Americans live in a representative democracy based on guaranteed individual rights. They elect representatives who vote on laws designed to protect public health and the environment. They vote for executives who appoint bureaucracies to implement and enforce these laws. The United States has a court system to punish violators of the laws, to defend the collective good, and to protect individual rights against the tyranny of the majority. (from Democracy and the Precautionary Principle, by Joel Tickner & Lee Ketelsen)
Somewhere between the ideals of this system and its actual implementation, however, things fall by the wayside. Too many sections of the American population still have to deal with the sorts of environmental, social and political ills that point to the reality that the systems that determine public policy too often fail constituents.
The question becomes, then, how to resolve these inequalities? Understanding the barriers to participation in regional and national politics that exist provide a key.
A paper by Larry Bartels of Princeton university examined the differential responsiveness of U.S. senators to the preferences of wealthy, middle- class, and poor constituents. His analysis includes broad summary measures of senators’ voting behavior as well as specific votes on the minimum wage, civil rights, government spending, and abortion.
In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.
These income-based disparities in representation appear to be unrelated to disparities in turnout and political knowledge and only weakly related to disparities in the extent of constituents’ contact with senators and their staffs.
These disparities in underserved communities’ access to the policy-making system reaches beyond representation in the political arena. Unregulated contamination in the industrial facility down the street, the choice of a toxic dump site downwind from a poor neighborhood, the understudied effects of the pollutants from the built environment – all these are examples of the ways public policy decisions fail underserved communities.
Many variables affect participation in democratic processes. One of the most potent ones rests on the ability to participate in the democratic processes that gives individuals a voice when it comes time to make public policy decisions. Underserved communities lack the tools and access to information needed to function effectively as citizens of a democratic society. Additionally, people must believe their experiences to be valid basis to shape public policy. Thus, providing education, access to community-relevant research, and bridging the gap between these communities and policy decision-makers can alleviate this problem.
Models of CBPR are part of a growing dialog on the extent and quality of public involvement in scientific research. Participatory approaches are of growing interest to policy-makers seeking ways to help communities redress problems, whether at the local or national scale. The CBPR principle of involving citizens directly in the scientific research process encourage more reasoned approaches to decision-making on contentious issues concerning, for example, environmental health.
The SCRC seeks to create a system through which grassroots, worker, and public-interest organizations and local governments can — by establishing the agenda and controlling the results of research — find solutions to social and environmental problems and participate more effectively in public policy. Assembling researchers, community organizations, funders, and government officials into a sustainable network is all part of this work.
The SCRC also provides analysis of federal and state policies and regulations—to identify those which inhibit and those which promote community participation in setting state and national research priorities.
By promulgating community-based research methods, the SCRC brings researchers and community members together to solve concrete problems. This validates the knowledge of laypeople and everyday citizens in critical debates over social, economic, environmental and cultural issues, and makes their issues part of the larger debate.