracy Campaign has been a bit quiet as they develop the next phase of their work, centered around an experimental vehicle designed to meet the profound challenges of democracy-building in this moment. Campaign Director Brenda Choresi Carter explores the remarkable historical juncture we’re currently in and how the Campaign – a unique think tank with an action arm – is building on its pioneering work to break new ground.

By Brenda Choresi Carter, Director of WDN’s Reflective Democracy Campaign

The past few years have called for a fundamental reckoning with the question of American democracy – really, with the question of what it means for us to live collectively.  

Foundational assumptions have been proven false; it-could-never-happen-here scenarios have happened; and we are confronted by deep contradictions in our political system that were for too long ignored, suppressed, or minimized. 

Faced with this reality, and the inadequacy of existing strategy, we at the Reflective Democracy Campaign have been challenging ourselves to deeply examine our own work and possible paths forward. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished since we launched: we’ve produced first-of-its-kind data and analysis; changed the conventional wisdom about race, gender, and political power; established the concept of reflective democracy as a value and commonly-used framework; and incubated some of the most innovative recent democracy-building work through grants, fellowships, and projects investing in leaders and strategies with the ability and commitment to fundamentally challenge the system.  

We’re continuing to build on the foundation we’ve built, continuing our signature data analysis, seeding of critical work, and linking important leaders in the ecosystem. But we’ve concluded that simply continuing to do the same things we’ve done in the past – proud as we are of that work – is not sufficient. Indeed, we feel that the only path forward is to dive into the hardest questions, in all their messiness and uncertainty.  

So the Reflective Democracy team has embarked on a wide-ranging process of exploration, research, and discovery, pushing ourselves to deeply engage with the reality of our moment in new ways. To facilitate this process – a “jailbreak of the imagination,” to use Mariame Kaba’s words – we are centering our work around a new vehicle for experimentation and growth: the Reflective Democracy Lab. The Lab is a new arm of the Campaign that continues our history of developing bold new insights and strategies and meets the profound challenges of our moment with approaches that are more explicitly experimental, assumption-challenging, and category-busting.

The work of the Lab – and the Campaign more broadly – is based on a set of foundational beliefs, including:

  • We are at a remarkable historical juncture, in which the old institutions and norms are collapsing and new ones must be imagined and built.
  • There is an urgent need for spaces of feminist analysis and action, especially in light of the powerful role of gender and sexuality in authoritarian movements.
  • Ways of thinking and doing imbued with patriarchy and white supremacy got us here; those same forms, processes, and expectations are not our path to a different, liberated future.
  • A truly multiracial democracy has never before been built; those of us engaged in that project are attempting something profoundly new.
  • The challenge of building a true democracy is a creative problem as much as it is a problem of power and politics; something that has never before existed will not be brought into being with already-existing imaginative frameworks, methods, and tools.

Grounded in this understanding, the Reflective Democracy Campaign will, through the Lab and our other projects, identify, develop, and support new and unorthodox approaches, processes, and experiments. Some of this work will be funded through grants and fellowships; some will be collaborative projects with other organizations or take other forms. Some will look like more conventional democracy work; some will not.   

“Attempting to anticipate the future first requires really grasping the present in all its complexities. To do that, we must truly see the present as it actually is – not what we’ve been taught it is, what we hope it is, or what we’ve told ourselves it is.”

Our initial work is oriented around a few key questions, which we see as portals into rich and potentially revolutionary terrain. I offer a preview of those questions here, and I look forward to discussing them during my talk on October 18 (WDN members can RSVP here).

What do we see differently if we:

  • Understand that American democracy began in 1970, when women and people of color finally won a true right to vote, not in 1776 or 1789?
  • Grapple with democracy as an emotional project – one of joy, grief, rage, belonging, fear, conflict –  as much as a technical, rational project of laws, positions, rules, and policies?
  • Center creativity and creative process and look to other fields for methods, approaches, and wisdom to reimagine the work of democracy-building?
  • View the challenge of building democracy in the U.S. not just as a national project, but an aspect of an international project?
  • Think in terms of generations, centuries, and epochs, not years, election cycles, or even decades?

One of the most helpful descriptions of truly groundbreaking political thinking that I’ve encountered describes it as looking into the future through the contradictions of the present. Attempting to anticipate the future first requires really grasping the present in all its complexities. To do that, we must truly see the present as it actually is – not what we’ve been taught it is, what we hope it is, or what we’ve told ourselves it is. 

To quote Georgia O’Keeffe, to see takes time. Without time, we see what we expect to see, and we do what is familiar and urgent, yet ultimately inadequate. I feel very fortunate to be able to take the time needed to do justice to the complexities of our moment – to think and to dream, to see and to imagine, within the RDC team, with you as our collaborators, and with leaders and thinkers around the world. That kind of time – what Angela Davis calls “urgent slow time” – is all too rare in our movements. But it is the only kind of time that will get us to the future we need.

Brenda is hosting a talk with the Women Donors Network on October 18 at 11 am PT / 2 pm ET. If you’re a WDN member, RSVP here.

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