My Adventures in Democracy

– David Pechefsky
Recently, GC has embarked on a project in which we ask ourself #WhyGC. Where to start? I have been working in government/politics/democracy building for close to 20 years. Back in 1996 I was an intern in the office of Brooklyn Council Member Steve Dibrienza. This was when Mayor Giuliani’s administration was implementing welfare reform and Steve didn’t like it. He would haul in Giuliani’s commissioners and grill them for hours. I am not sure how effective it was, but it was good theatre. I was inspired.
I worked in City government for the next twelve years, mostly with the City Council. It was a good run, but over time I got frustrated. I began to feel like the Council wasn’t working well enough and I wanted to challenge the system. So I ran as a Green Party candidate for the Council. It was fun, but also very instructive about how entrenched the current dynamics of our politics are and how closed the system is in NYC. A low point was when the Board of Elections erroneously counted 500 votes that were for me as going to the libertarian candidate, in my own election district! When I first saw the numbers I wondered “did my wife vote against me?” I was discouraged. I thought “if no one will listen to me in the US, maybe they will listen to me somewhere else.”
Fast forward 4 years, and I am working in Nairobi with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) managing a program to improve the Parliament of Somalia. We take a delegation of Somali MPs on a study mission to Norway. Sadly, Somalia is notorious for its clan politics, violence, and unstable governance. Norway is known for good governance, peace and prosperity, and consensus politics. Where does the US fall on the spectrum? As I am chatting with the Speaker of the Somali Parliament over pizza (his choice), I tell him about politics and government in the US and New York. Another New York politician has been indicted. The President and Congress are at loggerheads over the debt ceiling. Public opinion of government is at an all-time low. “Those don’t sound like best practices to me” says the Speaker. From then on, whenever he sees me leading a training session or even informally talking to his members he says “Hey Chief, are we doing best practices or worst practices today?” Of course he is right, and I know that as much as I like my international work at some point I will need to bring it home. But in what capacity? There are different ways to build democracy – working with institutions is one, working with citizens is another- both necessary. More of my work has been on the institution side – and now, at GC, is is time to try the citizen side!
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.