ON THE AGENDA | AUGUST 6TH, 2018 | Billi Jo Maynard

Witnessing deliberative democracy up close

Throughout my undergraduate studies as a political science major, I have come across the subjects of community engagement and public deliberation before. However, until this meeting in Canarsie, I had never had the privilege to witness them firsthand.

Late on a Monday evening in July, roughly 30 people gathered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church to discuss the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie. Canarsie is a culturally vibrant community that for decades has welcomed many immigrants from the Caribbean. The participants at the meeting had come together to address a range of environmental and economic challenges facing their neighborhood, especially the long-term impacts of Superstorm Sandy and attempts to prepare for future disasters. Throughout my undergraduate studies as a political science major, I have come across the subjects of community engagement and public deliberation before. However, until this meeting in Canarsie, I had never had the privilege to witness them firsthand.

Several things surprised me throughout this meeting, but one thing in particular stood out to me. Before this meeting, I had the common misconception of thinking that all people who attend community engagement functions come because they are angry about something and they want to make a change. To my most pleasant surprise, the community members of Canarsie expressed a deep love for their community. This is not to say that everyone believed that Canarsie was a perfect place. In fact, there were several community problems addressed throughout the meeting that all individuals seemed to be in consensus on, such as the need for a central community center and more accessible community information. However, the community members seemed less angered by these problems, and more motivated by a desire to see their community thrive and grow.

At this time in American society, it is easy to feel disenchanted with the whole idea of community engagement. It seems as if the division we feel on politics will hinder any progress we hope to make whether it is on a large or a small scale. However, after witnessing the community members of Canarsie come together and find a common ground for everyone, I feel much more optimistic about the progress we can make through community engagement.

While the main point of the meeting was to develop an understanding of Canarsie and the problems that people in the community faced, I was also able to learn about all of the things people loved about this community. Simple things such as functioning transportation systems and quiet streets were mentioned multiple times. What stood out to me the most though, was the feeling of “home” everyone said they had of Canarsie. The Canarsie I read about on paper, and the Canarsie that I got to witness firsthand are two completely different places. One woman even said, “People have a deep sense of ownership here in Canarsie.”

Billi Jo Maynard is an honors student at Penn State University and Nevins Fellow who interned at Public Agenda this summer.

Public Agenda and the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay at CUNY: Brooklyn College in coordination with the Canarsie Community Development, Inc. hosted a listening session on July 16 with Canarsie residents to discuss issues relevant to the community and how relationships with elected officials can be strengthened.


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