Duval mulls future of democracy

MIDDLEBURY — It was fitting that the crowd should be given the helm at last Thursday night’s panel discussion at the Ilsley Library about the next generation of democracy.
And the more than 40 audience members gathered in the community room seized the opportunity to participate with enthusiasm, throwing out questions for the four panelists: Orton Family Foundation president Bill Roper, Middlebury College Professor of International Environmental Economics John Isham, Middlebury College junior Rhiya Trivedi, and Jared Duval, author of “Next Generation Democracy: What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics and Change.”
Duval, a 27-year-old Vermont native, serves on the board of the Orton Family Foundation, and has served in such roles as national director of the Sierra Student Coalition, and current fellow at Demos, a New York think tank. In his book, he envisions a grassroots approach to solving national and global problems in an age where the Internet, including websites like Wikipedia and SeeClickFix, is leveling the playing field of knowledge and community involvement.
These websites, technology like the Linux operating system, and, indeed, much of the web in general, all spring from the idea of open access from the bottom up. For example, said Duval, Wikipedia is not simply available to all users — it is entirely user-generated, relying on a collaborative effort of people willing to volunteer their time and expertise to create the content.
And, he said, Wikipedia not only matches the Encyclopedia Brittanica for accuracy, but it also gives a far more detailed and up-to-date picture of the world as we know it.
“Anyone with an Internet connection can access this information,” said Duval. “This can apply to society’s public problems.”
Duval also devotes time in the book specifically to “Millennials,” which he calls the “open-source generation” and defines as those born between 1979 and 1997. The Millennials, he says, are the main force behind many of the prominent climate change activism groups, citing Step It Up and 350.org (both of which originated with Middlebury College students, alumni and faculty). Trivedi, as one of the Canadian delegates to last December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, was there representing that group.
When Roper took the floor, however, he had one clarification to add to Duval’s definition:
“Millennial can be a state of mind,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the many non-millennial audience members.
And although open-source theories originated on the Internet, he said, the same ideas also translate to the democratic process on the non-virtual level.
Roper connected Duval’s ideas of open-source democracy to the Orton Foundation’s work with small cities and towns — by speaking with community members in those cities and towns, Roper said that the organization strives to open up the discussion process and to change the culture. When people find common ground with their fellow community members, he said, their criticisms become less hostile and more constructive, and consensus is easier to come by.
This played off of Duval’s story of the building of a recovery plan in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Following a recovery plan from the city government that failed due to the perception that it offered an unequal, the organization AmericaSpeaks gathered groups representative of the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the city into the New Orleans Convention Center in what they called “21st century town meetings.”
After this series of meetings discussing the plan in breakout groups, highlighting the common goals and needs of the community, the organization came up with a plan that passed overwhelmingly with the city council — in part because there was so much pressure from the community to accept a plan that had its collective, collaborative stamp of approval.
The event was not only a celebration of past victories of the open source revolution, however. Over the course of the talk, audience members and panelists alike voiced considerable frustrations with the current government. There was the daunting idea of expanding the user participation model to a national scale. And while admitting that Vermont’s government is uniquely accessible compared to many other states, people noted frustrations with high campaign spending, closely controlled and closed-source media outlets, filibuster tactics in the U.S. Senate, and the increasing influence of high-powered lobbyists and moneyed voices in the American political system.
Even while discussing shortcomings of government as it stands, however, Isham encapsulated the thread of hope that ran through the event, and that runs throughout Duval’s book: the optimism that, with tireless work, things will improve.
“We’ll do better along these lines,” said Isham. “We’re not too far from a day when leading Millennials are running for office.”
This time, the chuckle that rang out in the room was from the Millennials themselves.
“We’ll let them play the game,” said Isham, “But by rules that they are making.”
The talk ended with the acknowledgement that there was no way to discuss everything that the event’s attendants hoped to talk about.
But Roper said afterward that the goal of the talk was to start a discussion — something that, judging by the many who stayed to talk long after the event’s official end, it successfully accomplished.
“Jared and his book represent an important voice on changing the way democracy works in the community,” said Roper. “We wanted to foment the discussion, and to increase participation at younger levels.”
And Duval said that, going forward in the political realm, Vermonters are ahead of the game “by virtue of the amazing awareness and engagement that exists here. Middlebury is so lucky to have the community that it does.”
Still, to him this is no reason to sit back and watch other states catch up.
“We have one of the most grassroots systems in the nation,” he said. “So we have added responsibilities in helping to lead the way in how we can work better … to try new things rather than rest on our laurels.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.


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