15 October 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty in DC

Signing up for 2008 Blog Action Day got me thinking about being tagged in the Changeblogging meme and how poverty and lack of political representation might relate to each other.

When I was in grad school, I had the opportunity to read John Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness, a study of rural Appalachian mining communities, their mistreatement at the hands of the coal mining companies, and the general unwillingness of the US and state governments to step in and do anything, "anything" even including enforcing laws on the books not in the mining companies' interests.

Gaventa looks at three types of power relationships: those that affect bargaining, those that affect the "rules of the game," and those that affect the social construction of meaning. Unsurprisingly, those who lack power (money, political influence, representation) come up short on all three (additional information about the book available from publisher University of Illinois Press), thus maintaining a status quo that benefits the powerful minority at the expense of the powerless majority.

As a resident of the "taxation without representation" District of Columbia, these issues are frequently on my mind. DC is two cities: a wealthy, professional, largely white city of people whose power relationships don't depend on local representation, either because they are able to circumvent the need for federal legislative representation through money and access or because they are not "officially" DC residents and so have representation through their "home" location; and a poor, under- or unemployed, largely non-white city of people who are largely ignored by the power barons of the federal government who are their neighbors (and yes, they are neighbors - DC isn't a very geographically big place).

The power relationships reinforced by the lack of money, access, education, etc. of large parts of the resident population stack the deck against those residents: we lack the leverage to take a strong position in negotiations, the "rules of the game" have been set by others in ways that are not in our favor, and social meaning is constructed by those who control the public space.

So should we all just give up and resign ourselves to being the laboratory for every idiotic idea some representative from Back of Beyond Town, Midwest State wants to foist on us, unable to decide our own laws on a host of items that our federal structure generally relegates to state or local control?

Hell, no, and I'll tell you why: the power of (you guessed it) social media. A Google search of "DC Voting Rights" turns up over 300,000 entries. The Internet, and more specifically, citizen created media, have allowed a variety of organizations from the District government to formal DC Vote groups to Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to local bloggers to find each other and organize around a variety of events and actions designed to raise awareness and end this injustice.

This, I think, points out the larger importance of a non-commericalized Internet. Sure, the Web provides a voice to plenty of wingnut groups, but it also provides one of the few large-scale organizing forums accessible to groups not part of the existing power structure of the US.

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