By Anisha Desai
In Day One’s morning conversation, we discussed the meaning of democracy from a feminist perspective—how it had been defined, traditionally, through a patriarchal lens, and how it could be redefined to be more encompassing, holistic, and deeply permeating to not only the political sphere but the personal sphere of our lives. A sister from the Sudan remarked that while the conversation about democracy was interesting, that it would have no bearing on the reality of the women she worked with, who are more concerned with the day-to-day material struggles of their lives. How was such a lofty conversation meant to impact them in a way that would produce real results? How could they possibly be asked to focus on conversations, which largely seem theoretical, in a space where the achievement of democracy seemed like a long-lost hope?
This is an incredibly real concern for women everywhere, and is not one easily dismissed. However, linking Paolo Friere’s notion of conscientization, or critical consciousness, directly to the work of organizations for basic human needs is such an essential piece of movement-building. It ensures that the people themselves are directly involved in shaping the constructs in which they operate. It ensures that “democracy” is not hijacked by the elite and remains accessible, socially and culturally relevant, and that it truly operates in the interest of the people it serves. Engaging with issues of “democracy” on the grassroots level from those who directly experience the failures of democracy is the only real way we’re going to be able to shape policies and practices that have integrity—that represent feminist values and is buoyed by a human rights framework.
I recall the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program. It was a way to meet the immediate needs of the people while also building a base of folks who were committed to a struggle for racial justice. Their model gave way, in the United States context, to programs like that of the Chinese Progressive Association, which also adopted a holistic program of addressing human survival, not as a tactic or an afterthought, but as an essential component of the programming, while also engaging in popular education work that focused on the generation of knowledge from the bottom up. It is this kind of work, brought to global scale, that will help women to reclaim democracy and reshape it into something that they recognize, have ownership of, and feel invested in sustaining.