Rebuilding a functional democracy in America is an uphill battle

Record-high voter turnout at the midterms would seem to indicate a move toward a more functional democracy. But voting is not our only civic outlet and that’s a good thing. Because with 708 days to go until the next election we can and must do more than vote to heal the deep divisiveness, extremism and violence we are experiencing in the U.S. today.

Four in five Americans are concerned about the state of our democracy, but if voting is our only civic act, we remain reliant on our elected leaders to bridge these divides. The problem is that our election system all but requires those running for office to demonize their opponents and cultivate divisiveness.

{mosads}As a result, anxiety was one of the primary emotions at the polls this week; not a great starting place for healing. To truly rebuild our democracy, we’ll need to look outside the election cycle, to something more foundational: our communities. We need to forget our traditional image of a leader and remember that all of us have the power and responsibility to make real, lasting change.

We the people who live, work, play and worship in our communities are uniquely equipped to come up with solutions that make our neighborhoods more loving. Each of us carries wisdom about the people, places and histories that surround us and that wisdom positions us to lead solutions.

Of course, this leadership must be collective and anything collective is inherently messy. But to practice democracy is to strengthen some of our weakest muscles — listening to one another, overcoming difference and coming to a shared resolution. Real, meaningful, transformational change often starts simply and locally.

For example, in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s, Interstate 71 was built right through a neighborhood, splitting it into two and hastening a racial divide. On one side of the highway, the mostly white Campus District has enjoyed a resurgence of wealth and opportunity. The mostly black community on the other side has continued to struggle with poverty.

Witnessing this disparity less than a mile apart, artist Gwen Garth and organizer Kaela Geschke invited residents from both neighborhoods — some wealthy and white, others poor and black — to come together to talk openly about race and racism in Cleveland, every two weeks for six months. They called it the Bridge that Bridges and they were able to raise $2,115 to host the meetings.

They also spent the money on paint and brushes. The sessions culminated in the co-designing and painting a mural on the overpass that connects the two communities over I-71. The mural painting project served as a welcome mat to invite residents from one neighborhood into the other and was a physical representation of the two communities’ desires for a more equal and integrated future. More importantly, in fundraising and creating the mural, Gwen and Kaela heard from neighbors that this was the first time they had talked to residents of the other community.

Rather than focusing on what divides these neighborhoods, Gwen and Kaela saw the bridge. They used art — designing the mural and painting it together — as a tool for listening and resolution. As Gwen said, “It’s awfully hard to get mad at somebody when you’re painting. You forget your differences.”

Rebuilding a functional democracy in America is an uphill battle that will require our civic participation, both as voters and as neighbors. Talking with others in our communities, creating solutions together and reinvesting in the places we call home is a daily exercise; it keeps our civic muscles strong and is a critical first step to healing our communities.

Erin Barnes is an inaugural Obama Fellow and co-founder and CEO of, a non-profit that mobilizes neighbors with good ideas to become powerful citizen leaders who plan, fund and lead projects that make positive change in their own backyards.  


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