Culturally centering participatory spaces, radical democracy, and holding elites accountable

In the many culture-centered projects implemented across the globe, the development of habits of participatory communication in local cultural logics and in ongoing relationships with structures is integral to the co-construction of social change interventions.

Communication as advocacy emerges from within the infrastructures of participatory communication grounded in community life. For instance, the understanding of racism as a chronic determinant of cardiovascular disease among African Americans emerges as a site for participatory politics that seeks to transform the unhealthy structures of racism. In doing so, advocacy directed at transforming racist structures is fundamentally grounded in local participatory logics of community life.

Movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement emerge as grassroots-driven, community participatory spaces directed at transforming the structures. The understanding that health is constituted in the organizing of local-global structures is an anchor for participatory communication processes directed at transforming these structures.

Therefore, culture-centered participatory spaces, grounded in the rhythms of community life, and negotiated through the everyday struggles of community members, catalyze the cultivation of radical democracies. Radical democracies foster democratic practices in everyday habits of decision-making over development pathways to be taken, resources to be developed and cultivated, and trajectories to be pursued. The spaces of decision-making are (re)turned into the hands of communities. The work of academics, activists, and civil society organizations becomes one of participatory capacity building. For instance, in culture-centered collaborations with African American communities in the inner city U.S., building the evidence base on the linkage between racism and health outcomes builds community capacity for transformative advocacy, pushing toward changes in policy formations and organizing of structures that resist racism.

In building participatory spaces grounded in local cultural logics, the culture-centered approach thus inverts the logics of power that reproduce elite control. Elites are held accountable to the voices of community members at the margins of societies. The habits of elite decision-making, oblivious to community voices and struggles, are disrupted through the presence of community voices. The monolithic power of elite control is disrupted by evidence-based community participation in everyday decision-making processes.

Grassroots driven radical democracies enable the ownership of the various political, economic, social, and cultural decision-making platforms in the hands of communities, with the roles of elite actors transformed toward serving community needs. In turning toward community participatory spaces as sites of decision-making, culture-centered processes offer frameworks for local communities to participate in power sharing, examining the claims made by elites, evaluating the evidence available, and making decisions based on the emerging understanding.

The very logic of episodic stakeholder engagement campaigns and community dialogues driven by elite agendas is interrogated, instead transforming participation toward an everyday habit of community life. In this sense, in culture-centered processes, community participation is driven by communities as contested sites of decision-making rather than by the agendas of elite actors who seek to deploy community engagement toward a variety of strategic purposes. 


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