Community participation in public affairs is indispensable in the building of a peaceful society. Fellows explored the intricate relationship between peace, direct participation, community and democracy with two guest speakers, Susi Law, then a district councillor of the Oi Kwan constituency in Wan Chai and Warren Luk, CEO of Good Lab.
What is Participatory Democracy?
Each one of us is a member of multiple communities, e.g. the clan we are born into, the housing estate we live in, sports teams, interests clubs, circles of friends and electoral constituencies. In each community, there are public affairs that affect most of or a significant cross-section of its members. Participatory democracy is an approach that encourages members to engage in the deliberation and decision-making of public affairs.
Different communities engage their members in different and multiple ways, depending on the time and resources available, the importance of the issues in question, etc. However, meaningful engagement must have three key elements - equity, so every member has equal access to the process; accessibility, such that information is available and comprehensible to different members; and accountability, to ensure that opinions and concerns raised by members are earnestly and constructively taken into consideration.
Meaningful engagement of the community fosters trust between members, empowers members and enhances the sense of ownership of the decision among members. Common forms of participatory democracy include citizens assembly, national issues forums, planning charrettes and participatory budgeting.
From ‘Sharism’ to Participatory Budgeting
Before being elected to office, Susi Law, an artist by training, was a manager of Art & Culture Outreach (ACO), an art bookstore and gallery space at Foo Tak Building. In that role, she engaged with many artists and fostered an art community in and outside Foo Tak Building. She ran for office in the 2019 District Council elections with a view to extend ‘sharism’, the practice of sharing ideas, space and the love of art in the context of Foo Tak Building, and with the wider Wan Chai community.
During her term on the District Council, Susi and fellow councillors implemented several initiatives to improve accessibility and accountability. They included the formation of working groups on Improving Transparency of Wan Chai District Council and on Implementing Participatory Budgeting’ which used social media platforms for live broadcasting of District Council meetings, and workshop exercises like Listening Circles, for residents to discuss matters of community concerns. The district council was the first in Hong Kong to take on participatory budgeting, with a series of workshops and seminars on how to develop project ideas that would benefit the community. Project ideas that sourced from the community would then be shared with and discussed within the community and those that received the most support from the community would be allocated with a budget in the district, and the public will be invited to submit applications to implement the project. Through such practices of community participation, members of the community became more empowered and willing to share their views and visions of the community with each other.
Innovate Solutions for Social Issues
“How is your relationship to your community?” asked Warren.
Fellows’ answers to that question differed but all shared the desire to get closer to their communities. Warren shared how Good Lab, a ‘think-and-do’ tank for social innovation, co-created with community members solutions that addressed community needs. This approach is based on the conviction that people are the solution.
Co-creation puts the community at the centre of the decision-making process. A key first step is to ask ‘why’. This line of questioning yields insight into what and how others see, hear, think and feel. More importantly, this approach builds trust with the community.
In Warren’s experience, it is crucial to remember always who the ‘users’ are, what their needs are and to involve them in testing prototypes throughout the process. In engaging the community this way, the stakeholders gain a stronger sense of ownership as well as the capacity to bring about change.
Peacebuilding in Community
The first-hand experiences of Susi and Warren inspired the Fellows. It showed them that change in the community requires participation of members of the community. Meaningful participation is a building block of positive peace.