Action

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Community Conversations: Toward a More Caring and Collaborative Culture

Things are getting scary. We seem to be becoming more physically and verbally violent. What can we do?

We need to move from a cutthroat, competitive culture to one that is more caring and collaborative. We must move from “Every man for himself” to “We’re all in this together.” We need to create community.

As people throughout history have always done, we must come together to think and talk.  From the salons of the French Revolution to the consciousness raising groups of the women’s movement,  people have gathered to talk, think, and take action.

In my book, Living Room Revolution: a Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good,   I explore how we can gather together in  small groups and talk together about building collaborative community.

Survival Skills

And we can learn some important skills: To think for ourselves, to trust our own judgement, to express ourselves, to listen, and to collaborate. These are skills that not only build community, but restore our democracy.

In this small-group method for social change, you don’t need training or “leaders.” Basically, you explore three questions  — questions that can change your life, and, indeed, the fate of the world.

The questions helps us learn to think for ourselves and trust our own judgement. Ultimately, we must consciously decide how to live our lives.

We can’t let others decide for us. How do we do that? We need to connect with our true nature through exploring our experience. Our truths must be grounded in our own lives or we’ll be captives of manipulative and deceptive forces — both politicians and corporations invest billions to influence us.

This is so revolutionary! Even our educational system fails to connect us with our own experience. Our schools are based on consuming experts’ prefabricated ideas instead of discovering our own —commenting on what the experts have said, not being experts ourselves.

So, we look at what we have experienced and ask ourselves, “What have I learned?” As Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately; to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…”

Next, these questions help us learn to express ourselves and listen to others — skills central not only to community, but to democracy., As we talk together, we build social connections, and the more “social capital,” the happier people are and the more civic engagement there is!

Unfortunately,  people are becoming more and more isolated with group participation declining. Conversation Circles become mini-labs in which we can learn the skills of community and democracy. In fact, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff says that we can only bring about change through evoking empathy. Talking with each other is the most basic way to evoke empathy.

And finally, we need to learn to act in a new way — in a participatory, collaborative way rather than a cutthroat, competitive way— because acting together is the heart of community and democracy.

Thus, we must learn to talk, think, and take action together. We not only learn about community and democracy, we experience them!

Three Consequential Questions!

Let’s look at what happens when we explore these three questions.

When have you experienced community?

For this question, people search their lives and remember stories about times when they worked with others, when they felt they belonged to something larger, trusted others. Maybe it was Girl Scouts or a dorm. You remember how you felt that you belonged, that you were part of something larger. The vital point is that you’re discovering your own feelings and emotions!   We need to listen to  our inner voice. We must discover and be true to our true nature or we’ll be prey to whatever demagoguery comes along. As Gandhi said, “Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there…”

And as we look at our lives,  we tell each other our stories. We discover that we have something in common with the woman next to us. She was in Girl Scouts, too! The man across the way loved graduate student housing! We not only clarify what’s important for ourselves, we also build social ties — stories bring us together! You discover what you have in common with others; you get to know the real person.

We need face-to-face interaction because it makes us feel that we matter. Our corporate culture is becoming more and more impersonal and indifferent. Too often we feel invisible and anonymous. People need to be heard. We need attention! We need to evoke empathy.

Talking about your experience connects you to yourself and others.

How does our culture affect community?

Here we step back a little and look at the wider picture. We move from the personal to the public.     We look at the forces in the larger society that might affect us — the norms, the expectations, the belief systems.
At this point, we look at the research, the work of the experts. We might look at the research on our “hurried” culture and our lack of time. We look at the research on increased loneliness. We connect their studies with our own experience.

The women’s movement called this  consciousness raising. Women realized we had blamed ourselves for our problems, not realizing we were conforming to cultural expectations around gender. When we saw the truth — the power of societal forces — we linked the ideas to our personal experience and we felt liberated and brought about change.We’re searching not just our personal experience, but our intellectual experience —our reading, our ideas. And the most creative thinking always comes when you share your ideas with others.

How can I build community?

William Butler Yeats is credited with saying, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” When we come together, we’re educating each other and we want to start a fire! We want to take action!

In our Community Conversations, we  don’t stop with personal or intellectual insights; we go on to act to test our ideas by taking action. You learn to act on two levels: the personal level and the public level.

One one level, you make the decision to have your neighbors over for a potluck. On another level you decide to attend a forum on gun violence. (And the first one prepares you for the second one as you become more confident!) You change your own life as well as work for broader policy  change.

The important thing here is something Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous understand. Don’t try to change alone! We need support if we are going to change our lives or change the culture.  When we ask the third question, “How can I build community,” we brainstorm together; we problem solve; we encourage each other; then we try something. Then we return to the group to evaluate what we’ve done. And we try again, always returning to the support of our group.

Conversation

There is one potential stumbling block: people often fall into old habits of discussion and debate — trying to win, trying to prove they’re right.  Too much of our public discourse is competitive and hostile. It’s almost as if people have forgotten how to talk with each other. Just remind people that we’re not trying to make group decisions. You don’t have to try to persuade anyone. We’re searching for our own individual answers.We’re supporting each other in finding our own path, our own truths. So it’s a conversation, not a debate. It’s a barn raising, not a battle. No need to argue. Just tell your story; listen closely, nod your head a lot, and periodically murmur, “Good point.” “Yes, that happened to me too.” You’ll learn from yourself. You’ll learn from each other.

Getting Involved

These are the conversations we need to be having, so I hope you’re asking, “Where can I get involved?”  We’re creating Community Conversations anywhere we can. There’s nothing to join. You can do it with a few of your friends; you can start a group at work; you can go to a group you belong to like a church or an environmental group.  Just gather a few people and talk about the three questions.

You don’t need any training — you can be the one who wants to make a difference and who gets things rolling. You can have just one gathering, or start an ongoing circle. You can generate new questions each time —the aspects of community are limitless. New issues always emerge and you just stay with  the framework: Describe your experience; explore the cultural forces; try out solutions. Or, you can just come together to help each other figure out how to create community.

Democracy and Community

John Dewey said that “Democracy is born in conversation.” Basic to a democracy is the belief in the sacredness of the individual; the importance of the flourishing of each human being; the belief that if one does better, we all do better; the belief that we can find our own answers by coming together.

We must commit to community discernment in order to create community and democracy. Then we have to come together to act. Community Conversations allow us to do this.

Let’s finally take seriously Margaret Mead’s words “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Cecile Andrews
Contact Me: If you can get at least a few people together,  I’ll meet with you via a phone call or Skype. I can be reached at cecile @ cecileandrews.com.

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