Talking Democracy from the Suburbs to the City and back again

22 June

A couple of weeks ago, the IYTT contributed with two Open Chair Democracy Talks (OCDTs) to ’Järvaveckan’, a significant political event in Sweden. The first, rather mobile, OCDT was organized along each stop at Stockholm’s blue metroline. The second OCDT took place the following day at Järvafältet, which is the main location for the events during Järvaveckan.

On Saturday morning we woke up early to begin our OCDT at Hjulsta metro station, which is one of the end stations of the blue metro line. We prepared for a long day full of democracy talks, intending to get off at each of the 14 stops of the metro line and talk to 3-5 people at each stop, about their views on democracy. This format allowed us to talk with people in poorer areas, as well as some of the most wealthy areas in Sweden. It went well, although it was more demanding than we first thought. 14 stations times 3-5 people at each stop resulted in a lot of conversations and even more refusals. One hot topic during these talks was NATO. Many used Sweden’s application to join NATO as an example of how they do not feel listened to by politicians because no referendum was held on the issue. In addition, many demanded more transparency, better information and education regarding the parties and the political system, as well as more cross-party collaborations on important issues. It was very interesting and valuable to hear from people from different parts of society.

The second OCDT took place at Järvackan, a significant political event in Sweden where politicians, parties, companies and NGOs participate each year. It went well even though we had a hard time hearing what people were saying because of another, musical event, in our tent. Compared to the day before, it was easier to get people to talk to us at Järvaveckan because visitors and participants already had a certain interest in democracy and social issues. Many of the attendees were politically involved or at least politically interested and showed a large interest in our organization. We could have longer conversations with the people of Järvaveckan since they were not stressed on the way to a train and in general, we received more detailed answers from them, than from the people along the blue line.

One of our main reflections from this weekend is that people were not particularly enthusiastic about talking to us about democracy. Earlier this year we did an OCDT in Charlotte in the United States and over there we experienced that people were grateful to have their thoughts aired (about what they often decribed as their dying democratic system). In Sweden, however, the OCDTs do not seem to have the same effect. Instead of creating a feeling of being listened to or a clear sense of empowerment, we feel like our democracy talks mainly made the people of Stockholm feel like they were doing us a favour by stopping by to answer our questions. It made us feel like we were solely conducting a survey. The amount of people who turned us down also contributed to the feeling of being a seller of some unwanted product. We figure that the reason for this lack of interest could be that democracy is taken for granted here in Sweden. Many Swedes feel that influence over their own lives and influence over politics is obvious. However, some people seemed worried that their answers or opinions would not be ‘good enough’, as if they wanted to impress us or assure us that they were knowledgeable in matters of democracy and politics.

We got to hear various reasons for why people did not want to stay and talk to us. In suburban areas like Rinkeby, many said that they could not speak Swedish (or English). In areas closer to the center, many said that they did not have time. This could probably have been avoided by not performing the OCDT close to metro stations, and instead choosing a spot where people are more relaxed, such as a park or a town square.

Lastly, we have both reflected on what function we believe that the conversations have. For those who do not have many people to talk to, it must have been nice to be able to express thoughts and opinions to a complete stranger who does not pass any judgement. Furthermore, we think and hope that the questions we ask stay in people’s minds for a couple of minutes, or hours, or days after the OCDT with us. Hopefully they continue to reflect on these issues which are crucial for society and share their reflections with loved ones. In this way, the empowerment of citizens can pass on forward.

The fact that a lot of people said no to talking to us about democracy shall not only be interpreted as that they are already satisfied with how Swedish democracy works – it can also be an indication of a low level of interest for democracy and politics in Sweden, which is problematic indeed. Therefore, we hope that our OCDTs, no matter how long or short the conversations were, left people feeling powerful, smart and as an important part of society.

See the results from the OCDT at the blue metro line here.

See the results from the OCDT at Järvaveckan here.

Petter Rodebjer & Lisa Lundgren

Youth Fellows