Politics is not for everyone – even in a direct democracy

Democracy is about allowing people to participate – even if only a minority takes an active role most of the time.

I’m often asked how many people really participated in School Meetings at Sudbury Jerusalem – as if it’s less democratic when fewer people choose to participate. But actually, low participation at meetings can be a sign that democracy is working well.


When we started Sudbury Jerusalem, for a few weeks we had a School Meeting every day.

Most of the proposals, at first, came from those who had been in and around the founding process – mainly staff and children of staff. I was a student and a co-founder, and one of the most active participants.

It took months – dozens of Meetings – for the process to become so established in the school’s culture that many other students made proposals. In parallel, as time went by, fewer and fewer students regularly took part in School Meetings.
The early School Meetings at Sudbury Jerusalem focussed on establishing the rules of the game. We spent hours in heated discussion about School Meeting, Committees, procedures – about how the whole thing works. Not everyone is interested in that kind of thing.

But some members of the community, especially those involved in starting the school, felt strongly about these things, and insisted on being part of these discussions.

Those of us who were more involved than others at the time weren’t trying to contol everything, we were mainly trying to lead by example. We, who had spent so much time in envisioning and preparing the school, wanted to demonstrate what the school’s democracy meant: that any of us can take initiative and put forward proposals for improving things in the school.
In the beginning, most students came to those daily School Meetings. They wanted to see what it’s all about, to make their voice heard, and to find out who makes the decisions. I think a few of them wanted to find out who’s really in charge so that they would know who to rebell against.

After a while, most students would only come to support or oppose some specific proposal.

In my view, this was a benefit of having an established way of doing things. It let people relax and trust the process. You don’t have to personally suffer through boring discussions if you know that decisions are made in a fair and transparent way, and that you can always propose to change them later.
For a while, most School Meetings were attended by the staff and one or two students. We came to see this as a sign that all was well.

Students who didn’t come to Meetings knew what was being discussed and what had been decided, and they knew that they could come and change things if need be. But School Meeting was doing a decent job, so most Meetings were small, almost empty.

Once in a while some proposal would come up which interested a lot of students, and suddenly the room would be full. Like the time when a student proposed to create a petting corner. When the proposal came up she called in a bunch of kids who wanted to make it happen, and they easily got a majority, despite some regular attendees (like myself) being against it.

But in day to day life, the Meeting and most of its decisions just didn’t get in the way. They were usually helpful or unnoticable.

The purpose of School Meetings was to ensure that the school continues to exist and that its members are safe and free to pursue their interests.

As a rule, apart from the first year, it was always a small group who was interested in attending every Meeting. We took this as a sign that things were working well.
Of course, different members have a different ability to participate in that kind of procedure, and that is a form of inequality.

But I think back about two younger friends of mine, A.P. and N.F., whom I knew as the kind of boys who would be interested in anything but School Meeting. Both used to have difficulties with reading and writing, another barrier to their participation. Both of them later became Chairs of School Meeting.

They became interested, they attended meetings and learned more about them, they saw work to do, and they stepped up.
People enter a school – or any organization – with diverse interests, different backgrounds, and different skills. Most are not interested in “running the business”, which is what the Meeting does. So a small group ends up doing that. It’s important that the Meeting stay accessible to new participants, but it ultimately has to focus on its important task – which most people find boring.

There’s just not much more you can do, unless you want to force people to participate, or force them to acquire the skills they’d need to participate effectively. But neither option respects people’s individual freedom and autonomy, so neither option is compatible with the liberal-democratic ideal.

All you can do is keep Meeting accessible and lead by example. If you make use of the Meeting on the one hand, and respect its decisions on the other hand, you show others what the Meeting means. If you do neither, there’s no reason for anyone to participate in it at all.


By the way: I haven’t been posting much, and probably won’t be posting much in the coming weeks either. I’m focussing on my work in linguistics now, which involved more than enough writing, but not of the bloggy kind. Being this focussed is a lot of fun and I want to keep it up while my contract lasts. I expect to post more actively starting in August.