Democracy Convention draws 1,000 to Madison, plans next steps

September 1, 2011
Judith Davidoff
Clad in a tiara, long dress and sash reading "Do You Miss Democracy?" Mary Zepernick approached a table at the Memorial Union Terrace Saturday night with a question clearly on her mind. "Do you miss democracy?" she asked the group. "I do."
It was a bit of street theater, Zepernick, 71, explained the next day in a phone interview. "It's a way to catch the attention of people, to just shake up their minds a little."

Zepernick: 'Do you miss democracy?'

Zepernick, who lives in Cape Cod, Mass., was in Madison to speak at the Democracy Convention, a four-day run of workshops, forums and panel discussions at the Madison Concourse Hotel and downtown campus of Madison College. A past president of the U.S. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, she helped found the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, a group that contests "the authority of corporations to govern."
Zepernick says she made new connections during her stay and is optimistic that the people and groups involved in the effort are going to go home and make "serious change."
"I'm convinced that we are literally creating a democratic revolution," she says. "That's the aim, and that's what happened. The process matches the goal."
Not everyone saw a clear path ahead, however. In one of the last sessions of the conference, one woman expressed frustration with the list of social problems and organizing challenges being noted on the chalkboard.
"I could have made this list before," she said. "Now what?"
Ben Manski, president of the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation, which organized the convention, says there are multiple plans for moving forward. The convention, which drew just over 1,000 participants from across the country, was itself divided into individual conferences concentrating on such areas as higher education and constitutional reform.
"There was a focus on next steps in each of these," Manski says.
He says that as a result of the convention, many more communities will explore ways to get residents involved in municipal budgeting — so-called participatory budgeting — and efforts to amend the Constitution to rein in corporate influence on elections. He also says key organizers of a series of upcoming protests attended the convention, and he predicts there will be many people from around the country, including Wisconsin, heading to Washington, D.C., in October to occupy Freedom Plaza.
Program participants were so pleased with the conference, says Manski, they asked him to do it again, which he will, in 2013. He says that he and others learned lessons from this maiden run and that there is room for improvement. "Overall, I would give it a B+."