Our regular guest panelist Dr. Parvez Ahmed writes this powerful piece with Village Square’s board member and “Faith, Food, Friday” co-founder Rabbi Jack Romberg:
We write this as two friends, a Jew and a Muslim, both with leadership roles in our respective communities. Together we have broken bread, facilitated interfaith dialogue, and come to the realization that we have the same goal of peace, understanding and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds. The recent spate of violence between Hamas and Israel presents a new test for us. Yet, in the end, even as we might have some disagreement on the details, or in parsing the conflict, we find that we share the same hopes, ideals and values. We both must wrestle with some inconvenient truths.
What grew out of a contentious 2006 coal-plant debate, is now being embraced elsewhere as a model for fostering civil discourse.
The Village Square, a Tallahassee-based civic and social-engagement organization now in its eighth year, is expanding to Fort Lauderdale, Sacramento and Kansas City, which will serve as the nonprofit’s national hub.
The organization hosts about 20 local programs a year, from the quirky “Speed Date Your Local Leaders” to more serious discussions on public corruption, immigration and Florida’s future. Its purpose is to engage the community in a civil debate on divisive issues in a factual and nonpartisan way.
This month, University of Missouri at Kansas City is launching the national headquarters for the Village Square and our Kansas City Village Square location. Special guest panelists at the founding members event were Kansas Republican U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder and Missouri Democratic U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver.
Village Square co-founder Liz Joyner in The Christian Science Monitor:
From TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — 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.
“The more men of good hearts associate, the better they think of each other.”
–Unnamed Federalist Senator, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (from The Washington Community, James Sterling Young)
This is a topic near and dear to our hearts at the Village Square, as the notion of the Village Square was philosophically drawn from the Jeffersonian dinners hosted by the third president, partly in an effort to get the early “tribal” legislators to interact with each other. Our motive at the Village Square is to engage liberals and conservatives. Here’s a fabulous description of the events written by newly-created Washington Intelligencer Publisher Margaret Bayard Smith, a frequent dinner guest of Jefferson:
At his usual dinner parties the company seldom or ever exceeded fourteen, including himself and his secretary. The invitations were not given promiscuously, or as has been done of late years, alphabetically, but his guests were generally selected in reference to their tastes, habits and suitability in all respects, which attention had a wonderful effect in making his parties more agreeable, than dinner parties usually are; this limited number prevented the company’s forming little knots and carrying on in undertones separate conversations, a custom so common and almost unavoidable in a large party. At Mr. Jefferson’s table the conversation was general; every guest was entertained and interested in whatever topic was discussed.
One circumstance, though minute in itself, had certainly a great influence on the conversational powers of Mr. Jefferson’s guests. Instead of being arrayed in strait parallel lines, where they could not see the countenances of those who sat on the same side, they encircled a round, or oval table where all could see each others faces, and feel the animating influence of looks as well as of words. Let any dinner giver try the experiment and he will certainly be convinced of the truth of this fact. A small, well assorted company, seated around a circular table will ensure more social enjoyment, than any of the appliances of wealth and splendor, without these concomitants.
A recent article by Ezra Klein at Vox.com eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason. The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.
At the Village Square’s final meeting of the year, a crowd of several hundred addressed common community problems, moral character and the rise of public corruption.
Members of The Asteroid Club, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lucy Morgan and Bill Shiell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, welcomed a conversation on the staples of democracy and how they fit into our ever-changing society.
Taking into account political, religious and socio-economic differences is all part of the equation said Village Square Board of Directors member and moderator Steve Seibert.
“Public corruption, public morality, these are things that are almost impossible things to talk about,” Seibert said. “We dance around this subject a lot, and we dance with it in our tribes where people agree with us, but it’s very hard to talk about those things.”
“All politics is local.” – former House Speaker Tip O’Neill
The Village Square is about as local and as grassroots as an organization can get, taking a very bottom-up approach to problem-solving. They serve as brokers of conversation with the goal of setting a friendly tone in civic debate. They are about agreeing to disagree, but doing so in a manner where opposing views are respected and listened to. They are about discussing facts, not distortions, and reaching conclusions after the facts are understood. They are about celebrating what unites us, and engaging in civil, open discussions of what may divide us.
From the Tallahassee Democrat, Friday March 28, by Karl Etters: (Photo credit: Amanda Rodriguez, Leon County)
In the pub-centric style of town hall gatherings in the 1700s, Tallahassee-area residents, dubbed The Club of Honest Citizens, met Thursday night to discuss issues that affect the capital city.
But there were no powdered wigs or declarations, just a host of ideas on how to better the community based on four topics — economic development, library services, growth and health care with the theme “What is the proper role of government?”
Part of a formal partnership between the Village Square and the Leon County Commission, the first of three meetings is meant to be a place for open social discourse and engagement about the community.
Village Square Executive Director Liz Joyner said the old way of civil engagement surrounding formal meetings needed a revamp and a more positive way to bring people who differ together.
“In the hubbub over the mute button with which the mayor can silence citizens speaking at City Commission meetings, there is a point that may be overlooked: Citizens should feel engaged with their government long before arguing over who has control of a microphone.
“That’s why city and county commissioners, as well as other officials, take part in the town hall forums and “Speed Date Your Local Leaders” events sponsored by The Village Square. It’s why the county offered its Citizen Engagement Series in 2012 and 2013. And it’s why the county and The Village Square now are teaming up for a new series called “The Club of Honest Citizens.”