Giving Voice to People

17 December

Sometimes change takes years, sometimes it takes five minutes. Change can be hard to achieve, yet sometimes it comes easier than you dare to think.

Improving democracy can be a daunting task. Well tried procedures and institutions are in place for good reasons and should thus not be reformed without careful consideration. Sometimes, institutions are lacking completely, and need to be invented from scratch. Emancipation and empowerment demands a well thought and well-articulated struggle, both to tackle the apathy and hopelessness of those without a voice, and to stand up the vested interests of those in charge. In other words, the process of societal change is unavoidably complex and demanding. This realization is at the core of the IYTT endeavour, in response to which we have invented our signature democracy innovation process, the Bottom-Up Policy Advise Loop.

But improving democracy can also be as easy as putting two chairs facing each other on the street. This simple but brilliant idea was hatched by our Youth Fellow Michele Castrezzati when the IYTT visited Athens this September. Said and done, borrowing two chairs from a restaurant in the crowded Monastiraki Square, the IYTT team started talking to anyone and everyone willing. Armed with nothing but a few open ended questions and complimentary drinks for the citizens they were about to engage with, our Youth Fellows took turns sitting on one of the chairs, while the others gently prodded passers-by to sit down and open their hearts and minds. Participants were asked to share their views on democracy, their perceived opportunities as individuals and citizens and how they feel that they might be empowered to a greater degree.

These “Open Chair Democracy Talks” was an instant success, and has become a recurring feature in the think tank. On the 8 and 9 December, Youth Fellows Lisa Mastiaux, Lisa Lundgren and Daniel H. Urquijo arranged two Open Democracy Talks, the first in a suburb to Gothenburg, Sweden, at the shopping mall Frölunda Torg, and the second one, in down town Gothenburg, in the recess of the Nobel Week Dialogue event. In the same week, between 5 and 13 December, Youth Fellows Victoria Portnaya and Valeria Lavrentyeva arranged Open Chair Democracy Talks in Moscow, Russia. For fear of reprisals and for the safety of the participants, the Moscow talks were conducted online, somewhat away from the eyes of the public and the authorities.

In Sweden though, freedom of speech is generally considered an inviolable right. Thus, it came as a shock when our Open Chair Democracy Talk at Frölunda Torg was interrupted by security guards forcing us to leave the premises. We explained that our purpose was to give voice and hope to those unheard, something we believed to be sorely needed in a suburb like Frölunda. Our appeals were in vain, the guards claimed to be “just following orders”. Luckily, at that point, we had already been able to gather a good amount of citizens’ voices. The explanation we got afterwards from management rested on that one big argument that claims the power to shut down all deliberation: “Security”. The confrontation and it’s aftermath reminds us how great the need is for citizen empowerment through democracy innovation, even in a long-established democracy like Sweden.

Open Chair Democracy Talk in Monastiraki Square, Athens

Open Chair Democracy Talk at Frölunda Torg near Gothenburg.

Our impressions from talking to all these people are many, varied and thought provoking. The different venues and locations show both similarities but also great differences. In Gothenburg, the select audience at the Nobel Week Dialogue, were easier to attract and to get started talking than were the passers- by of the shopping mall Frölunda Torg. It became clear that some reluctance was due to the fear that the organizers might be critical to democracy or have an anti-democratic agenda. As Youth Fellow Daniel H. Urquijo reflected: “These exchanges were telling of our times. The rise of conspiracies and extremism have turned democracy into a political weapon in Europe—for many, wanting to talk about democracy implies being sceptical of it. Polarisation has transcended the left-right divide and come to encompass the entire notion of democracy.”

Once people start talking, whether it be an anonymous shopper waiting for the train or a university professor, people communicate their thoughts clearly, showing that you do not need to be an expert to talk about democracy. All the more striking, therefore, is the differences of confidence in, and obvious experience of, expressing opinion. One participant reflected on this very imbalance between different groups in society, stating that democracy can flourish only when everyone “is on board”, when everyone realizes that they are an important part for society to function. The experience of talking to people at two very different venues was an eye-opener to Youth Fellow Lisa Lundgren: “To make sure that caring for democracy doesn’t become a “project for the elites” is something we need to keep working on in IYTT. I feel inspired to continue to empower citizens and make everyone feel included in the political system and society.”

The experiences from Russia is different from those in Sweden. In Russia, reluctance in talking about democracy seem to be grounded in a very real fear of the authorities. One participant pointed out that even online you have to be careful to remove your own footprint, so not to be associated with the “wrong” person or cause. Most Russian participants expressed discontent with the current political situation and a desire for empowerment, liberation and democracy. This is paired however, with a feeling of hopelessness and a deep rooted idea that democracy might be impossible in a Russian context. As Youth Fellows Victoria Portnaya and Valeria Lavrentyeva sums it up: “The initial challenge of democratization is to convince people that their motherland can become a democracy. This however, becomes impossible since the ruling power will not allow itself to be contested and therefore represses all political manifestations of the citizens.” This is the catch 22: To bring about democracy you need to believe in it, but how can you believe in something that is so evidently fragile when pitched against a de facto autocratic state.

So why Open Chair Democracy Talks? First of all: It’s easy. They can be performed anywhere, anytime, and by anyone. Almost no preparation is needed, basically no costs are involved. All you need is two chairs (or the online equivalent) and the will to do it. Second, we believe this very simple device has the power to make a difference, giving both ourselves and the participants new perspectives. Concluding with the words of IYTT Director Urban Strandberg: “We are doing this to show the world how easy it is to provide voice to citizens who feel unheard. Every single individual talking to us will grow a little bit as individuals, and be a little bit empowered as citizens – this simply through experiencing that they have views and that it feels good to pronounce them”.

Open Chair Democracy Talk at the Nobel Week Dialogue at Svenska Mässan Gothenburg. Photography Anna Svanberg.

Open Chair Democracy Talk at the Nobel Week Dialogue at Svenska Mässan Gothenburg. Photography Anna Svanberg.