National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach
The Village Square first formed after a divisive local referendum on whether to buy into a proposed coal plant nearby. The debate quickly turned into an expensive PR campaign that obscured the facts more than it educated the citizens. It also became all about liberals vs. conservatives and all the national issue baggage that comes along with it.
To tell the story properly, you’ll have to meet Allan & Bill: Allan Katz (then, a Democratic City Commissioner) and his good friend Dr. Bill Law (then, the Republican Tallahassee Community College President). Bill was for the coal plant, Allan against. With all the anger running amok, it seemed sometimes like Bill, Allan and some of their best friends were about the only ones having a real conversation about the coal plant – complete with an effort to understand facts and higher level reasoning now and again. That’s Bill and Allan jogging—>
So we created the The Village Square, founded on relationships between people who disagree with each other, but still talk and may even occasionally like each other. We specifically built our first board of directors – which is always bipartisan – from both sides of the coal debate to make it clear that we were undertaking a new way of doing business. For good measure we even invited everyone in the community to dinner and let them – for once – have a mature adult conversation about Tallahassee’s energy future. To set a friendly tone, we put the original proponents and opponents of the coal plant into a line-up on the event poster. They let us. Finally there was a little bit of laughter going on.
To date, our annual dinner series “Dinner at the Square” has drawn a wide range of citizens and sell-out crowds to civil fact-based dialogue on some of the most divisive issues of our time. We’ve held “Take-out Tuesday” forums (bring your favorite take-out and a drink) on topics like Florida’s usually voluminous constitutional amendments, really easy and issues like gun control, healthcare, climate change and entitlement spending, and occasionally we just try to have fun together with local programs like Speed Date Your Local Leaders and Fast Forward, about the latest and greatest in our hometown. We even talk about religion and politics (together)! In everything we’ve done, we have quietly defied the national trend toward fact-free partisan food fights – to reconnect local community, which has always been the common sense foundation of American democracy. It’s a crazy notion, but we think it’s officially catching on.