A Greater Democracy Day by Day - By Sally Mahe

Sally Mahé - The Genesis of "A Greater Democracy Day by Day"

On March 20, 2003, I was crossing the Richmond Bridge in the Bay Area in Northern California, when I heard that the US had begun to drop bombs on Iraq. My stomach twisted and I had to turn back and go home. I knew that America was doing something worse than ever, something terribly wrong and I felt sick. A few days later I spoke to colleagues at work about what we might do to make a difference somehow. People were sympathetic with the need to act, but all of us felt pressed with full plates of the good work already stacked up on our desks. One morning a few days later I was reading a book of quotations, one for each day of the year.  An idea emerged… my 40 year old passions and convictions about democracy and the human spirit plus the commitment not to go about business as usual, blossomed into a simple idea of something that I could do.

I decided to collect quotations and stories and poetry, one for each day of the year, that called attention to the deeper values of democracy, to its promise and its ability to create a safe place for a person’s deepest intentions and values to come out and be seen. I knew there was connection between democracy and the freedom of the human spirit and that this knowledge had been forgotten and overshadowed in the US. I thought if I could put together a collection of provocative and inspiring quotations and stories that pointed the way toward these forgotten ideals, people could reflect on these quotes in their own way and take it from there.

I knew I did not want to enter into this project alone nor could I pull it off in a few months if I did not have some help. I asked a new friend, Kathy Covert who I knew understood citizenship with clear integrity and who was grounded in scientific knowledge and organizational practices. If I tended to soar too high with my spiritual ideals, I felt Kathy would offer balance. I trusted that we would enjoy this adventure together.

The amazement is that as soon as I dived into this project, I began to remember experiences of my own life that now seemed to be strung together, like so many pearls on a necklace.

I used to enjoy telling my grade school friends that I was born in a prison and watch the expressions on the faces. My Dad served as a prison doctor at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after WWII and we lived for a few years on prison grounds. So, while my sisters and brother were born and raised in comfortable suburban St. Louis, Missouri, I held the family distinction of being born in a strange place – in the shadow of the prison.  Many years later, when I returned to Atlanta to train teachers in civics education, I was thrilled to tell them that my respect for people’s power no matter what the circumstances and my commitment to the law must have begun somehow right there in Atlanta – in the prison.

When I was two years old, our family returned to St. Louis and I grew up in Clayton Missouri, a ‘bedroom suburb’ of St. Louis, a conservative Catholic environment. My father was a doctor and the political perspective that pervaded our home was never to vote for a Democrat for fear of socialized medicine. So, one summer I even spent my entire week’s allowance on a huge flashing ‘I LIKE IKE’ button. I didn’t know much about Ike and I never heard a peep about Adlai Stevenson, but in 1956, I felt proud to be an active citizen and wore Ike’s button everywhere and even pinned it on my pajamas at night.

During high school and college years in the late 60ies, I never stayed put in suburban St. Louis. I headed downtown on weekends and worked with people there. One year, I joined the Junior Catholic Interracial Council. Every Sunday, small groups of us, black and white teenagers, would go to Mass in white people’s churches in St. Louis county. For me it was a small effort, but I knew it took tremendous courage for my black friends to show up and integrate these congregations often for the first time.

I worked summers in the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in downtown St. Louis under the auspices of a Catholic priest. In those summers, I experienced a five year old’s horror when she lost her apartment key and knew that her mother would have to pay the Housing Authority $20 for a new one. I shared bitter disappointment with the children when our camp won the cleanest apartment building award and the City government reneged on their promise to give us the first prize - a picnic and airplane ride over St. Louis. I witnessed day after day the courage of the mothers and the unlimited bright enthusiasm of the children there as they faced incompetent housing administrators and the dangers and trials of living in the projects. I realized for the first time then that people in authority did not act in the best interests of the people in the projects.

After college I was thrilled to land a teaching post in an inner city public school in St. Louis, Hamilton Elementary. A friend and I were given the job of teaching civics to 8th graders. The civics book was intimidating even for us. My friend and I decided to create our own lessons. We had a motto, ‘how you teach democracy is as important as what you teach.’ Soon, my class was engaged in a civics project that would help their lives. When they decided to write a proposal to rent a bus to take them to a roller rink (because it was too dangerous to walk there), one child lamented out loudly, “no one will listen to us.” Fire like lightening shot through me and I responded firmly , “it is about time they start.” 

My colleague and I shared a passion to create a better way to teach civics and democracy that led to 12 year career. I went off to Harvard and received a Masters in Education with a focus on law. I joined a national movement in social studies at the time and helped forge a new discipline called law-related education. It offered street law information, constitutional law vision of rights and responsibilities and a way of engagement that worked for kids and adults of all backgrounds. With my co-author, Linda Riekes, I published a five book curriculum series, Law in Action, (West Publishing 1975, 1980) and started training teachers across the US.

An insight about democracy and people emerged for me in these years. I knew that there was an indefinable and powerful spark unique in each student. They each had something more to offer, something important for them to learn about themselves, and something to share and contribute to the rest of us. When a 7th grader was given a summary of a great case of the Supreme Court and asked to pretend he was the judge deciding the case he complained, “my brain is sweating I am thinking so hard.” We always told classes that these Constitutional cases were far too important to be left up to the judges, everyone needs to understand these questions and think about what is fair.

As a teacher, I wanted to create a space for that spark to ignite so the student was able to think about what is just, to hold an opinion, to acknowledge the ‘song” inside of themselves.  By 1982, I came to see that this spark had something to do with God and that I should apply my teaching skills in a way that to helped people learn more about this light of God inside of them.

By 1982, my family had moved to New York City and I was helping my husband run an elementary school for children of all backgrounds. In between supporting this community and caring for our two wonderful little girls, I squeezed in a Masters program in General Theological Seminary and spiritual counseling at the Episcopal Seminary in New York. My credential said that I could be a spiritual director. But I truly had no idea what that really meant or how I wanted to give this learning shape in my own life. Generally, as I contemplated being ordained a priest during those years, my conviction to listen to people rather than preach from a pulpit grew stronger. For the next ten years, I experimented with this new area of learning and initiated creative programs in spirituality. Along the way, I read speeches by Vaclav Havel and I found a phrase, “spiritual democracy.” I remember feeling another fire of lightening shoot through me and almost felt too shy to ask what in the world ‘spiritual democracy’ might mean and what it had to do with me.

One of my various initiatives happened to loop me back to my earlier career and led me to teach “democracy” in Moscow in 1994.  One day I gathered with a group of teachers working with Quaker-based alternative schools in the hinterlands outside of Moscow and they asked me questions about democracy such as: can you teach it in kindergarten? what does democracy have to do with freedom? Is it more that a political system? The world seemed to stop for us that afternoon and all of us were lost in the reverie of these sincere questions and conversations – we all knew that something greater was offered in the promise of democracy. None of us knew quite how to harness this truth and share it with others.

I zoomed in on the term ‘spiritual democracy’ whenever I saw it mentioned. I was introduced to the Iroquois Confederacy and learned the principles of the Great Law embodied in this early constitution that brought hundreds of years of peace to the Indians of the northeastern part of the US.

In my work as director of organizational development for the United Religions Initiative, I helped develop a worldwide process for creating a Charter that launched a global organization dedicated to enduring and daily interfaith cooperation. The bedrock of this work, my major day job for the last twelve years, has been to enliven the potential for living into organizational principles that are in accord with democratic practices as a source for sustaining the life and creativity and vision of this organization as it grew.

The seeds planted during the years teaching democracy, the seeds nurtured in the years deepening spiritual knowledge, and the seeds cultivated in the daily challenges of building an organization are springing to life now.

Please read Sally's "Call to Global Spiritual Citizenship"

News Updates

Apr. 29th, 2009:
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Mar. 16th, 2009:
A Greater Democracy Day by Day Read more...