How “the community” undermines the goals of participatory democracy


by Jeremy R. Levine

In May of 2013, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) hosted a public meeting in the low-income neighborhood of Upham’s Corner. The purpose was to solicit input about bike lanes, traffic congestion, and other transportation issues. The meeting resembled similar rituals of participatory democracy that have become increasingly common in poor neighborhoods across the United States: Residents came together with policymakers and collectively debated an issue of public importance.

In theory, participation enables democracy and empowers citizens by incorporating their unique knowledge into public decision-making. But in practice, participation can fall short of these lofty goals.

At the meeting in Upham’s Corner, a transportation consultant contracted by the BRA presented plans to consolidate two bus stops in the neighborhood. The state transportation authority had already committed to the consolidation; the consultant was just explaining the change as background context for her additional recommendations.

Residents at the meeting were both unaware of and upset at the news. Cedric, an African American resident in his forties, argued that the bus stops were important for “this community.”  The consultant responded that a “robust public participation process” had already occurred, and during that process, “people were invited to submit comments.” There were public meetings, she claimed, “and this was ultimately the decision that was made with the consensus of the community working with the City of Boston, and working with the [state transportation authority].”

Residents at the meeting raised concerns about the alleged “robust public participation process” that resulted in “the consensus of the community.” One claimed, “[W]ith all this community input, I was never invited. I didn’t even know it was going on.” Cedric agreed, concerned that “the citizens that’s being affected by this are not being made abreast of this until after the fact.” He added, “That plan there, I see all the complications that’s going to come with it. For the community. That’s going to affect the community. You know, as residents.”

Their objections were fruitless. An official from the BRA shrugged his shoulders and claimed that the consultants were simply relaying the information. The transportation authority, he said, “[already] went through a public process.” As the consultant had articulated, the decision was made “with the consensus of the community.” There would be no further discussion.

Resident resistance was similarly shut down when the conversation shifted to parking. The transportation consultant presented the benefits and disadvantages of resident-only on-street parking. “It’s a trade-off,” she casually observed. Cedric grew irritated. He shouted, “I don’t believe—see, you’re saying it’s a ‘trade-off.’ I don’t believe it’s a ‘trade-off’ when you’re coming into someone’s community and you’re telling me I have to… take it or leave it.”  He argued that, “as a resident,” the consultant’s trade-offs were unacceptable.

Cedric’s attempt to elevate the value of his argument—clarifying that he is a resident, objecting to the consultant “coming into someone’s community”—was met with deference to “the community.” The BRA official placated Cedric by claiming that these parking stipulations were not the ideas of the consultants; they emerged from “the community.”

Indeed, the official noted with another shrug, “The context that got this all started here, came out of the community vision…We’re not just throwing this out, pie in the sky. This started percolating at these community visions a lot of people had.” He added dismissively, “If any of this is implemented, it’s got a lot of community process to happen.” Everyone in the room agreed that a “community process” was necessary before any final decision could be made. The discussion then moved to other topics; Cedric slumped in his chair and did not respond.

This scene underscores a central puzzle in the literature on participatory democracy: Increased participation has not necessarily resulted in increased influence. To make sense of this puzzle, I observed 76 “community meetings” in Boston. Drawing on theories of symbolic boundaries, floating signifiers, and notions of the common good, I argue that subtle, routine cultural processes can undermine residents’ power in participatory governance.

When poor urban residents, urban planners, and government officials reference “the community” in discussions of redevelopment planning, they draw on the classification’s favorable evaluative connotations. “The community” represents more than a place or a group of people; it signifies the common good, a valued entity. On the surface, residents like Cedric appear empowered due to their membership in the valued space of “the community.”

However, the boundary demarcating “the community” lacks a standardized definition; residents and government officials both accept the positive value of “the community” but implicitly rely on different definitions when they interact. “Community” can signify feelings of solidarity and cohesion (e.g., “sense of community”), a racial group (e.g., “the black community”), a specific group of people (e.g., people attending a meeting), a spatial territory (e.g., a neighborhood), or a particular people in a particular place (e.g., residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods).

Because residents and government officials accept each definition, complete membership in “the community” is unachievable; alternative definitions are innumerable and indisputable. As a result, the inherently vague classification and ever-shifting boundary of membership can, paradoxically, delegitimize individuals who might otherwise qualify as in-group members under alternative definitions.

For Cedric, “the community” meant both a place ( “you’re coming into someone’s community”) as well as a group of people in a place (“That’s going to affect the community. You know, as residents.”). But the BRA official and consultant responded to his concerns by referring to “the community” as an abstract general public that attends, or will attend, community meetings. Dissenting residents like Cedric were disempowered since they did not contribute to the previous “consensus of the community,” and by default, have not yet attended any future “community process.”

When “the community” is a vague ideal, officials cannot be held accountable to a specific group or population. Officials can publicly praise “the community,” go through the motions of a  “community process,” and then claim due diligence for satisfying residents’ needs. In other words, when officials laud the abstract moral significance of “the community,” they can circumvent participating community members without appearing to do so. “The community” is effectively reduced to a bureaucratic procedure, and as a result, the act of participation is decoupled from the promise of decision-making power.

Like “community,” concepts such as “democracy,” “partnership,” “empowerment,” “grassroots,” and even “participation” evoke notions of the common good without relying on static definitions. They can also disempower citizens; to be a member of the “grassroots” depends on who defines “grassroots,” and how they define the concept. My study pushes us to examine how these and other concepts are used as political tools. Clearly, there is plenty more for future research to unpack.

Jeremy R. Levine is Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan.

This article summarizes findings from “The Paradox of Community Power: Cultural Processes and Elite Authority in Participatory Governance” in Social Forces.

 Image: Housing Bronzeville via Flickr

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