The Two Realities of Empowerment

During a School Meeting debate in the late spring of the year 2000, someone made an oft-repeated point: "If the people involved in this activity really cared, they would be here and promote their cause." It is a refrain that I have heard often from the day the first School Meeting was held in the barn, in the summer of 1968. It is an argument I myself have used often. After all, the school is as pure a participatory democracy as can be imagined. Literally everyone, from four-year-olds to the oldest staff member, has an equal say and an equal vote in the school's governing body, the School Meeting. This universal empowerment, built into the core structure of the school, is inviolate. All people have to do in order to actualize their guaranteed equality is to make an appearance, make their views known, and become an active part of the democratic political process of the school. It all sounds so simple, so reasonable, and so valid.

Yet, there has always been a significant, if small, group of students, mostly teen-agers, who have complained bitterly about the pointlessness and emptiness of the school's alleged democracy. They talk of "the people who run the school" - someone other than themselves or their friends, an inside power group that somehow rigs the vote in its favor every time, and against whom it is pointless to argue. Over and over again, I have engaged these dissidents in conversation, sometimes heated, telling them that they are creating a fantasy, and that they are weaving excuses to explain their own lazy indifference. They remained unmoved, unconvinced, and I have remained puzzled by my inability to get through to them with such an obviously true and simple message.

Anyway, the School Meeting debate I started telling you about continued, and suddenly a sixteen-year-old girl, bright, articulate, and totally at home with the current disgruntled non-attendees, who had first enrolled in the school as a teenager, raised her hand and was recognized by the chair. She then proceeded to explain, with perfect clarity and without a hint of anger, the simple point that I had been missing all these years: Those people who don't attend School Meetings don't feel they have an equal voice, even though they actually do. For them, the democracy is not a reality; it is somehow a cover for a manipulating insider group from which they feel excluded. They feel that whatever they say, they are not heard; whatever they argue, they never get a fair shake at convincing the undecided; and whatever they vote, they never manage to collect enough supporters to carry the day. They feel that the power the school says it has bestowed on them is a sham, and they refuse to participate in a process that they think is a fraud.

We all listened carefully, reflecting on the evident truth of what she was saying. Then another older teenager sought the floor, someone who had been enrolled at Sudbury Valley since she was a little four-year-old child. Calmly, as if elucidating for the rest of us one of the essential facts of democratization, she explained what was happening: In order to feel that you have a real voice in the school, you have to pay your dues, you have to go through a long training apprenticeship in the political processes of democracy in general, and of the School Meeting in particular. You have to attend year after year, watching and listening, figuring out how to debate, how to make cogent arguments, how to muster support, how to think quickly in replying to the opposition, how to put together a coherent and logical presentation. You watch the people who are good at it, and learn from them. Then, slowly, you enter the active fray, honing your strengths and remedying your weaknesses. It is a long process, one that takes patience and perseverance, until you finally become good at being a contributing member of the School Meeting. There are no shortcuts. It is a long and arduous learning process, and the reward is the ability to hold your own and contribute to the school's governance with a high level of competence. You learn to lose, to regroup, to win, to be gracious to others, to accept and fashion compromise. You learn, in short, the art of living in a society of equals.

That School Meeting was a remarkable experience for me. Here, two perceptive and sensitive students had provided the framework for understanding one of the most persistent problems the school has faced over the years. Empowerment has two complementary realities, and both must be present for an effective participatory democracy to embrace all its members. The first reality, the sine qua non, is structural, a democratic constitution that guarantees the institutional integrity of the egalitarian society. But that is not enough. There must also be the psychological reality of empowerment, the understanding of what empowerment entails, and the feeling of truth and validity that follows from this understanding. This understanding is learned, as are all the other complex lessons of life, through nurturing, probing, observing, experiencing, and practicing. A person is only really empowered in his society when both realities exist for him/her.

There is no quick way to get the required understanding. For teenagers who enter the school from other educational environments, where they have been deprived of all the rights to which they are entitled at Sudbury Valley, the sudden transition has an aura of unreality to it. Never having known a school, or indeed any institution with adults in it, which is anything other than a hierarchical dictatorship, they are skeptical and suspicious; and they are impatient to find out, as quickly as possible, what the real nature of their new school is. So they put the school to quick tests: they express, individually or in small groups, some demand. They reason that if they are truly empowered in this Sudbury Valley community which they have joined, then that empowerment should yield a straightforward result - namely, that their demand is met forthwith by the school. If there is hesitation on the part of the school community to accept their demand, they see this as an immediate validation of all their suspicions: "Of course we didn't get what we wanted. We don't really have power. 'They' have power, and 'they' use it to turn down our reasonable demand under the guise of a democratic structure called the School Meeting. Empowerment should mean that we get what we want; isn't that the meaning of 'power'?" And so they become quickly disenchanted, and feel that they have uncovered the dishonesty that infuses all aspects of the school.

Indeed, the history of democracy in the world bears out these observations. It is no accident that the only stable democratic societies that embrace a broad population of people who feel truly empowered are those based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual empowerment, which itself was developed with tortuous slowness over a period of centuries. It took an enormous span of time for the English to go through the national apprenticeship that we have been talking about, learning the ins and outs of political democracy based on individual freedom and rights. And the colonial Americans who created our version of a democratic society were the beneficiaries of this long English apprenticeship, and commenced a new process of learning in North America that continues to this day.

It is no surprise that the rapid spread of democracy in the world that began in the late twentieth century has been accompanied by so much chaos, warfare, hatred, and cynicism. Adult societies that suddenly are plunged into a structurally egalitarian polity have not served the apprenticeship required to master the art of living freely together. Every person, every group, as it changes from authoritarianism to freedom, feels that true empowerment must mean that they get their own way, without the same old obstacles being placed in their paths. In such an environment, sudden empowerment turns into an endless struggle for power - for actualizing the empowerment they have been promised - with the result that real liberty and fraternity go down the drain, and the compromises, adjustments, modifications and negotiations never get a chance to be practiced and perfected.

I do not know of any way to hasten the successful transition of a person from a state of virtual enslavement to a state of psychological empowerment in a new structurally democratic environment. Twenty-five years ago, we were somewhat aware of this problem at school, and in a burst of optimism the School Meeting voted to create a Freedman's Bureau, to help new students make the transition from their old to their new environments. The name was taken from the institution that was set up in the South after the Civil War, to help former slaves make the transition to living as free persons. Unfortunately, Sudbury Valley's Freedman's Bureau did not achieve anything at all, mainly because no one at school had the foggiest notion how to carry out its lofty goal in everyday practice. We don't know much more today than we knew then. Perhaps there is no way to help another person become free. Perhaps the only way available is through a person's internal determination to free him/herself, by undergoing the long apprenticeship required before one becomes master of his/her own destiny, and feels truly empowered to contribute as a full participant in a society of equals.

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