Big Democracy at TEDx

In 2015, Ceasar McDowell performed two unique TEDx talks on aspects of Big Democracy. The first was at TEDx Hamilton and the second was at TEDx Indiana University.

Democracy from the Margins

Ceasar McDowell at TEDx Indiana University on November 13, 2015



Gezi Park, Arab Spring, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Dreamers. All over the world, people are coming together and saying enough and demanding change. Enough of inequality, enough of violence to women, enough to destroying the planet. Enough to violence and conflict and war, religious intolerance. Enough to someone working 40, 50, 60 hours a week and still not having enough money to clothe, feed, and shelter themselves or their family. Enough. These protests that are happening they’re actually challenging power, they’re calling in question the status quo. And for some of you this may be difficult to accept. Still for others you may look at them and say what are they doing? They’re disrupting the order of things. They’re causing divisions where we don’t need divisions. They’re undermining our civic life. And still for others you may look at them and say, I don’t know, I wonder what’s going on. I wonder if they’re important, if I should join, if they have meaning, if they are real. Regardless of where you stand, these protests are growing. Tens of thousand people showing up in the streets of Hong Kong actually asking for electoral reform. Over 400,000 in the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March. And over 2 million Brazilians in the streets saying we want to end corruption in our politics. They are saying enough. But not only are there lots of people coming together, what’s happening in these efforts is they’re creating opportunities for people from all walks of life to come together. They are doing something that we thought was impossible; that given our diversity and the complexity of who we are that we can actually begin to work together and to create a public that includes us all.

How did they get there? I want to introduce you to Tachi Kiuchi. So Tachi in 1993 was the chairman and the CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation. In that same year he found himself the target of a direct action from the Rainforest Action Network or RAN. This was a surprise to him because Mitsubishi Electric actually had not stock in timber, they didn’t do anything that bothered the rainforest. However, Mitsubishi Corporation, a totally different company, owned 3% of the world’s timber. Now at this point Tachi could have said, well, it’s not my problem, they’re not after me really. He could call them up, give them the number of Mitsubishi Corporation and be done with it. But instead what he did is he got in a plane, he want to Malaysia, and he sat down and spent time with the people from the Rainforest Action Network. He wanted to understand why they thought this was such an important issue. He later wrote a book about this called What the Rainforest Taught Me. And he used the lessons in that book to actually shift the culture of Mitsubishi Electric and many corporations in this world to be about collaboration and learning. In the book he lays out a number of things that happen in nature, this kind of ecology that we talk about right now that are important to us to mimic in the human systems we build if we want to build healthy systems. Chief among those is this, in nature nothing exists alone. It is, he says, the power of connectedness. As human beings, as part of nature, like the rainforest we need connectedness in order to thrive. This is in some sense the brilliance of these new movements because what they are doing is saying they’re looking at the disconnections that had basically invaded all of our lives, and they’re starting to build new forms of connection, new forms that allow us to see each other connected together. And through this they are creating the possibility that we might actually create a new form of democracy, one that includes us all. One that I like to refer to as Big Democracy.

One of those disconnections that are out there and are in the way of Big Democracy are these disconnected narratives we tell ourselves, these narratives about who belongs and who doesn’t. There are lots of people in this country who were born in this country, who went to school in this country, lots of young people in this state whose parents weren’t U.S. citizens. And because of the disconnected narrative we tell about them, they are cut off from opportunities. We call them illegal. But a group of these young people actually got together and organized themselves differently to change that narrative from one of disconnection to connection, and they call themselves undocumented. In the midst of doing that they basically were saying many things. One, that migration is beautiful. Two, that they weren’t illegal, the problem was the bureaucracy, the system that didn’t know how to recognize them. And because of this reframing they have actually created the opportunity in many states to actually take on this issue and start to create these new paths for them to be engaged.

Another of these narratives of disconnection that are out that affect our ability to come together affects me very personally. And that is the one that says by virtue of me being a black man, I somehow am a threat. And Black Lives Matter did something really beautiful. It actually reframed that into a conversation of connection. The notion of Black Lives Matter was to say, no, the reality of black lives is that they’re not about threat, they’re about the fact that people of all races actually matter, and particularly black people matter. And this has ignited a debate and a conversation in this country around race like we’ve never had before.

But these narratives of disconnection don’t just affect people of color. In 2008, when we were faced with the largest housing mortgage crisis in this country, millions of people lost their homes and all the wealth that they had, the narrative of disconnection that was told then is that the problem was there were too many people who were actually given loans who couldn’t afford them, shouldn’t have had them in the first place, and that’s why the market collapsed. When Occupy identified the 1% they shifted that, and they basically said those people who lost their homes were actually part of the 99% of this world who are living in the conditions that they are because of the extraordinary wealth that the 1% hold and what they control.

There’s also another disconnection that happens. This is a disconnection around communication, meaning the disconnections about who actually needs information or has information. So in 1931, in Tennessee, young Miles Horton started something called the Highlander Folk School. He started it as an opportunity for coal mining families to actually come together and learn from each other, talk to each other so they can actually share the conditions and start to figure out how to come to local solutions for their problems. Over the years it became a center for activity of organizing in the south, one of the few places where blacks and whites and labor unionists could come together. In 1961, Miles was arrested and Highlander was closed down temporarily. His crime? Going to one part of the state, getting information, and bringing it to another part of the state. Now it’s kind of hard to imagine in this day and age that someone could be arrested for that. With Facebook and Twitter, with the free flow of information, how could that happen? I guess actually Snowden and Assange could tell you how that could happen.

The reality here, and these kinds of disconnections of communication, is that what was happening at Highlander was something very unique, because they had a dual strategy. Not only were they doing this work by sharing information but they were actually creating a physical environment for people to come together, people of all kinds to come together, and do something that my friend Karl Moore calls “to struggle with the conditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so that they can create a future that’s an improvement on the past.” In today’s language, Highlander in 1933 created both a digital and an analog strategy. A digital for sharing information and an analog for people coming together. These new movements today recognize that and that’s exactly what they are doing. They are seeing the interconnection of bringing those together. So Black Lives Matter, for example, started in a hashtag and spread virally. But soon it found itself on the ground in communities across the U.S. Now for most of you the only thing you saw in those communities may have been riots and protests and other types of things happening on the TV. But the majority of the work that was going on with communities was actually people sitting down in churches and classrooms and living rooms and try to figure out how we’re going to come together and actually learn and heal together so we can begin to live as if we believe and know that Black Lives actually do matter.

The last narrative, I should say the last disconnection that these movements are dealing with is what I call the disconnection of design. And that disconnection is about saying who actually has something to offer. Now design is everywhere, everything around us is designed. This stage, this auditorium fills 4,000 people and its sole design purpose is to have you focus on me. That’s how it’s structured. But there are other consequences of this design. So, for example, if you happen to be about six feet tall you’re probably hoping I’ll start talking so you can get your knees out of the front of the chair in front of you, right? Or if you happen to be, you know 4’5” or under you can’t wait to put your feet back on the ground. Those are the flaws in these designs because what we tend to do in this world is design for the middle and forget about the margins. What these new movements are saying to us is that it’s actually in the margins that we have to concentrate our design. And this feels a little counterintuitive, right, is that if you actually pay attention to the margin and design for them you actually cover the middle. It’s like a tent, right? If you take a tent and you stake it far out at the margins, well guess what, the middle is always covered. And the further out you stake it the stronger the structure you get. And why is that? Because in our systems and our social systems the people at the margins are actually living with the failures of the systems. And they are creating adaptive solutions to them. So when we design to take care of them we build stronger systems for everyone.


I love this picture. I don’t know if you can see it, I can see it. That one right there, all right? I don’t know how many of you have ever seen the starlings fly like this? It’s an amazing thing when you actually experience this, you see these birds fly through the sky like that. But there’s something really interesting about it we started to learn. We used to think that actually they’re like a flock and they’re flying following a leader and the leader keeps shifting. But in actuality what’s happening is that each individual bird is just paying attention to what’s around it, and it’s connecting on a physical level to everything that is immediately around it. And by doing that they create a chain that actually can work together. It is a connectedness in how they move about in the world that is framed by being and paying attention to what’s around you. In this day and age what’s around us is a lot of things we don’t know and understand, different kinds of people, different kinds of situations. And it may be a little hard for us to say how do I connect to that thing that’s immediately around me? But if we don’t, we actually won’t be able to move forward collectively in a way that allows us to construct a different kind of democracy in this world.

So I have a little tool for you, a little thing that I call Micro Inclusions. Now, I’m sure all of you have heard of microaggressions, those little things that people can do that actually they’re really aggressive but they’re just like really small. Like as you walk behind them, and they close the door really slightly, you know. Other little things that they do they’re just mean but, you know, small. And they have a lot of power on the person that it happens to. Well, I think we can do exactly the same thing with inclusion. Little steps, little things you can do in your day-to-day that says to the people who are around you, “you’re included, I understand that you’re there.” Those are the things we need to start doing so that as a nation, as a people, we can actually be able to fill and create a mass of people who can actually bring in a new form of democracy. Because if we do that, this generation, this planet, ultimately all that we are will be better. But we can’t get there without you. So my request to you is when you step out of here tonight, see can you create a micro inclusion before you get to the street?

Thank you.

Big Democracy: A Fundamental Shift

Ceasar McDowell at TEDx Hamilton on October 10, 2015

See him open with the vastness of wonder that exists in the universe, literally displaying a photographic representation of the Big Bang. He then presents the comparison to the Human Universe with its “constellation of different races, ethnicities, languages, sexual orientations, and belief systems. So while the complexity of the universe inspires, the complexity of the Human Universe feels daunting.”


The universe, ever expanding. It is a place of power, energy, places of light and darkness, and infinitely complex. When we look out into it we are filled with awe, wonder, joy. And it becomes like a mental playground when we put our stories of hope, our questions about existence, curiosity about life itself and what it means. There is another universe full of power, energy, places of light, dark. It too is infinitely complex. But when we encounter this universe we are not always filled with joy, awe, wonder, and hope. This is the human universe. It’s this constellation of different races, ethnicities, languages, sexual orientations, beliefs. So while the complexity of the universe inspires, the complexity of the human universe feels daunting.

Why? Well, we know that the constellation of stars is complex. There’s black holes and asteroids and planets and stars. But when we see it, when we look up what we see is light. Lights of different intensity, different size, different hues. And so while we know it’s a complex, expanding, sometimes violent and explosive place, our night to night, day to day experience is that of light. For the human constellation it’s different. While most of us believe in the inner light of people, what we see night to night and day to day is conflict, violence, and discord. We see mass killings in schools, we see millions of people displaced by war. We wake up like I did this morning to hear of a bombing in Ankara, Turkey, where 86 young people rallying for peace were murdered. We also find ourselves having to face the fact that every day fewer and fewer people are actually controlling more and more of the world’s resources and wealth.

So what will it take for us to see the complexity of the human universe differently? My answer, something I call Big Democracy. So what do I mean by Big Democracy? Well, we all actually know what democracy means, kind of a short definition. Government of the people by the people for the people. But when I talk about Big Democracy I want to put out two words. One is artifact, the other is interaction. I had the privilege of working with the great civil rights leader, and actually Hamilton alum, Bob Moses. He spent four years of his life working in rural Mississippi registering black sharecroppers to vote. This at a time and a place where trying to register people to vote while black could get you killed. One day I asked him what was the most important thing to come out of that voting work, and he said, “The meeting. The opportunity for poor sharecroppers to gather in public and give voice to their own experience and have that voice heard.” What this made clear to me was as important as voting is, it is actually not the work of democracy, it is an artifact of democracy.

So what is the true work of democracy? This is where interaction comes in. The work of democracy, actually to borrow from a friend, Carl (Moore), is actually about creating the interactions that allow the complex public that’s out there to struggle together with traditions that separate them and interests that bind them, so they can realize a future that’s an equitable improvement on the past. So struggling in this meaning is really our inability to strive in the face of our own fears and resistance to recognize that light is out there in the complexity of the human race. Right now cities throughout the world are actually comprised of the most demographically complex set of people who have ever lived together. And yet in those places we do not have the opportunities set aside, the interactions set aside that allow that complex set of people to come together and do the work that the public needs to do to make democracy work. So we’re at a decision point in the world about democracy and how it will develop and evolve. Are we going to continue with the system that in the end privileges a few, or are we going to create a Big Democracy that supports the interactions necessary for the public to handle the complexity of the people and the problems that it is? I suspect most of us in this room would say yeah, we’ll do Big Democracy. But to embrace it, right, to embrace that choice of Big Democracy we actually need something from everyone. We need people, in particular this generation of people, to take its creative energies and start to disrupt the non-inclusive practices that we have for democracy, and also take that energy and create new practices.

One or the areas of democracy that needs this creative disruption is how we actually define the public agenda. So right now in the U.S. you have lots of people running for president right now, and each of them is trying to tell you, right, that they know what the issue the public is concerned about. In short, they’re vying to set the public agenda and to tell you what’s important for the public to pay attention to. Well, what if it were different? What if the public, independent of political parties and politicians and posters and experts had its own process, its own set of interactions, that allowed it to struggle together across all of its differences and set its own agenda that candidates had to respond to? Impossible in this day and age? Not really.

Right now in Boston we are actually in the last phase of an 18 month process our team designed that had a kind of diverse and complex public of Boston frame a 15 year mobility plan. There the public set the goals, the visions, the policies, and the projects that the city will actually take on over the next 15 years. How did we do it? We started with a blank slate, no assumptions about what the goals should be or no public meetings where experts offered the public options to choose from. We didn’t even define what we meant by mobility. What we did is we asked the public one thing: donate your question about the future of getting around Boston. We used the word donate on purpose because by telling the public that we wanted them to donate their question we’re basically saying to them what they have as a question is something of value. And we asked them to give questions because it is an entry point that anyone can step into. By virtue of living in the city you have questions about it. There were no barriers for anyone.

But making the call for questions is one thing, getting people to do it was another. So what we had to do was actually create the opportunities for people to donate their questions no matter where they were in the city and allowing them to do it by doing what they do on a day to day basis. This meant we had to ignite the organizations and the networks and the people that were already connected with people on the ground to themselves go out and get folks to collect those questions. So we did it by yes, electronic means, but also by having people be able to write cards in church basements, in stores, on Facebook, it didn’t matter. And so in the midst of the largest snowstorm Boston has had in decades over 5,000 contributions came in. These questions were grouped into themes and the public figured out what the vision should be, what the goals should be, and actually what the priorities should be. And now the transportation planners are seeing how to implement those exact things. So from this standpoint the public actually itself came together in its complexity and set a direction.

Now once we actually have the public framing the agenda we then need to creatively disrupt how policies and programs and organizations that are set up to carry out that agenda are designed. Here’s our usual tendency in any design process is we tend to design for people in the middle. But I feel that in a complex, diverse society what we need to do is actually design for those at the margins first. Those at the margins give us something very special. One of the things they do is they tell us where the system doesn’t work, that’s one of the reasons they’re at the margins. They tell us what’s broken in the systems that we have. But the other thing it does is by virtue of living at the margin of society those people actually have to be more creative and more inventive to figure out how to get what they need. So when we do our design of any effort by first paying attention to people at the margins, we get more creative solutions. And just like in a tent, if you stake it wide at the margins not only do you cover what’s at the margins you cover what’s at the middle and you have a stronger structure.

So this is the brilliance, for example, of the kind of disruptive brilliance of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter has taken a longstanding issue of police violence and said police violence overly impacts groups at the margins of society, and particularly two groups, black men and transgender people. Any solution they said to police violence must be designed to address the reality of how black men face this. And that can only be done if those involved are grounded in the belief that black lives matter. Who does that matter for the most? The black men who are experiencing this. We are so resistant to this idea, right, that we can design first by paying attention to peoples at the margin that shortly after Black Lives Matter was launched politicians, pundits, even people in the public were saying, “No, no, it should be all lives matter.” While it’s true all lives matter and yes no one should face police violence, the effective design to alleviate this violence requires focusing on the black lives at the margins of society. If we do that, we’ll end up with policing that does act on a belief that all lives matter.

The work of Black Lives Matter also points to one more place where Big Democracy needs your creative disruption. Since the origins of this country we have kind of been embedded in a belief about the hierarchy of human value. This is simply put meaning a belief system that some lives are more important than others and deserve more. This is clearly expressed in racism and sexism and manifests itself in many ways. We have kind of made great strides in this country of addressing some of the ways that this manifests itself, but the belief itself still remains. And as long as that belief system persists it will undermine democracy. One clear example of this is microaggressions. Right, you know what microaggressions are? Those little bitty acts that we do that actually say to someone you don’t belong, you can’t be trusted, you’re less than. It’s a message a black man gets crossing the street in front of a car and people lock their doors. Or the catcalls a woman gets walking down the street. Brain scientists are teaching us that these types of aggressions are deeply wired in our brain and to change them we actually have to change the experiences that people have.

So as an antidote to microaggressions, for example, we can create microinclusions, right? Little day acts we don’t need permission for that we can actually signal to people they’re included. These are little symbolic actions that force us to recall our humanity. They’re acts of humanity that signal to those at the margins they are included. I remember one instance that I had of a microinclusion. I was actually in Nova Scotia with a Haitian friend of mine. We were sitting on the beach in this cove, we’re the only people there. This beautiful sailboat with three masts out in the water and a little dinghy on shore. And all of a sudden a little group of white people come down the shore and they stop and they’re looking out at the boat and they’re admiring it. And they turned to us and said, “Is that your boat?” We looked at each other and cracked up laughing because in our experience of being in America we would never be asked that question. The presumption that we were included as people who could own such a thing wasn’t there, but in this one instant it was.

And there are ways you can actually do microinclusions yourself, you can think about it. For example, when you’re in conversation with friends and you have people whose first language isn’t English and you’re talking about deep subjects, why not turn to them and say, “Tell me first in the language in which you feel most eloquent. Know the answer deep inside yourself first and then worry about translating it to me.” This invitation lets them know that you are interested in them being able to speak first for themselves, and second for you. For Big Democracy to work all types of new social norms and actions will need to be created to undo the damage of past exclusions and help us build a new social fabric to move forward.

I’ve always believed that democracy is a powerful framework for how people can create an equitable society. I’ve also understood that unless every person in society has the capacity and the opportunity to name their experience, to be listened to, and the willingness to listen to others, we won’t have a just and equitable society. We are at a (change point). There’s a potential future with increasing violence, expanding wealth disparity, continued racial inequality, intolerance, and (limited) public force. I choose to imagine and build a different kind of future, one of Big Democracy where the public sets the agenda, where society is focused on designing solutions for those most in need and where we all think about how to be inclusive in our everyday interactions. Your creative ability to disrupt the old forms of democracy and create new ones is a fundamental shift needed to bring more wonder, joy, and awe to how we see the infinitely complex human universe. Thank you.