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 (a Democratic City Commissioner) and his good friend Dr. Bill Law (the Republican Tallahassee Community College President). Bill was for the coal plant, Allan against. It seemed 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—>
The organizers of The Village Square thought there must be a better way. 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 to dinner and let them have a mature adult conversation about Tallahassee’s energy future. To set a friendly tone, we put them in a line-up.
To date, our quarterly series “Dinner at the Square” has drawn a wide range of citizens and overflow crowds to civil fact-based dialogue on some of the most divisive issues of our time, you know the ones your mother told you not to talk about.. We’ve held “Take-out Tuesday” forums on a mind-boggling array of constitutional amendments, we’ve contemplated the End of the World as We Know It, hosted annual town hall meetings (absolutely no pitchforks were involved), invited citizens to speed date their local leaders, and asked Important People to present the latest, greatest in town in presentations restricted to 20 slides that advance automatically after 20 seconds (most fun you’ll ever have talking civics). Online, we’ve built an alternative to the typical Internet fare of like-minded people in echo chambers of agreement (find We the Wiki online HERE). In everything we’ve done, we have quietly defied the national trend toward fact-free partisan food fights on full display on issues like the health care debate – to reconnect local community, the common sense foundation of American democracy. It’s a crazy notion, but we think it might catch on.