About that “Seat at the Table”…

You want a Seat at the Table. You fight for it. You get it. Yippee. Let’s consider it.1

(Welcome back to the DTP Blog. I’ve been absent from this table because, among other things, May is a huge month for gardening in Wisconsin and mine needed lots of TLC so I could put food on my table. But back to your Seat.)

“Wanting a Seat at the Table” is one way citizen activists express their desire to be part of the decision-making process, instead of being merely audience, cheerleaders, dues-payers, observers, onlookers, demonstrators, or the blubbering supplicants role that we play in regulatory agencies.

It’s like in grade school when time after time, the only part you could get in the class play was “villager” or “townspeople.” In fourth grade this happened to me. I spoke up, thinking surely it was my turn to be Princess, but they picked the same Princess they always picked. I still remember her name. (Don’t worry, E. A., I won’t reveal it.) I ended up having to be Rumpelstiltskin. The boys made fun of my red tights and I learned a lesson about getting what I wished for.

How does that work out, having a seat at the table? You might want to think this through before you start a big Get-A-Seat campaign for a big nothing.

The most common variation is illustrated by the recurring University Board of Regents controversy. This often comes up in the wake of some campus kerfuffle, maybe about so-called “sweat shops” (where 99% of our clothes are made and will continue to be until we do a lot more than get a Seat), or perhaps a racial incident, or yet another huge boost in tuition. The “radical” solution proposed is that darn it all, we need a student representative on the university’s governing Board.

Once in a while, this goes through. Best-case scenario is that you get somebody smart and persistent. (Usually, you get somebody who’s already been vetted as a right-winger, or son of a Big Contributor.) But face it, even if you get Karla Marx, she only gets one vote out of 17 or 25, and the rest o’ the Board are either mega-millionaires or friends of the governor, or, most likely, both. The Board of Regents and the university, in this scenario, get kudos (a singular noun) for being so diverse and democratic.

The university will then continue to stage corporate feeding frenzies in its research pool, and provide a luxury feedlot for academic egos. (Insert snorting sounds here.) Just to make this really clear: the cause gets nothing, the problem entity gets praise, and “the people” are looking at another fake “victory.” Oh, did I emphasize enough that university policy changes not a whit?

The same story applies outside the supposed “ivory tower” of the university.

No matter what the context, take a look at the table you want a seat at. It hosts the usual movers and shakers: big shots periodically gliding through the revolving door between corporations, mainstream institutions, elected officials, and chairpersons of benevolent and conservative nonprofits. They will tolerate your presence, maybe even fawn over you so that you feel listened to. If you are susceptible to this sort of flattery, enjoy it and get what you can in the way of swag. If you play along, you’ll probably have a job or two waiting after a period of good behavior. But don’t think your issue will get anywhere.

Have We Learned Anything?

Have we learned anything from the Seat-at-the-Table shuffle? Seat-at-the-Table is not an incremental step toward more democratic decision-making. One vote out of 23? (And sometimes it’s only non-voting status.) Meanwhile, you are surrounded by people who know that they wield real power (and you don’t). That means that if you actually believe in your issue and aren’t just trying to pad your “activist” resume, you’re going to get nowhere. But that’s not the worst of it. If your ego can’t accept that you are powerless and being pacified, you convince yourself that you are a player, and allow yourself to be co-opted. (You become a tool.)

In fact, when the token student (or environmentalist, “citizen,” union member, person of color, or “villager”) is out of earshot, the appointed power-brokers skew and chuttle about them. Grimm fact though it is, the rest of the Board know full well how effectively they have “Rumpelstiltskinned” the newbie.

Remember, the people who founded this nation didn’t fight a war so that they could have a couple of ‘citizen representatives’ with a seat at the table during meetings of the British East India Company.

About the Seat-at-the-Table syndrome:

  • It doesn’t fix your issue, unless you think that “explaining” ethics to corporate magnates and their minions is an effective political strategy.
  • It lends credibility to the institution that “lets” you sit in that seat.
  • It gives (too) many people the idea that your issue is being addressed, so they can with a clear conscience stop going to frustrating meetings and return to their pottery classes and journaling.
  • You’ve spent so much effort, resources, and credibility pushing for the Seat that it would be extremely awkward for you to now admit that you’ve accomplished nothing.
  • It co-opts a movement toward democratic control while awarding a public relations victory to the people that are the problem.

What to do instead?

Universities (which are just one kind of corporation — get it?) draw their power from laws that establish and regulate them. Mostly state laws. They are protected by the same invisible force field that prevents citizen activists from reading corporate law. I may deal with the university governance issue in a future blog — but don’t let that keep you out of a law library.

Both universities and other corporations are legal entities literally created by legislatures. Their governance structures are established by these same laws. If you don’t like the way these corporations are governed, work on changing the laws that set them up. Corporations have been doing this for two centuries.

Go for a Seat with power — to make decisions, to distribute resources. A place where regular citizens — whatever that is — get together to make democratic decisions about their community.

And here’s the difficult, but fun, part. If such a place does not exist, propose one and work to get it established.

* * *

In my Rumpelstiltskin story, after I protested, the powers-that-were co-opted me by plucking me from “villager” status and depositing me in a prominent role (Rumpelstiltskin) that no one wanted. Meanwhile, the Princess-pickin’ process remained unchanged. I now know that I should have disputed not my own role but the whole process of assigning poetic resources.

Fourth grade will never be run democratically — and actually, that may be a good thing. But our so-called democracy — it’s worth a try to seek to establish one. Getting distracted into side issues like having a meaningless Seat-at-a-Table just leads us further away from democratic control.

You don’t want just a decorative Seat-at-the-Table. You want a role in the democratic process.

Here are two quick ideas if your context is the sweatshop-making university-logo-clothing problem.

  1. Design and promote a modification to the university’s charter (that’s in state law) outlining how a truly democratic, citizen-controlled Board of Regents would be constituted and selected.
  2. Propose that official university gear (Go Badgers, etc.) be manufactured in a local university factory, run collectively, using sustainable materials, and employing (at union pay scales) students who need financial assistance to attend school. Write it up as a state law. People (except the current Board of Regents) will love it.

Have fun with this. Apply it across the board (hah).

As a matter of disclosure: I never did figure out how to spin straw into gold. Also, I’m no longer available for the Princess role. In the meantime, don’t get Rumpelstiltskinned.


  1. This post is dedicated to Peter Kellman of Maine. If you don’t know who he is, you oughta. Start HERE.
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