The notions of “democracy” and “freedom” are inextricably bound up in the grand American experiment. Neither word is used in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence we learn that “certain truths are seen as self-evident — that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Democracy – the system of governance where all eligible citizens are entitled to a voice and a vote – is enshrined in law and practice. Utopia is not guaranteed, however. Poverty is at the highest rate in the US in decades. Public systems and private markets don’t perform equally well for different ethnic, racial, or cultural groups. The talents and capacities of all our people are not fully permitted to come forward and be rewarded.
And “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? The Declaration Initiative is a new movement that “inspires members of American communities to invest together in assuring access to the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and end persistent poverty for all by July 4th, 2026.”
Such a movement presents some interesting evaluation possibilities. How about an evaluation that is participatory, even empowering, even developing the capacities and patience of local folks for noticing, appreciating, and taking the measure of progress towards these goals?
After all, Freedom happens all the time, everywhere — at least, everywhere that people have choices. The freedom to make choices, for oneself and family and others held dear, is the essence of Freedom. Choices for right-this-minute, and choices for down the road. Choices that effect one’s health, wealth, and future prospects.
Freedom to choose such everyday things as where to shop and what to buy, freedom to read what one chooses or to speak to whomever one wants (without fear), freedom to choose which good public school to send one’s child to, freedom to say Yes or No to proposed amendments to the state constitution, even the freedom to not pay attention.
People without those choices, or without the permission or ability to make them, are not living in freedom – their freedom is limited. Wherever freedom to choose is limited (like in prison, or in a besieged resource-poor family, or life on the wrong side of the tracks), freedom is limited. It’s the exercise of freedom, the making of choices, that defines Freedom and, we believe, the unfettered right to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unfortunately there are places throughout this great country where people have become so accustomed or acculturated to limited options for improving their well-being they are unable to see any that might appear. Or they are unable to communicate them to their children, and thus are not able to pass on the legacy of freedom. Long-term, multi-generational poor families may have given up, or may no longer have an abiding belief in opportunities for attaining life, liberty, or happiness. And that’s why The Declaration Initiative exists.
How about an evaluation that supports the project’s mission and moves the ball forward. How about an evaluation that encourages people – all people, any people – to become more fully aware of the choices immediately in front of them? When we head out in the morning, we could keep a mental journal of the choices we make, especially those that stand to improve our well-being – from what to wear, what to eat, what to listen to, what to learn about, what to say and to whom, what to buy, what to give our support to — and what not to – and what happens as a result.
All of us, poor or rich, could learn from this exercise in “freedom awareness.” I predict such an exercise would shake us all out of our doldrums, make us aware of our patterns of choice, and help us see opportunities we might not have seen before. Just to test things or push the limits of our freedoms, we could try saying Yes to things we normally say No to, and No to things we normally say Yes to.
Students of all ages and disciplines could gather these notes and group them in different ways to provide meaning, and make presentations back to various civic gatherings. What avenues for improving one’s circumstances became more visible, more approachable, more doable? What are participants learning about freedom, choices made and not made, roads taken and not taken? What are we learning about how to piece together more successful avenues for exercising our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Many kinds of organizations could contribute – from civic organizations to local colleges, especially for studies in urban or rural issues, political science, and American studies. Some could focus on the local lessons being learned about “this is what Freedom looks like,” and “this is how exercising our choices can improve the chances for success for those we care about,” and “this is how we can affect the decisions that affect us.” Others could try to draw the connections to such downstream metrics as voter registration, quality of life indicators, and poverty reduction.
It’s a substantial project to organize. And forget about trying to standardize it. On the other hand, there’s something cool about inviting Freedom by learning how to notice it.
Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / October 6, 2012