Engaging Richmond – Kitchen Table Conversations

22 / 11 / 2014

Over two months, as part of Kathleen Maltzahn’s campaign as a Greens candidate in the state seat of Richmond, the ‘Engaging Richmond 2014’ kitchen table style conversations were held. Maltzahn had approached Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks following the successful utilization of the strategy in the federal seat of Indi (Crooks had advised ‘Voice for Indi’ about how to conduct a series of conversations around the electorate in order to gauge community thinking and views – see this Sheilas article for more information).

After Crooks provided briefings to Maltzahn and her team, they took the ‘kitchen table conversations’ process out into the inner city electorate.

The report documenting the findings of the ‘Engaging Richmond’ process was launched last Sunday. It outlines how conversations with participants took place across the Richmond electorate, in venues which included people’s homes, community centres, the Richmond Housing Commission Flats and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. Two conversations were held in Vietnamese and translated into English for this report.

Participants included friends of hosts, but also neighbours and others in the community with few prior connections and different sets of values and opinions. One local resident, Rohan from North Fitzroy said that “Hosting a kitchen table conversation was an enormously rewarding experience. There was a real sense that we were actively participating in the democratic debate.”

The VWT’s Mary Crooks joined Maltzahn in speaking at Sunday’s report launch. Included in this edition of Sheilas, we link to the report, which we encourage readers to check out, as it provides an important snapshot of those living in an inner urban seat, which includes covering what people identify as being good about living in the Seat, what people expect from their political representatives, and what issues people nominate as being of concern to them, in their electorate as well as for the state of Victoria, as well as addressing how their political representatives should respond to these concerns (and we appreciate that one of the responses to this question was “more kitchen table conversations”!).

We include an edited version of Maltzahn’s speech, focusing on the report findings, for this ‘election eve’ edition of Sheilas.

Thirty years ago, an Australian researcher started talking to British civil servants, and found something odd. Through interviews with over 10,000 people, a clear pattern emerged – the higher up the hierarchy you were, the fewer heart attacks you had, the less likely you were to commit suicide, the longer you lived. Even when risk factors such as smoking, obesity and being sedentary were taken out, the results were the same. At a time when it was assumed that stress was bad for your health, and the more responsibility you had the more likely you were to be stressed, this was startling.

The British civil service had been picked as a research site in part because of what was politely described as its highly socially stratified nature, and this, it turned out was key. The main factor in these civil servants health outcome was control. Bluntly put, having more power in your workplace was good for you health; having less made you sick. The lower down the hierarchy you were, the sicker you were.

In the subsequent thirty years, the Australian who led this research – Professor Sir Michael Marmot – has become a world leader on health inequalities. According to Marmot, when it comes to health, power is key. Control, autonomy and freedom, he says, are not just psychological properties of individuals, but social causes of health. And democracy, he says, ‘which should allow more of us some semblance of control, seems to be good for health, even after taking other social conditions into account’.

Which is a long way of saying that participation with power, being about to use your voice and be heard, inputting effectively into the life of your community, are necessary for both our individual and community health and wellbeing.

Too often, however, democracy is stripped down to something mechanical, to the solitary act of numbering some boxes on a skinny slip of paper and shoving it in a box. Worse, perhaps increasingly, too often democracy is distorted when politicians turn their ear to and become the voice of the big business interests who fund their election campaigns, ignoring the community. We become the janitor in the British civil service, with no way of making our voice reach those at the pinnacle of power. To swap the analogy, we’re reduced to yelling at the TV, something people have said to me again and again this election. The voting public has become the viewing public, an audience for politicians but, increasingly, no longer their chief constituency.

Last year, I watched with growing interest as that power relationship was turned on its head, and in the regional towns of Wangaratta, Wodonga and Benalla, ordinary people in the federal seat of Indi took back the power they had lost, using kitchen table conversations to first empower and then galvanise the community. The model resonated strongly with me – as a community worker, I’ve seen again and again the power of groups, of conversations, to grow power among the most disenfranchised groups. As the Indi campaign gained more and more momentum, I started wondering if we could do the same thing here – could you take the model Mary [Crooks] described, and harness it in a state election, as a political party, when a candidate had already been selected? In the past four months, we’ve been trying to answer this question, and today we are here to report back.

The answer, you won’t be surprised to hear, is a resounding yes. Despite the busy lives that city people lead, over the last few months, scores of people have come together, around kitchen tables, in neighbourhood houses and community centres. Their verdict has been very clear – kitchen table conversations are fun, informative and empowering – and the food’s usually pretty good too. We also found that people seized the process, unbound by who was putting it forward – as you can see, there are some positive comments about Greens and Greens reps, and also some criticisms, which were welcome.

So what did they say, in those conversations? As you can see in the report, we asked nine questions, ranging from the best things about Richmond to what makes for a good political representative to what issues matter most to people.

I can’t do justice to the richness of the conversations here, but I wanted to describe, and then respond to, several of the strong themes.

The first thing that stands out is how clear people are about what makes for a good community, and how consistently people raised the same qualities. In conversation after conversation, people talked about the importance of recognising the many differences in the community, and at the same time having ways people come together, across ethnic, culture, class and age differences. They talked about public infrastructure and services – good schools and free medical services, public transport and bike lanes, libraries and sports clubs, affordable housing and public housing, interpreting services. They talked about the safety that comes not from police or cameras, but from people watching out for each other.

Much of what people wanted in a community was already present. One thing that comes through intensely is how much people love living here, and how great a place the seat of Richmond is – people love the river and the creek that snake around us to the north, south and east, they love our heritage parks and shopping strips, the food, the amazing community services and schools, our council but most of all the love the people here – the quirkiness and creativity, the diversity and the sense of neighborliness. It’s easy to get lost in a big city, people said, to keep your distance, but that doesn’t happen here.

People are equally clear about what they want from their political representatives – someone who doesn’t just react but who will show vision and lead, someone who knows and represents the diversity of the electorate, who isn’t in debt to big business or unions, who doesn’t demonise their opponents, and who will stand up for what they believe. They want political representatives who show integrity, intelligence, honesty and responsiveness.

They’re pretty clear that we’re not seeing enough of that right now. People were concerned by the make-up of parliament overall, and the monoculture of those representing us, and there were concerns about representation in our area too. In a line I loved, someone said we needed “more actors, doctors and scientists”, more Indigenous people, young people, creative people, public housing tenants. Fewer middle class white religious men. More people willing to take on developers and big business, to fight for public transport, public housing, renewable energy, and an independent and strong anti-corruption body.

Other issues people were concerned about were the East West tollway, which was raised again and again, the need for good quality public services including Aboriginal health services, community health services and TAFE, marriage equality, addressing the drug problem and reproductive rights.

People had many ideas about how local representatives could address these issues. They want a strong anti-corruption body in Victoria and changes to developer donation laws. They would like to see more independents in parliament, and the press covering good policy from the Greens and other parties. They want to see more processes for people to get involved in planning and development and an end to gambling advertising. They suggested rent controls and greater renter rights, investment in public transport, health and education and renewable energy.

Which sounds like a pretty good agenda for a term in parliament to me …

This process is a reminder for me that the problem is not that people are not interested in politics. Like many of us, I have seen again and again that when you offer people genuine ways to engage with the political process, where they can really make an impact, they seize the chance – and often people create their own ways to engage, even when they’re being shut out. Our problem is that politics, and too many politicians, are not interested in people.

The kitchen table conversation process, championed by Mary Crooks, seized by the people of Indi, and welcomed here in Richmond, is a reminder of how powerful it is when community members, voters, engage with politics, and when they refuse to let politicians turn their back on them and define what politics is …

I want to finish by sharing a quote I love, that some of you may have heard before. It’s by the late American poet, feminist, academic, and activist Adrienne Rich. She said this:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you … when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, [or, can I add, a politician] describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

This process is part of resisting the void Adrienne Rich describes, of standing up, demanding to be seen and heard, and, I want to thank each of you for being part of the Engaging Richmond process, and in doing so, helping to reshape and reclaim of politics.

For the full report documenting the Engaging Richmond process, click here.