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The Village Square’s Creative Civic Conversations

We recently read a great piece in the Christian Science Monitor that featured one of NCDD’s organizational members, The Village Square, and we hope you’ll take a few moments to read it. Much like the Albany Roundtable that we just recently featured on the blog, The Village Square is creating a civic infrastructure that brings people together for regular conversations on local politics.

The CSM article, titled “Civil Discourse That Doesn’t Taste Like Broccoli”, was penned by NCDD member Liz Joyner, who works for Village Square, and details the history and approach of this innovative organization. In it, Liz details how The Village Square has taken its inspiration from our nation’s early days of politics:

In the early 1800s, things weren’t looking particularly good for the American experiment in self-governance. Coming to Washington with differences of opinion natural to a vast new land, early legislators lived and ate in boarding houses that became entrenched voting blocs. Thomas Jefferson wrote that these men came to work “in a spirit of avowed misunderstanding, without the smallest wish to agree.”

Apparently neither human nature nor legislatures have changed much since.

Jefferson’s solution was to bring lawmakers to the White House in diverse groups for good dinner and conversation. Two hundred years later, The Village Square takes a page from his book when we invite politically diverse citizens to break bread at our “Dinner at the Square” series or “Take-out Tuesday” town meetings.

As Liz notes, the concept of a coming together in a village square is not in any way a new idea. Yet in a time when we have grown disconnected from our communities and polarized into echo chambers of like-minded people, creating a common space to come together with those we disagree with is increasingly a radical idea.

The Village Square project exists to help create and hold that space:

…The Village Square engages people socially around civic issues – bringing neighbors back in relationship with each other across ideological difference. People aren’t built to reexamine the basics of their positions unless they feel some sense of friendship and common purpose with those suggesting they do so.

But as Liz notes, getting folks from our polarized, siloed communities to sit down and talk is some times like pulling teeth. That is why Village Square takes a fun and playful approach to its serious civic work.

To address this challenge, our irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment. Each event is casual (the stage is set up to feel like the facilitator’s living room) and involves sharing food. As we begin, we give out two “civility bells,” ask that the audience avoid tribal “team clapping,” and share a quote to inspire our better angels. We welcome fluid audience participation and always try to laugh.

From here our formats vary widely – ranging from huge community dinners with a panel and social time, to 20 elected officials moving from table to table in “Speed Date your Local Leader,” to a barbecue competition between a Republican and Democratic commissioner.

It’s creative ideas for bringing people together that The Village Square is bringing to cities in Florida, California, and Missouri – and hopefully more. We encourage you to read Liz’s full article in the Christian Science Monitor, which you can find at www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Common-Ground/2014/0611/Civil-discourse-that-doesn-t-taste-like-broccoli, and learn more about The Village Square at http://tothevillagesquare.org.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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