A Mother-Daughter Take On Deep Democracy
By Lara Boulos
My mother and I were sitting at the kitchen table when I got the invitation to attend Vancouver’s Deep Democracy (DD) dialogue in October. The title of the event, “Is Hope Bullshit?” immediately grabbed me, so I read the description out loud to her. A few moments later, we had both registered to attend.
I was very excited to bring my mom to the event, even though neither of us was quite sure of what to expect. Having recently returned to Vancouver to start graduate school in community planning, the idea of including my mom – with whom I am quite close – in this new phase of my life and my studies was too good not to act on. I was also curious to see how we would approach the subject of hope. My mother and I share many interests and character traits, but we also belong to different generations and our day-to-day lives are quite different. I wondered; how might this affect our individual experiences?
As it turns out, one of the deepest insights my mom gained from the event directly relates to how the different generations in the room approached the subject of hope. She told me she was struck by how much anxiety was present among the younger participants at the dialogue. She had some prior awareness of the fact that many young adults are preoccupied with the state of the world we are inheriting. That said, for my mother to witness such a large group of people expressing their fears, anxieties, and feelings of responsibility to solve the problems our societies are facing was eye opening and has stayed with her since.
For my part, I was not surprised to hear practitioners, students, and professionals voicing their worries for the world, as I share many of these concerns. As I engaged in the conversations that day, I came to the conclusion that I need something more substantial than hope to sustain me in the more challenging moments of my work. I also experienced frustration at the lack of an “answer” to the question “Is Hope Bullshit?” While I recognize now that such an ambiguous query cannot reasonably be answered in one day, it would have been much more comfortable to be able to walk away with a neatly packaged theory to move forward with.
As a student of Aftab Erfan, who teaches Deep Democracy and who introduced the methodology and theory to her facilitation, negotiation, and conflict resolution class, I was familiar with the process and tools used to facilitate a DD dialogue. This prior knowledge certainly affected the way I experienced the event. For instance, I recognized the tools and metaskills the facilitators employed throughout the day. For my mother, who had no knowledge of DD, the experience was completely different, so picking her brain on the subject proved to be fascinating.
She was particularly struck by the way that Deep Democracy makes space for any and all points of view to be expressed. It is indeed possible to have a positive and constructive conversation with others whose views are completely opposite to our own, without becoming angry or feeling threatened. My mother really appreciated being exposed to one of the methodologies that creates an environment for these challenging conversations to occur safely and respectfully.
She also noted that nothing is ever black and white: the Deep Democracy ‘argument’ in particular highlighted this as she watched participants move from one perspective to the other. This caused us both to reflect on how it’s so easy to become convinced that our beliefs are grounded in facts and that we are sure of where we stand. And yet, when we enter a space that encourages us to verbalize why we feel a certain way, it can be very challenging to back up our ideas – and we change our minds! I myself was surprised at how often I moved from the “hope is bullshit” to the “hope is not bullshit” sides of the room, and back again.
There is no doubt in either of our minds that Deep Democracy is and incredibly useful tool to address ambiguous, emotionally taxing issues. I am looking forward to deepening my understanding of the practice, possibly furthering my training and integrating it into my work.
My mother told me she was initially intrigued by the event because the title was a bit shocking and thought provoking. It hadn’t occurred to her that some people might question the need for or usefulness of hope, so the question “Is Hope Bullshit?” got her thinking in a way she hadn’t before. She came into the event with an open mind, ready to see where this conversation would go.
Walking away from the experience, my mom tells me she still has hope for the future of our world, despite its many wicked problems, because the conversation actually gave her renewed hope. This is because while she feels she now recognizes how people who do not have hope can be motivated by other sources of energy – be it grief, despair, frustration, or hopelessness itself – she is comforted by the fact that people still want to make positive social change, no matter where their motivation springs from.
In my mother’s case, she has determined that she prefers to use more positive energy to motivate her actions. In her words, it’s “kind of depressing to operate from a place of despair,” and she is “a more glass half full than glass half empty kind of person.” I take after her in that respect, though I am still searching for complements to hope; that is, other ways to support and care for myself when I encounter difficult trials in my practice.
All the same, talking about hope and hopelessness as we did during the dialogue wasn’t easy or comfortable, and it was emotionally taxing for both of us. I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the residual questions I have about what hope is, and what its usefulness really is. I appreciate that the dialogue has opened the door to further thought and discussions on the subject, though I am no closer to reaching an “answer” than I was in October.
Ultimately, the biggest gift I have received from attending the Deep Democracy event with my mother is that it gave her a better sense of the generational anxiety I and many of my peers are experiencing. This realization, I think, will have a lasting impact on my relationship with my mother, as I feel it has deepened her understanding of the factors that have motivated me to study community planning. I think that we will have many more conversations in the future that will draw on the themes we saw emerging at the Deep Democracy event, and I am grateful for that.