Commentary: St. Paul’s schools of democracy

By Melissa Mathews

The interaction between civic engagement and democracy has inspired debate since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with voluntary associations described as schools of democracy.

Since 1975, a rich tradition of participatory democracy through St. Paul’s district councils has flourished. How? Ask one of the 2,100 devoted volunteers or speak with the hard- working staff members who leverage limited resources.

As a former executive director of St. Anthony Park District 12 Community Council, I offer a few observations concerning the district councils as schools of democracy.

First, the district councils create public spaces for diverse voices, in turn engaging a more active populace who become familiar with electoral and municipal processes. Second, through deliberation, the district councils display democracy in action by organizing participation in the public sector. The relationships fostered at neighborhood forums also stimulate tolerance, which improves the civic health of St. Paul.

These pioneering approaches resulted in block nurse programs, community gardens, crime- prevention initiatives, neighborhood cleanups and senior chore services. While facilitating hundreds of issues, district councils continue to innovate through cross-cultural dialogues, food-access programs, organics recycling, transit partnerships and a local radio station.

These examples suggest that diverse tactics, rather than a homogeneous approach, successfully serve unique community contexts.

Yet, critics seem concerned about their continued relevance and there might be readers who bemoan an overall decline of civic participation.

I disagree and advocate that, as part of renewed investment in democracy, we explore how to enrich our strategies while reflecting upon what it means to have an active citizenry. Fortunately, we already have a widely supported system in place for neighborhood-level revitalization.

Congratulations to the talented and tireless activists who commit to St. Paul’s schools of democracy as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the district council system. At this time, I also reflect with gratitude on those who guided my own schooling, including board members, city staff, colleagues, elected officials and volunteers.

Melissa Mathews served as executive di- rector of the District 12 Community Council from April 2000 to April 2005. She lives in St. Anthony Park and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

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