National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach
The Village Square first formed after a divisive local referendum in Tallahassee, Florida on whether to buy into a proposed coal plant nearby. The debate quickly turned into an expensive PR campaign which pitted liberals against conservatives (and all the national issue baggage that comes along)
To tell the story properly, you’ll have to meet Allan & Bill: Allan Katz (then, a Democratic City Commissioner), his good friend Dr. Bill Law (then, the Republican Tallahassee Community College President), and Liz Joyner (back then Allan’s re-election campaign manager). Bill was for the coal plant, Allan against. That’s Bill and Allan jogging (Liz doesn’t jog) —>
Liz noticed the difference between the conversation that Allan and Bill were having about this very contentious coal plant (vibrant, honest, smart, civil, sometimes even humorous) and the general public political discourse everywhere else (silly, superficial, angry and insufferable). She started imagining that maybe there was something to the idea that people who know each other inside of hometowns could do a better job of political discourse than the professional polarizers were, so she started scheming about how they might have more than 3 people join in.
Those insights around that conflict led to the creation of 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 from both sides of the coal debate. For good measure we even invited everyone in the community to dinner and let them have a mature 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 and thoughtful 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, issues like gun control, healthcare, climate change and entitlement spending. 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.