The Collective Wisdom and Action of Communities

July 6, 2016 | May Louie, Senior Fellow |

In our series on “What Community Democracy Means to Me,” Senior Fellow May Louie looks into community democracy as a right and a process, and shares her belief in the collective wisdom and action of communities.


My vision of true community democracy is…

Community democracy is, on the one hand, a right — the right of community members to collectively determine their community’s present and future. It’s self-determination on a local level. This is especially important in urban communities of color, working class and immigrant neighborhoods, which are subjected to the decisions and interests of outside institutions. In a truly democratic situation, power is more evenly distributed and those most impacted by a decision play the largest decision-making role.

Community democracy is also a process — one in which community members come together to engage, to form bonds, to define their collective hopes and dreams, and to work together towards those dreams.


What does this look like?

Community democracy looks like people at work on their own behalf, toward a vision that they create together. Like when different kinds of people come together and are activated, it is lively and multi-faceted. And it can messy and contentious. Community democracy includes all the ways and places that people come together to make things happen. But it takes time and commitment to build as people invest in the notion that we can accomplish more together than by competing with each other.

Every day places and gatherings, such as block associations and community gardens, nurture the relationships and networks crucial for community democracy. And this democracy has capacities, practices and infrastructure to help it function and develop. Two crucial capacities are community planning and community organizing — so that the community has the ability to convene people across a neighborhood’s diversity, to develop shared vision, to assess conditions, forces and trends, to set priorities and goals, and to engage in collective action and build power. In the course of this, the community develops methods, practices and culture. In this way, the community isn’t just exerting its right to make decisions, but has ways to make good collaborative decisions together. This all requires infrastructure that is created by, accountable to, and representative of the community.

And community democracy leads to better results, more relevant and deep changes, than the traditional top-down, outside-in, experts-to-the rescue approach. In the process of transforming our reality, we ourselves are transformed.

Community democracy is strongest when it entails more than civic democracy — encompassing more than participation in the political realm. The community’s decisions and progress are sustained when codified into structural changes — in other words, when formal power enters into the community’s hands. This could be in the form of formal agreements with government or institutional entities. It includes control over community land through vehicles like community land trusts or over a portion of the economy through locally owned energy systems or cooperative businesses.


What brought me to Community Democracy Workshop?

As a lifelong social justice activist, I believe in the collective wisdom and action of communities striving towards a shared vision of more equitable and just conditions. I’ve had the privilege of being part of truly inspiring neighborhood efforts — endeavors demonstrating courage, resilience, ingenuity — in the face of institutional interests and discriminatory public and private policies.

Community Democracy Workshop offers us the opportunity to support, enhance, learn from, and promote these kinds of efforts, as well as to learn the lessons from courageous and innovative attempts that were less successful.

Today, it is generally accepted within the community building field that community engagement, and particularly residents, should be incorporated into community change efforts. But the understanding of what this entails and how to go about it has yet to be fully developed and wrestled with.


What’s a big challenge I face in my work and what tools and practices have helped me along the way?

The work of transforming low-income urban neighborhoods is a complex one for which there is no road map. The prospects of making progress lies in acknowledging this, being deeply grounded in place and local relationships, unfolding local wisdom combined with innovative strategies utilized elsewhere. And progress requires the ability to try things, to learn, and to change course as results dictate.

Today’s funding environment does not encourage this kind of innovation and experimentation. It doesn’t reward learning. The requirement that strategies and programs be “evidence-based” assumes that the “field” knows all it needs to know to “solve” the “problems” of distressed communities (as well as other challenges such as the racial disparities in health outcomes or educational achievement). Much of what we need to tackle does not have “evidence” yet to point the way. Or the evidence is not relevant to our particular communities. To be true and full partners in this work of local change, funders must join this space of uncertainty and learning; they must be willing to grow and change along with the communities they support.

There is an emerging appreciation and body of work that helps illuminate this issue of complexity in place-based work, including the work of The Aspen Roundtable on Community Change, the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, and others.


May Louie is a senior fellow at Community Democracy Workshop. She is a visiting practitioner and curriculum designer with Tufts University Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Program’s Teaching Democracy project, developing a pilot training on Popular Education. May can be reached at