By Wendy Willis
It’s been a long, hot summer in Portland, OR, and everybody’s a little on edge. On yet another unseasonably warm night, my husband and I leashed up our restless dog and headed into the park across the street from our house, hoping a little exercise would tire us all out enough to fall asleep. The park has 40 acres of trees and curving sidewalks with a little duck pond at the center and a playground at our entrance. As we neared the pond, we started to hear—or maybe feel—the vibrations of a bass. We followed one of the few straight paths due west, and the music increased in both volume and decipherability. At the narrow end of the canyon/gully/gulch/ditch, which we in our household call Mosquito Holler, perched a makeshift stage canopied in fairy lights.
There were eight or so musicians playing some kind of techno-percussive-tongue-in-cheek funk and a hundred or more people circling close around the stage, with at least as many more sitting or standing on the slopes of Mosquito Holler, nearly all of them swaying if not outright dancing. The three of us stayed on the sidewalk above. My husband, who does not dance under any circumstances, even at weddings, held the leash and watched, and I danced for a few minutes, along with two hundred new friends. When the band, Mr. Vale’s Math Class, which on its website offers both live performances and math tutoring, ended its set, the musicians collected an array of tambourines and triangles and other handheld instruments from the front rows of the audience and tossed them in a big red bucket.
The whole thing felt DIY and spontaneous. It felt like a secret dance party that broke out in a corner of the woods. It felt like guerilla joy. It felt like something that had been cooked up via some millennial group chat. And yet, that seemed unlikely. The stage end of Mosquito Holler is just across the street from some pretty fancy houses, and Mr. Vale and company weren’t exactly keeping it quiet. So, somebody in charge must have given it a thumbs up.
When we got home, it took me seconds to find it online—a concert put on by Curbside Serenade, a company started by a Portland musician and producer to host shows in “non-traditional spaces.” On their Instagram page, they list a whole stable of public and private sponsors, including Vespa and the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). PBOT was the sponsor that surprised me. If there are any public agencies that I stereotype as all-business, it is departments of transportation. But here they were, sponsoring a pop-up dance party in a ditch at ten o’clock on a weeknight.
I tell this story in some detail because it is the details that are so surprising. And so delightful. Civic life, particularly the aspects of civic life that interact directly with government, is often rather serious and sometimes so earnest as to be lifeless. We—and by we, I mean community engagement practitioners, agency staff, elected officials—talk and write and wring our hands about how to “engage” community members, how to hear from them, how to connect government action with community priorities.
And because we’re trying hard, engagement has gotten much, much better. In most instances, we don’t expect community members to come to City Hall at 10:00 o’clock on Wednesday to offer three minutes of testimony to council members who never look up from their phones. We don’t open a public comment period, publish a notice in the newspaper, and move on. We want to respect people’s time and circumstances, so we offer food and childcare and incentives. And those things help. But more than anything, people will participate in public life if they want to. Sometimes they want - and need - to participate because they are angry and convinced something should change. That is a legitimate and important form of participation.
But I wonder what else might encourage community members to express their values, desires, and preferences, what might invite a fuller range of political emotion into our democracy and our practice of community engagement. I wonder what role happiness, pleasure, and joy play in participatory democracy. I wonder what possibilities we might imagine together if we paid particular attention to nurturing those emotions in our work and in our civic spaces.
For the purposes of this conversation, I think of happiness as a general state of satisfaction, contentment, and well-being that endures for some period of time. Pleasure and delight, which I use interchangeably here though they have slightly different flavors, are often influenced by a particular stimulus or experience and may pass as the influence of the original impetus fades. Joy, in my reckoning, is more existential and fickler. Like pleasure, it may be spurred by some catalyst, but it is not purely external. It is intertwined with the ineffable and is more mysterious than either happiness or pleasure and is therefore less susceptible to our will.
Before we explore specific strategies and practices, it is worth noting that there has long been an association between living in a democracy–particularly an established democracy—and self-reported levels of happiness.1 The pursuit of happiness is, after all, central to our origin story. Most of the studies of democracy and happiness, however, concern themselves with the results of democracy as a backdrop to people’s lives, rather than the practices of democracy themselves. To understand how those practices fit in, we need to consider pleasure and delight and, ultimately, joy.
PLEASURE and DELIGHT
In our field, there is considerable, justifiable concern about the potential for community engagement to be extractive of the community, leaving people feeling mistreated and disrespected. And certainly, it is possible for community members to be used for their expertise and lived experiences, for their time to be wasted, or for their personal information to be misused.
But there are other, less obvious ways in which we risk a transactional relationship with the community. When community members express preferences about how they want their city or state or country to be governed or about how they want to live together in community, those expressions are an exercise of civic and political power. So, while we should be acutely aware that we are asking people to offer their time, ideas, and opinions, we should not trivialize those offerings by acting as if we are entering into a purchase that is compensable by a gift card or a slice of pizza, important as those tokens of gratitude are.
I also suspect that some of the reason community engagement efforts seem transactional is because of the cool, institutional, and professionalized way they look and feel—more like a bank and less like a dance party. They feel like a place where the community and the government are negotiating at arm’s length. But I wonder if these processes were surrounded by the things that humans like best—the things that spark surprise and pleasure and connection—whether they would invite another kind of relationship between community members and their government.
Both the philosopher Martha Nussbaum2 and the activist, facilitator, and artist adrienne maree brown3 write about the power of pleasure in political life, what they both call the power of “yes.” Nussbaum writes about the importance of the outward movement of the mind and heart toward the places, people, and things we love, the things we desire. As she puts it: “That generosity, that ‘yes,’ is made possible only by the spirit of love; or more accurately, it is that spirit.”4 adrienne maree brown offers her experience as an organizer: “In organizing work, center pleasure as an organizing principle. . . When people find movements that meet their needs, welcome them whole, affirm them, commit to their transformation, and they actually feel good, they stay, and the movement grows.”5
Listed below are some examples of how we might begin to coax pleasure into the room, how we might invite the spirit of “yes.” This list is in no way comprehensive, but the examples are intended to spark a sense of possibility and shake loose pleasure and delight in how we practice democracy.
The writer and designer Ingrid Fettell Lee writes about how the material world, if we are attentive to it, has unbounded potential to spur pleasure and delight.6 She offers many examples, but one of the most compelling is how humans respond to color.
Lee notes that many cultures create rich visual environments, in part by using an array of vivid colors. On the other hand, dominant-culture Americans and institutions eschew color as juvenile or unrefined and have opted for what we now call “neutrals.”
Those shades of tan and gray and taupe send a stern message, encouraging people to tone themselves down, to speak quieter, to set pleasure aside. Bright splashes of color, on the other hand, invite a more vivid and complete version of ourselves into the room.
Over the past few years, color has become increasingly important to the events we host through Oregon’s Kitchen Table. We have boxes of red and white tablecloths and vases of polka-dot pinwheels and crepe paper flowers that we spread around the space. We use a variety of brightly colored markers to hand-write welcome signs. We have stickers and confetti name tags and brightly colored toys for the tables. Everything is a little mismatched and ramshackle, not especially sophisticated, perhaps, but warm, and silly, inviting, and portable. Our hodgepodge decorations can transform even the most neutral public space into a zany version of a granny’s kitchen. And it says: come on in and show us your most vivid self.
We know that food is central to pleasure. For years, we have advised one another that we need to have food at our community meetings if we want people to come. And for the most part, we have learned that lesson, sometimes showing up with a plastic shell container of muffins or a tray of sandwiches or a stack of pizza boxes. I’ve done the same, and I’m sure I will do it again. But I learned another lesson about food in a recent project.
Just as we were returning to in-person work and classes after the height of the pandemic, we began working with our university administration to host a series of community conversations about safety and belonging on campus. These conversations were intended to inform the university president and the board of trustees in some significant and controversial decisions about campus safety policies. As we worked with culturally specific student and employee groups to support their community conversations, we learned that they were required to use on–campus catering and that the contracted catering company didn’t provide culturally appropriate food for some groups on campus. After a lot of wrangling and workarounds, we were eventually able to help these groups buy food that was meaningful to them, much to the delight of those who attended the events. According to the organizers, it changed the entire tenor of the events, bringing pleasure and connection into a fraught conversation.
Story & Play
There are also ways to invite delight into the conversations themselves. As Wendy Sarkissian and Diana Hurford put it in their book about creative community planning7: “The invitation to listen in community engagement can be likened to an invitation to a metaphoric campfire. By an edge of forest or sea, we are invited to sit and listen to a story made out of many stories, with friendship at the heart. . .”8 As we have learned time and again, storytelling is at the center of empathy, and if stories are shared with purpose, they are deeply pleasurable both to tell and to hear. In community engagement processes, we (at Oregon’s Kitchen Table) often start with a storytelling component, in part because it is delightful and in part because people are experts of their own experience. By telling their own stories first, community members gain confidence to weigh in on policy questions they may have never considered before.
In addition to storytelling, there are many ways to introduce games and other kinds of play into community engagement processes. We are deeply influenced by and indebted to the work of Paolo Freire and others from the Popular Education Movement. Over the past few years, we have trained our entire staff in popular education, and we use many of those practices in our projects. Popular education subscribes to the belief that everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner, and that knowledge is constructed in the interaction between people. The practices of popular education include games called dinámicas, radio plays and sociodramas, and other non-traditional ways to learn together.
Many of these activities can be raucous and full of laughter. They also often shift power in the room. Folks who are versed in the art of the long, talking meeting are often initially uncomfortable being asked to act out a role or play a game, while those who are more practiced in other forms of expression take to the exercises much more quickly.
Children and Youth
There are several ways in which young people can play both a significant and delightful role in community engagement processes. Over the past few years, we have used youth organizers, including high school students, in several of our processes. We ask them to seek input from their peers, and they are very effective in that work. But they are also brilliant at engaging with adults. As it turns out, teenagers are fun, and it is delightful for adults to hear what passionate young people have to say about water quality or high school graduation requirements or disaster preparedness.
We have found ways to connect with younger children, as well. We almost always travel with a “kids’ box” that includes coloring sheets and painting projects and stickers and candy. And because one thing that brings me pleasure is quality craft supplies, we have beautiful two-tipped markers in a wide range of colors and very cute stickers. Kids know when the crayons are cheap and the activities are after-thoughts, and they go for the good stuff.
As a result, when we table at community events, our stations are often surrounded by little kids, sitting in chairs and on the ground, busily coloring, painting, and chatting. We talk with the elementary school set about the subject at hand, and they have insightful things to say about water, forests, and schools. But in addition, the parents or caretakers all come over eventually, and we get a chance to talk with them, too.
Much of what allows delight and pleasure to flower in community engagement processes is up to us. Those of us who work in community engagement can either fan sparks of delight or extinguish them. In our work, we show up at community events with smiles and often in brightly colored outfits. We hire organizers and facilitators and others who are easy to laugh and are known in their communities for their good cheer. We don’t hide the things that delight us. And we delight in witnessing the delight of others. We give people the space to savor their own pleasure. We build in the time to enjoy one another in fellowship, and when laughter breaks out, we let it roll. Yes, it is important to complete the task at hand and to use people’s time well, but that can be done with a skillful turn and a light touch. As we see ourselves as stewards of democracy and stewards of delight, we can do both at the same time without missing a beat.
This is not a frivolous undertaking, designing for pleasure. As adrienne maree brown puts it: “I have seen how denying our full, complete selves—denying our aliveness and our needs as living, sensual beings—increases the chance that we will be at odds with ourselves, our loved ones, our coworkers, and our neighbors on this planet.”9 And the opposite is also true. If we invite people’s whole, pleasure-seeking selves into the room, they are much more likely to find delight in one another, to propose and accept creative solutions, and to come back next time.
Finally, I want to touch on joy for a moment. And this is where it gets a little messy. Joy is not tame, and often, it is unbidden.
Where the table can be set for pleasure, joy shows up without an invitation. Or it doesn’t. Sometimes joy is individual. And sometimes it is collective. And sometimes it is our job to just step out of the way when joy reveals its face.
For me, joy was discovering strangers dancing in the park. The spontaneity and subversiveness sizzled with joy. When I realized the dance party at the park was sanctioned and supported by city bureaus, I was glad they were doing it, but my experience was suddenly domesticated to pleasure.
The poet and Indiana University professor Ross Gay writes about his experience starting a community orchard in Bloomington.10 In that case the city agreed that, if there was sufficient community support, it would give over an acre of land for the orchard. At the first meeting, there were over a hundred people, resulting in subcommittees and reports. Then, there were a few dozen, and once they settled into the day-to-day of maintaining the orchard, there were a handful left, who became the board. In the end, it was their very amateurism and solidarity that invited joy. As Ross Gay recalls: “I remember at some point realizing we were up near forty hours a week some weeks, though it felt nothing like a job. It felt like a vocation, like we were being called together. Which maybe explains our tolerance of, or even pleasure at, if not need for, long-ass board meetings, always with food.”11
That description of trial and error and inefficiency and seemingly wasted time reads like a nightmare for those of us who want to help make meetings go smoothly, who want to use people’s time respectfully, who want to do our jobs well. But if Ross Gay’s experience is indicative of anything, there are times when we may have to recognize that our worrying and fussing and trying to create something seamless might stand in the way of joy. And we might need to know when to step back.
Last spring, I was offered my own opportunity to learn this lesson. My colleagues and I were hosting and facilitating an engagement summit for the City of Portland. It involved traveling to three parts of the city with a team of expert visitors. Each day, we heard from our expert visitors and from a group of local storytellers (who were recognized community leaders) before we engaged community members in a series of visioning exercises. On the second day of the summit, we were guests at June Key Delta, a community center owned and operated by the Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the largest African American women’s organization in the world.
The local storytellers represented three generations of Black leaders, and together, they told a prismatic story of Black Portland from the time of World War II until today. One story led to the next, which led to the next. There was the flood that decimated a multi-racial community, displacing hundreds of Black families. There was the deep sense of belonging rooted in the local Baptist church. There was a newly integrated high school. And then, there was gentrification and more displacement. In the room, the timeline was blown. I stood up, clutching my agenda. But then, I glanced at my co-facilitator who shook his head almost imperceptibly. I settled back down and listened until they were done. We all did.
There was hardly an ounce of air left in the room by the time they finished talking. This particular story recounted in this particular way would only be told once, and we knew it. After the session was formally adjourned, guest experts and local storytellers and community members and facilitators and OKT staff all hung around the steps of the June Key Delta Center in the bright spring sunshine. We told more stories, we listened to more stories, we thanked each other, we hugged goodbye and then told and listened to more stories. Finally, we hugged goodbye again and locked the door behind us. The moment was full of “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight” that the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith identifies as joy.12
In the end, this work is more art than science. The experiences of happiness and pleasure and joy are both completely individual and entirely shared. So, we continue on with our imperfect attempts to be students and practitioners of both democracy and delight and hopefully, each time we try, we get a little bit better at it.
Wendy Willis is the founding director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a program of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University. She is also the author of four books and a board member of the National Civic League. Her next book, Kitchen Table Democracy, is forthcoming in 2024.