Ten years ago, I became concerned about the health of democracy in this country, especially at the local level. Lasting to midnight and beyond, City Hall meetings were often tyrannized by a noisy few who claimed to represent the will of the people. Democracy was a mess, and I felt obligated to use whatever skills I had to try to help.
After various experiments, my wife and I started a nonprofit called KitchenDemocracy.org. We wanted to add a new channel for participation, one which would enable busy people to participate in City Hall discussions without needing to attend meetings until midnight. We envisioned a process where citizens could quickly learn about issues both from their elected officials and from their neighbors. We wanted people to be free to express their opinions—anonymously if desired—knowing that they would not be personally attacked for those views. We even dreamed that ordinary citizens could suggest agenda items—and select the best ones democratically—so that the entire process could be democratic and transparent.
Thanks to a circle of 10 volunteers—and the active participation of elected officials including Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore, we’ve made significant progress. More than 20 important issues have been discussed by more than 2,100 residents in a peaceful, civil process. We are thrilled to see many of those discussions influencing discourse at City Hall, and even more thrilled to see this quiet revolution grow; Oakland Councilmember Pat Kernighan and Kensington Board Director Bill Wright have introduced Kitchen Democracy to their communities.
Our progress has not been without controversy. Affluent residents are overrepresented on Kitchen Democracy, leading some to believe that it represents the vested interests of the wealthy. While the affluent do indeed participate more than the poor, this is true not only for Kitchen Democracy. Unfortunately, this problem is endemic to our political system; just look who actually votes in elections.
The good news is that Kitchen Democracy makes government accessible to anyone who uses a computer, including those at the public library. Because going online is considerably easier than attending late-night meetings, we believe Kitchen Democracy makes the democratic process more inclusive of a diverse range of participants. In fact, Kitchen Democracy issues typically attract participation from 10 times as many people as agenda items discussed solely in council chambers. More importantly, it appears that this is true for participants from the poorest district to the most affluent.
Perhaps because of our progress, City Hall faces another controversy. It is accused of giving too much weight to the opinions expressed on Kitchen Democracy, most notably on the Wright’s Garage issue at Ashby and College. If true, City Hall made a mistake. Kitchen Democracy is but one of several channels for participation. To give that channel special influence is as grievous an error as giving special influence to any one person.
As a co-founder and head of Kitchen Democracy, I want to emphasize that Kitchen Democracy is not intended to replace existing channels of participation. Nor does it represent the definitive voice of the people—no single channel does. Instead, Kitchen Democracy augments existing channels to make our democratic process more inclusive, to better inform decision makers and to build a stronger democracy.
Our progress indicates that people want more options to participate—bigger, more comfortable meeting rooms, options for the home-bound to participate with or without anonymity, more online sources of information and participation. Given our limited resources, Kitchen Democracy will do what we can to help grow a thousand channels for participation and inclusion. We invite all of Berkeley to join us in that effort.
Robert Vogel is a co-founder of KitchenDemocracy.org.