Ceasar McDowell

Ceasar McDowell is professor of the Practice of Community Development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, which works with organizations, communities, networks and others to build their capacity for more effective, equitable and inclusive social change. During Summer 2016 Dr. McDowell sat down with Ikeda Center staff to discuss pathways to inclusion and creative democracy This interview originally appeared at the Common Threads website, hosted by Soka Gakkai International..

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Please tell us about your work and research interests.

I guess I can boil it down to one thing. My work, my research interests, my life are about voice. And particularly, how people—specifically the people who are at the margins of society—are able to name their experience in the world, have that naming be recognized and also open themselves up to the experience of others.

For me, that’s an essential first step to people actually being able to be in relationship with other people, because if you can’t hold and name your own story in the world—if you can’t give voice to that experience—then it really is a block to you being in relationship with others.

So that’s what my work is about, and there are a thousand different ways to do that. The one thing that’s been consistent in my experimentation is the importance of narrative and story. We hold our deepest meaning, I believe, in story. That’s how we communicate that meaning, that’s how we know it, that’s how we understand it. We don’t know it and understand it through paradigms, we know and understand the narratives we hold and share and tell.

What inspired this interest?

There are a couple of stories I can tell that are related to that, but the most fundamental one was how I grew up. I grew up in the US, both in the South and in the North. I moved back and forth every year. My family was from the rural part of northern Louisiana. This was at a time when—well, it’s still true to this day but, at that time, more so—the blatant segregationist policies in the South were alive and well.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado, in a working class community. My father was a laborer. He had a good union job that created real possibilities for us. Our neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood, mostly working class. I would watch and see my family interact in that environment, especially my father in his own authority around his own voice and experience. And when we moved to the South, I would watch it change: where he could have voice, and where he couldn’t have voice; what he was allowed to say in certain places and not allowed to say in other places because saying certain kinds of things in certain places could cost you your life. I could see how conditions can actually rob people of their voice, and that, for me, was really problematic. So I think that’s the origin of it.

How does that translate to the work you are doing currently?

The underlying thing for me is that I have a firm belief in democracy. I think it’s a really good system, if it functions. Democracy is an experiment. There is no perfect democracy anywhere; it’s all about the experimentation, about how such a thing can work. Particularly in the US, we’ve done something really horrible around democracy—we’ve basically said that democracy is about voting. The majority of our resources and interest around democracy are about getting people to vote for something.

My belief is that voting is an artifact of democracy; it is not the work of democracy. What that work is, is how people come to know and understand each other and the issues that are important to them, and how they want to make meaning together—make decisions together—about the kind of society they want and the institutions they want to support that. And then clarity around that lets them know how they’re going to vote.

I’m on a quest to basically change democracy. That’s my quest right now. At the Interaction Institute for Social Change we call this work “Big Democracy.” It’s an aspiration, and at the core of this aspiration is the belief that the public is fully capable of working together to create sustainable, just and equitable communities. But to do so the public must have ongoing, peaceful ways to interact around traditions that bind them and interests that separate them, so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past. The goal here is really just improvement on the past. That’s what we’re trying to do.

However, structural inequality, increased demographic complexity, extreme power imbalances and a persistent belief in a hierarchy of human value have left the public believing that it’s incapable of working collectively to create a sustainable, just and equitable society. And so our work in Big Democracy is to communicate, demonstrate and create places of experimentation to show that it is possible for the public to come together and create peaceful ways to interact to address these issues in ways that lead to an improvement on the past.

So my work around this notion of Big Democracy is to explore how we actually start to create new kinds of interactions—the spaces in which people come together and struggle peacefully to figure out what they need. And the way you start to design those kinds of interaction is to design them first for people at the margins, because that’s where the dysfunction shows up the most in the system—where the system is broken down. So I look for places and opportunities in communities and cities where folks want to figure out how we start to design new spaces for interaction for the public.

How is that done in practice?

We just did an experiment in Boston with something called “Go Boston 2030.” The City of Boston wanted to put together a new transportation plan for the future—a mobility plan. We were asked to help the city build a more inclusive public engagement process, and we used this concept of design for the margins to frame it.

The way it normally happens in the planning process is that experts get together, figure out options and bring those options to the public. Experts would come together and say, “We need more bike access; we’ve studied this, here are the proposals.” And then you get the public to show up to meetings, and people either like it or don’t like it. We said what you need to do is have the public at the beginning of the process, framing what the goals are and have them offer up what they think are policy and project solutions. Then have the experts respond to that.

The way we had people frame the issue is through a question campaign, where the public donated the question they thought was most important about future mobility. We used questions, because by virtue of existing in a place and doing something, you have questions about it. It clears away all barriers for participation. We wanted to make it possible for people to participate without having to do anything outside of their normal routine. We said there had to be two strategies, a digital strategy and an on-the-ground, or “analog,” strategy. The analog strategy meant creating a network of organizations and individuals who themselves are connected into a particular part of the population, and they engage that set of people they’re involved with in donating questions.

It was possible, then, for people in Boston to go to the grocery store or to the church and donate their questions—and all of a sudden, because of the way we did this, it started showing up in places we didn’t even know about. I went to a play one night, and these question cards were on the seats in the theater.

We ended up having five thousand people participate. The city has never had that kind of participation in transportation planning. But more significant is that the public was involved at the front end.

We then had the questions organized into categories, and the public came back together and prioritized them. The public set 10 goals for the mobility future of the city through this process. We had a series of meetings, and we did a big visioning section where we used arts and all kinds of other things.

All of this is an experiment in this question of how to design things so that people feel that they belong, so that they can have their voice represented. I have global aspirations around it. For some reason, oftentimes people who step into roles of authority and power stop believing that the public actually knows anything and start to believe that what they have to do is direct the public. I’m really interested in the question of how we start to turn that around.

You have been a friend of the Ikeda Center for many years. What has been your experience of the Center?

My first experience was being invited to a study circle, for a year! It was amazing. I’ve met some of my ongoing, deepest friends through that process—people that I think with. It’s not often that somebody offers you the gift of saying, “Come sit with this set of strangers and just be with each other for a year.” It was really wonderful; it really shifted my thinking.

One reason I choose to come to the talks at the center is because people who are doing this work aren’t talking about “Here’s the work that I do,” they’re really talking about “Here are the reflections that I have from this work. This is how I’m entering it, and this is what I’m learning from my reflections on it.” There are very few spaces for that. In most spaces where people come to talk about their work, they talk about the mechanics of what they do, not about them as a person involved in this work and what it means to do this work.

Also, there are so few places where you have an opportunity to gather with people who are really interested in the questions of peace. In Buddhism, there’s a strong recognition that there’s an inward journey around peace that has to be matched with the external journey, and the center is a safe space to recognize both of those. It’s like a sanctuary, and I think that’s a unique gift to the world.


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