Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Banality of the State Capitol Tour

Want to understand the fundamental failures of "representative democracy"? Take the Denver Capitol Tour. While led by well-intentioned guides, the field trip is the best way to alienate youth, especially if they are working class or not white.

As we walked down the impressive halls of marble floors and hand-carved wood it was powerfully apparent that this building is normally reserved for the political elite, not the average citizen. Politicians mingling with equally powerful people in the halls and dining area on laptops, clearly not from our neighborhood. If these are our representatives, why don't they reflect any of us?

We enter the legislative chambers to have a seat in plush seats within the balcony, overlooking the current session going on. We see our representatives sipping coffee and chatting with people below. The tour guide enters into a short speech on how these are the people that represent us and that we are their bosses. The heat is up at what seems like 75 degrees and the students sink further back into their chairs as the young man tries to explain the political process in the most dry manner he can muster. The kids' eyelids are getting heavy as he drones on about how many senators and representatives there are. Some students try desperately to follow his lecture, but most resign themselves to spacing out or reshifting their attention to the floor, to which the guide responds by "Hey over here. We're trying to learn about the politicial process, not watching what is going on down there." They choose to join the students next to them by glazing over, but making sure that the gaze is directed towards him instead of the legislators below.

Boring Tours Lead to Daydreams of Better Days

I decide that my students' coping mechanisms are a good idea, so I too start to drift away, daydreaming as to what a truly participatory democratic process would look like and how a field trip to witness that would differ from what we are currently sitting through.

If we lived in a society where the decisions made that affect us were not divorced from our lives and taking place in a grand yet empty building topped with gold, but instead deeply tied to our daily activities we might not even be taking a bus downtown. We could simply coordinate to head down to the Green Valley Recreation Center where we'd join their parents in a lively discussion over how to deal with our air being having some of the highest amounts of toxins in the air.

The conversation could get heated, with different interests being expressed, but it would remain in the realm of healthy dialog because there is an understanding that we live here together and that air quality affects us all. Our class might form a youth bloc, where we bring up the fact that air pollution affects students disproportionately as their developing bodies are harder hit by the toxins. They'll suggest some more gutsy approaches with some impassioned speeches by a few of the 5th graders. The parents and other adults will listen attentively. A few might be inspired and piggyback off their enthusiasm.

And so on. Who knows what the final conclusions would be, but the point is that for one- we the ones living next to the tire factory, have a stake in the outcome and we are a primary voice in how the issue is addressed.

Maybe we go to downtown Denver for some sort of convention where these assemblies are gathering to hash out issues that need to be coodinated across Metro Denver, but the difference is that we are attending as participants, not passive groups to have boring historical facts recited to us.

That trip to the capitol gave one clear message to us all- this process is boring, irrelevant to you and absolutely disconnected from your life. Now check out this cool painting of an old dude who owned the land that the capitol was built on.

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