Langston Thomas is a political science Ph.D. student at Georgia State University and the Founder of Democratic Systems Inc. In 2016, Langston was awarded the Posse Scholarship and attended Grinnell College to study political science. During his time at Grinnell, he participated in grassroots organizing efforts, conducted research, and studied abroad in Ecuador for two semesters
In 2020, he graduated with honors and was selected to serve in the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Coordinator in Peru. When Covid-19 stalled his deployment, he returned to the D.C. metropolitan area and participated in the George Floyd and Brianna Taylor protests.
That summer, he also began working as an immigration paralegal for the private law firm, Benach Collopy LLP. After one year at the firm, he worked as a tenant organizer for Housing Counseling Services, Inc. – a HUD-approved nonprofit organization that advocates for tenant rights and provides technical assistance to low- and middle-income tenants across D.C. Despite helping individuals and families navigate the broken immigration and housing landscapes, he saw how his work failed to challenge the underlying factors that produce most of the suffering and dysfunction endemic to the immigration and housing ecosystems.
In reflecting on the limitations of electoral politics, grassroots organizing efforts, and social justice in the public and private sectors, he founded Democratic Systems Inc. to target the roots of systemic inequalities and empower vulnerable communities with substantive and sustainable solutions.
In 2022, he began attending Georgia State University as a political science Ph.D. to deepen his understanding of systemic inequalities in democracy while building his organization. His research examines the concept of democracy, the underlying factors that cause and sustain systemic inequalities in democratic societies worldwide, and the nature of institutions, particularly in shaping the preferences, actions, and experiences of the masses.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- About Democratic Systems Inc.
- Problem DSI is trying to address
- How does DSI plan to solve these problems
- DSI plan to achieve these goals
- DSI’s mission
- How can people and organizations support your work
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Atlanta Business Radio. Brought to you by on pay. Atlanta’s New standard in payroll. Now, here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:24] Lee Kantor here another episode of Atlanta Business Radio, and this is one of my favorite series. We do the GSU radio show where we spotlight some of the work that’s being done over there, and especially with the Main Street Entrepreneurship Seed Fund. We have one of the founders on right now, Langston Thomas with Democratic Systems. Welcome.
Langston Thomas: [00:00:47] Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:49] Well, I’m so excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us about Democratic Systems Inc, how you serving folks.
Langston Thomas: [00:00:54] Yeah, so Democratic Systems Inc. or DSI for Short is a profit organization that helps individuals and organizations ensure their efforts to support vulnerable communities have a systemic impact. Because if our solutions aren’t intentional and sustainable, they aren’t real solutions that actually address systemic inequalities and empower vulnerable communities in an effective way. And so that is our ultimate mission. And we have two primary goals one, raising the consciousness of society about what a democracy is, how elected officials should function in a democracy, and how citizens can adequately hold leaders accountable in order to make our democracy function as we want it to. That’s our first primary goal. And then the second goal is to develop our collective capacity as citizens to address the roots of systemic inequalities and develop solutions that truly produce the societal outcomes that we desire.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:48] So what was the genesis of the idea? How did this come about?
Langston Thomas: [00:01:51] Yeah, so growing up I was actually a math guy. I performed well academically, was always very curious, but through various encounters with different forms of oppression and my personal life and the environments that I was in, seeing the situations that people around me were going through, I became really curious as to why myself and other people were going through these situations that we didn’t create. And despite our efforts to overcome these different hurdles, it seemed like different elements of society were beating us down and undercutting our ability to progress. And so it wasn’t until high school when I took AP US government, where I learned about the history of institutional oppression and how a lot of the situations that I’m seeing and that people around me were going through weren’t the result of fate or chance or they’re the situations that people were going through weren’t because of their individual flaws, but instead they were systems and institutions that have been in place for a very long time that create these environments, that make people suffer and undermine their agency. And so when I graduated high school, I was determined to understand the roots of systemic inequalities in American democracy and try to develop solutions that would create real change in our lifetime.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:08] So when you were doing your studies, were you looking at only America or were you looking at all the countries in, you know, throughout history?
Langston Thomas: [00:03:17] That’s a great question. So when I started at Grinnell College, I was primarily focused on the United States, and I immediately got into grassroots organizing as a primary pathway to pursue change while also studying political science. That’s what I majored in in undergrad, and that’s what I’m getting my PhD in now at Georgia State. But through my studies, my focus shifted from the US to democracy around the globe. I studied African politics. I studied abroad in Ecuador during my junior year and studied the history of democracy in South America. I studied Indian democracy and the comparisons between the civil rights era and the Indian independence movement. And so currently I am a comparativist, a comparativist political scientist. So I study democracy and systemic oppression and various democracies around the globe.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:09] So which country is kind of the gold standard that you’re aspiring America to be?
Langston Thomas: [00:04:17] That’s an interesting question. To be honest, based on what I’ve been learning, especially in the PhD program, I don’t know if there is a gold standard. Actually, there. There isn’t a gold standard. And America has very wonderful ideals that it has pulled from that has continued to fuel, you know, the functioning of our government to this day. But the issue is, despite the words and the promises that American democracy was founded on, the application of those ideals have really never played out as they should have. And that same situation is really mimicked around the entire globe. And so that’s a hard question to answer. It doesn’t really seem like any democracy has actually implemented its values in a way that’s manifesting across society for the masses.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:09] But aren’t all of the whether it’s a democracy or another form of government or republic, isn’t it what the outcome like, what’s the outcome you desire? The method of government is just the means to get. There.
Langston Thomas: [00:05:25] 100%. So the desired outcome is for all citizens, no matter their identities, no matter their background, no matter what cards they were dealt with, and they were dealt initially in life, have their basic necessities, met access to quality education, clean water, a safe community to grow up in, and education that would allow them to pursue their passion and to participate in their democratic responsibilities in an informed and empowered way so that they can hold their elected officials accountable and produce the societal outcomes that will allow everyone in society to benefit from democratic rights and liberties. So that is the ultimate goal. And of course, as you said, the system of government is the way to get there, but that requires the government to have a certain set of ideals, have a certain set of rules and regulations, and then follow through on the implementation for everyone. And that is the piece that has been missing in American society and many other democracies as well. That is where the key breakdown has been.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:29] How are the outcomes decided and then prioritized?
Langston Thomas: [00:06:34] Mhm.
Langston Thomas: [00:06:35] Well really that’s, and that’s the benefit and the beauty of a democracy. The people are supposed to decide, the people are supposed to come together, determine what issues they as a collective feel are most important, and then figure out what solutions collectively they would like to pursue to address whatever prioritized issues they’ve come up with. And again, this is inherent to an understanding of what democracy is a government by the people. That’s the foundation of what a social contract is. If we decide to have a democracy where we elect leaders to determine the direction of society, to pass legislation, we need to have ways to make sure that our leaders are doing what we elect them to do. We need to be able to assess their performance and ensure that they are producing the the societal outcomes that citizens desire. And if they can’t, and this is the key to a democracy, there should be accountability mechanisms that allow the people who are driving the bus to say, Hey, our leaders aren’t driving us in the direction that we’d like to go in. So because they aren’t doing the job we gave them the power to do, we need to remove them and put in leaders who will adequately produce the societal outcomes that the masses want. And when that accountability mechanism, the primary one I’m talking about being the vote when it loses its ability to allow the masses to hold leaders accountable, that is when democracy truly breaks down.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:02] Now, in I don’t want to diminish what you’re saying, but using a metaphor of another kind of entity like the NFL, there’s a saying in sports and in football. A coach said, you are what your record says you are. Mm hmm. Does that kind of mean that we are kind of what our voters say we are? And if voters don’t vote or they’re not inspired to vote or they choose not to vote or they they don’t get access to vote, is that just kind of on us as the citizens of this country that we are kind of by choosing not to decide, we are deciding by choosing not to vote, we are deciding and we are saying, I am going to allow others to make this decision for me. For for whatever reason, I’m deciding not to participate in the democracy or the republic.
Langston Thomas: [00:09:02] Mm That’s a great question. And I think to really answer it, you have to look at how American democracy was initially established and how it’s evolved over time. Even though we have this idea that American democracy is a government by the people. Our democracy was created by elites. Our institutions, political, social and economic have been driven, developed and catered to serve elite actors while maintaining the view that the masses, through voting actually have a say in how democracy evolves. And so kind of bringing it back to, you know, the 21st century, the public has won its significant gun reform. Remember Sandy Hook? The government has wanted the masses have wanted an increase in the minimum wage. We’ve wanted access to clean water, especially after hearing situations like Flint, even though the water systems are failing around the entire country. And so despite citizens having voted, you know, election cycle after election cycle, the societal outcomes have not improved. And so to your question, I think if people are unwilling to vote or are unmotivated to vote, I think we shouldn’t put the blame on to them, but we should actually look at how is the vote actually translating into societal outcomes. And if the vote isn’t actually producing changes that the masses want, it’s not the masses that are the issue.
Langston Thomas: [00:10:27] It’s not the people choosing not to vote who are the issue. It might be the leaders. It might be the people who have created and continually drive these institutions that, as in the past and continuing to do, you know, do this today, continue to serve the interests of certain actors, elite actors, at the expense of the public. You know, and it’s and it’s so interesting getting at the getting to the PhD level and really learning the nitty gritty details of democracy and how it’s evolved. It almost it’s almost insane to expect people to expect people continue to vote, continue to participate in these acts of democracy when the outcomes are the exact opposite of what we desire. When the function of our leaders is the exact opposite of what our nation claims to be. And so not to, you know, continue the point over and over, but for me, based on my academic experience, my my work in the public and private sector, my work in activism, the lack of desire to vote, the lack of faith in democratic leaders and institutions is the result of our leaders failing.
Lee Kantor: [00:11:36] So how does DSI plan to solve these problems?
Langston Thomas: [00:11:39] Yes.
Langston Thomas: [00:11:40] So as I said, we have two primary goals one, raising the consciousness of the public and enabling them to better assess the performance of elected officials, determine how societal issues are improving or worsening, and then also developing their capacity to pursue genuine accountability mechanisms that allow us to target the roots of systemic inequalities and develop develop effective solutions that empower. And so the way that we are actually moving forward with these different goals is threefold. The first is by developing these democratizing technical tools that allow, like I said, allow the government to allow the masses to evaluate the government’s performance every year. Just a quick example. We pay taxes, right? And the idea of taxes is that if we follow these established rules, if we pay our taxes, we follow the laws. The government is responsible for maintaining public goods and addressing systemic barriers and acknowledging this responsibility. Yes, the government collects taxes, but they also collect and release data every year on how homelessness is improving or worsening in every state across the country, how access to clean water, how food insecurity, how community infrastructure are improving or worsening, and every state around the around the country. But if you or I try to go see, wow, we knew Flint, Michigan was really bad. I wonder how water systems have been improving or worsening in Georgia. There is no simple or digestible way for any average person to go find that information, even though the government collects and releases that data every year.
Langston Thomas: [00:13:21] So one of the technical tools that we’re developing centralizes this annually released government data and produces visualizations that are easy to digest that will allow the public to adequately assess how our leaders are performing and maintaining public goods and addressing systemic barriers. That is one of the three technical tools that we’re developing that, like I said, will help the masses evaluate the performance of our government and then also pursue effective accountability mechanisms. So those democratizing tools are the first offering. The second offering that we’re developing is. Is developing a systemic impact and measurement system. So we’ve been working with different academic institutions, nonprofits and data science organizations that understand the situation, understand that for some reason, despite the resources and knowledge that we have, these societal issues are not improving. And so we’re working with these different organizations to say, okay, what is your mission? What communities do you seek to serve and what does systemic impact look like for you in this particular context? And how can I help you all better develop a strategy to achieve the impact that you want? How can we help you measure that impact? And then how can we collect feedback to ensure that the efforts of your organization are producing the outcomes that you want for the communities you seek to serve? So we’re partnering with different organizations to develop these systemic measurement and impact tools that will better help nonprofits, activist organizations and other groups develop a key strategy for empowering and tracking their progress.
Langston Thomas: [00:15:09] So that’s the second offering that we’re in the process of developing. And the final offering that we are working on at the moment is trying to create intentional gathering spaces for people who understand that Democrats and Republicans, these democratic institutions are not doing their job in uplifting the masses. And in order for us to actually move forward and address the issues in our community, we need to come together as citizens. Like we were sort of alluding to earlier. We need to take the responsibility onto ourselves, come together and figure out what resources do we have and what solutions can we develop that will adequately address the needs of our communities. And so we’re working with a local organization in Atlanta mental dialogs to explore how can we create these intentional gathering spaces that allow community members to utilize their knowledge, their resources and their passion to address these issues that are not being adequately addressed by the government. And so with these three offerings, and I know that’s a lot, but with these three offerings, we are trying to raise the consciousness of the public about what a democracy should function like and how it has broken down decade after decade, while also empowering the masses to pursue and develop alternative solutions that effectively address our needs so that we can create the American democracy, create the social, political and economic institutions that we desire so that we can have the healthy, functioning democracy that we all want.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:44] So if somebody wants to learn more, get Ahold of you and learn about ways to connect and engage. What is the coordinates?
Langston Thomas: [00:16:51] Yes. If you check out our website, Democratic systems.org, there is a Contact us button that would allow you to send us a message. If you look up Langston Thomas on LinkedIn or Democratic Systems Inc on LinkedIn, Facebook, you will find me and you can send me a direct message. Also, if you’re on Instagram, I just got on Instagram. I’m an old soul, but if you look up democratic systems on Instagram, you can also follow us. Send me a direct message. I am very much open to having discussions, collaborating and exploring how we can address community issues in an intentional and sustainable way. So I encourage anyone who is serious about empowering vulnerable communities and improving American democracy to reach out to me in any way you feel.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:36] Well, thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Langston Thomas: [00:17:41] Thanks for having me. I appreciate your time.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:42] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time on GSU radio.
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