New Vrindaban Elects Its First Village Council
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON New Vrindaban Communications
On Saturday November 12th, New Vrindaban’s first elected Village Council introduced itself to the community, inaugurating a new more democratic method of community governance.
Advaitacarya Das and Mukunda Das, members of the Steering Committee that guided the Council’s formation, began by giving a historical overview of how it came to be.
The effort is inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s 1973 instruction to the leaders of New Vrindaban to “establish a local self-governing village” that would “show all the world a practical example of spiritual life.”
It also comes from a longtime desire of New Vrindaban residents to have more influence on how their community is run.
The recent effort began with a group of New Vrindaban residents forming an “Advocacy Sanga” in December 2013. For a year-and-a-half, they worked informally, exploring options for better representation.
From their discussions, it became more and more clear that some kind of formal governance structure was needed.
It was also obvious after many years that trying to channel all community decisions through ISKCON New Vrindaban, and its religious non-profit management structure, did not work.
At a Community Dialog in Spring 2015, the ISKCON New Vrindaban and ECO-Vrindaban boards, and the Advocacy Sanga agreed that they would work on establishing a Village Council. The idea was to give community members more say in running their own community, and to have ISKCON New Vrindaban serve as a temple within the village – to become more of a spiritual rather than a managerial center.
From that Dialog, a Steering Committee consisting of ISKCON New Vrindaban, ECO-Vrindaban, and long term community members was formed to help develop the Village Council.
Over the next year-and-a-half, they met with different devotees to crystallize the concept and form a “New Vrindaban Village Association” made up of community members who would elect their chosen representatives to the Village Council.
It was decided that membership of the Village Association would be broad, comprising any devotees, friends, or spiritual aspirants living in the Tri-State area who wanted to be involved.
On October 28th, 2016, over 130 Village Association members voted in an election for their Village Council representatives. There were seventeen candidates for the seven council member seats, who each got a chance to speak for five minutes about their platform before voting officially began. Steering Committee members volunteered not to put themselves forth as Village Council candidates to keep the process transparent.
On November 5th, the election results were announced. The elected members were Bhagavan Das, Gaura Bhakta Das, Gaura Shakti Das, Giridhari Das, Lokadristi Dasi, Nityananda Dasi and Vrindavana Das.
On November 12th, during a community dialog, Mukunda Das of the Steering Committee introduced each member of the Council to the community.
“The Council is a nice representation of men and women, pioneer generation and next generation,” comments Council chair Bhagavan. “We each bring a variety of skills and knowledge to the table, and all are willing to work together for the benefit of the Village Association.”
Bhagavan then made a presentation about the Village Association and the Village Council, explaining their roles and workings.
The Village Association, he explained, will bring a diverse group of devotees together and encourage members to get involved in smaller, focused groups. These will include men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups, book reading clubs, and various other interests. They also hope to have monthly meetings for everyone, switching between fun social gatherings that build relationships – for instance, this month’s Secret Santa gift exchange – and productive discussions about challenges community members are facing.
Meanwhile the Village Council is the smaller elected group that will represent the Village Association in their interactions with ISKCON New Vrindaban and ECO-Vrindaban.
Bhagavan emphasized that the Council will not be the be-all and end-all solution to all problems, but will help residents to come up with their own solutions. “We anticipate the most effective changes to happen at a small group level,” he said.
He also explained that the Council initially plans to have a rotating chair every month, so that everybody gets a chance to experience a leadership role. Internal Village Council decisions will aim for either a unanimous vote or at least a majority of 80 to 90 per cent, so that differing views are really taken into account. And new Council members will be elected every two years.
Many questions were asked by community members during the presentation, about how the Council will govern, how people will be able to interact with it, when meetings will start and how often they’ll be.
Bhagavan and other Council members answered many of these, and also requested community members to be patient with them, as the Village Council is just beginning to organize itself and define what its role will – and won’t – be in New Vrindaban.
The overall mood as the presentation concluded was upbeat and positive. The audience indicated that it was willing to allow the Village Council the time it needed, and Council members were eager to begin work. It was also evident that New Vrindaban residents are beginning to feel like they have representation in the broader community.
“A lot of people came up to me after the presentation and said they were excited to see what will come next,” Bhagavan says. “Personally, I feel enthusiastic about making a difference and helping everybody get connected rather than feeling like they’re on the outskirts. I’m glad that New Vrindaban is focusing on the resident devotees, and that we’re moving away from a hierarchy towards more of a partnership that allows everyone to be seen and heard.”
“I think if it’s successful, and we’re able to have a thriving community that everyone’s excited to be a part of again, it could be beneficial for other communities to take on too,” Bhagavan adds. “Ultimately, this is all about creating loving relationships between devotees – and that’s what we hope to see.”