WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Practicing Democracy

By Shaya French

"We are trying to change what's at the very top of this structure, the president…but I'm like, ‘But no one's actually practicing democracy….Yo, do you sit down together and talk about how you're spending the resources of your home and your community? Do you talk about how you're agreeing to keep each other safe? Do you talk about how you're agreeing to share time and who has decision-making power and do you make those decisions together?’ ....So even the people running for office are often people who've never actually practiced democracy in that way, and they're not practicing it intimately."
—adrienne maree brown, in a podcast interview

I was seventeen when I learned what democracy was. I was with seventy-five young people at the Youth Empowerment and Spirituality UU conference on Star Island as we chose our leader for next year’s conference. It had only been a week, but I loved these people—and I was so damn impressed. The candidates had given short speeches about their hopes and commitments, and left the room. We were left to decide. Each person who spoke did so constructively and kindly. People spoke about their leadership skills and how they felt in their presence. One friend of a candidate shared a concern about how one of the potential leaders managed their many competing priorities. Then we voted anonymously.

In the seven years since I bridged, I don’t think I’ve been part of an election process run by adults that was so loving.

In a sunny room, raised hands are the focus of this photo, with a few blurred faces in the background.

When I reflect on what made the YES elections work—despite disappointment by those who weren’t chosen—I think it’s because of the time we spent building relationships. Our nightly worship services were about connecting with each other, and feeling part of a whole, more than about our individual faith journeys. We’d taken time to hang out casually; to build connection. In that election, we were able to think beyond who we liked best and think about what the group needed most.

When I think about how “democracy” takes shape in a country of 330 million people, it seems almost inconceivable that we’re talking about the same process as my 75-person youth conference used. But it gives me hope, too, that it’s possible to learn about self-governance in the decisions we make in our families, schools, congregations, and conferences.

Having relationships where we can speak truth to one another and disagree requires that we invest in each other. It means we must care about something bigger than ourselves… and these are skills we get to practice every month of the year, not just in November.

Each and every time we make a decision with another person—or a group of people—we can practice democracy. Are we listening deeply to another? Does everyone who wants to get to speak? Am I clear whether I’m speaking up for my own wants or needs, or the good of the group? Are we following our own values? And perhaps most importantly, have we worked to build our relationships and truly know each other so we can respect each other when we disagree?


Spirit of Life, may we be active participants in the liberatory potential of democracy. May we practice it in our relationships and social groups, in our congregations and schools and local governments and in this upcoming General Assembly.

About the Author

Shaya French

Loved, nurtured, and radicalized by UU youth community, Shaya French (ze/hir) is a visionary fiction writer imagining worlds beyond capitalism. Ze is a member and board member of Sanctuary Boston and a disability community organizer. Shaya loves ocean walks, petting dogs, and candle magic.


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