Environmental Justice and Deliberative Democracy:
How Social Change Organizations Respond to Power in the Deliberative System
Jennifer Dodge, a research associate at the Research Center for Leadership in Action and PhD Candidate at NYU Wagner, has published an article titled "Environmental Justice and Deliberative Democracy: How social change organizations respond to power in the deliberative system" in the Fall 2009 issue of the Policy & Society journal.
The article examines the role that social change organizations play in "deliberative democracy," focusing particularly on how they respond to power. Deliberative democracy is a theory about, and a practice of, democratic participation that focuses on public deliberation as a means toward better public decisions.
This articles draws on a case study of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (the Network), which has been organizing a campaign to bring environmental justice policy to the state of New Mexico since 2003. Throughout its campaign the Network has engaged in public deliberations within the New Mexico environmental department. Jennifer's analysis shows how the Network has shaped both the rules of democratic engagement and substantive policy. Substantively, environmental justice became codified in a Governor's Executive Order on Environmental Justice and in solid waste regulations. Procedurally, the Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department created a series of deliberative forums specifically to address environmental justice, one of which has become part of the institutional infrastructure of the department.
Jennifer finds that the SW Network used a series of discursive practices to achieve these accomplishments. Through these practices, the Network used rhetorical power (what she calls "discursive power") to mobilize meaning about environmental justice and to interrupt prevailing assumptions about racism in environmental decision making. However, Jennifer also found that at times the Network had to use "coercive power" - like threatening to exit the process - to respond to power dynamics, to secure a fairer process and to get their policy problems on the agenda. Contrary to theory, it used coercive power more in and relating to face-to-face deliberation. When their ideas about racial discrimination were weakened in deliberations, however, they used discursive power to develop critical discourse on race and disseminate it in to public where it could inform future political action.
The research for this paper is based on Jennifer's dissertation with two organizations from Leadership for a Changing World Research and Documentation program (LCW) that do grassroots organizing on environmental issues. The staff, members and colleagues of these organizations brought to interviews a deep knowledge of the environmental issues in their communities, without which this research would not have been possible. Colleagues at the Research Center for Leadership in Action, and co-researchers and partners in LCW also shaped Jennifer's understanding of social change.
The Policy & Society issue in which this article will be published is a special issue about deliberative democracy and power that grew out of a collaboration between Jennifer and several other scholars who organized a panel at the 2008 Interpretative Policy Analysis Conference at Essex University called "Accounting for politics in applications of deliberative democracy theory."