This chapter presents an in-depth case study of how AmericaSpeaks' Twenty-first Century Town Meeting*19 helped create a unified voice for the citizens of New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The case explores how a demographically representative gathering of New Orleanians-both those living in the city and those displaced to more than sixteen cities across the country-was realized; and how the recommendations that emerged had an impact on city, state and federal officials. The case also follows the story of New Orleanians who, two-plus years later, are still being left behind in the recovery process and in the strategies used, to ensure that their collective voices reach the systems charged with supporting them. The chapter highlights the theory of change and the conceptual frameworks that underlie the work. It includes a discussion of how the Twenty-first Century Town Meeting model builds on a basic Gestalt principle: creating a robust, shared awareness by accepting the validity of multiple realities can lead to effective joint action on the part of a large group of diverse citizens. Aspirations and Actuality of the American Democracy
The Founding Fathers of the United States had a deep and abiding belief in the ability of people to self-govern. These aspirations for democracy have since occupied a near mythic power in the American imagination. We rely on them to describe our sense of what is right and what is fair; we rely on them to organize our work, our play, and our family lives. Yet since the earliest days of our nation, there has always been a tension between the aspirations of our democracy and its reality: a disconnect between the vision, the words and the structures, and the extent to which citizens have been truly empowered to self-govern. To cite just a few examples: our Founding Fathers chose a Republic instead of a Democracy, and a Senate selected by members of the House and not the electorate; African Americans and women were disenfranchised for more than a century. As a nation we have made great strides in closing some of the gaps between the aspirations expressed in our founding documents and our everyday realities: we ended slavery, converted the Senate to a publicly elected body, and enfranchised the full population.