May 15, 2014: Time to initiate public dialogue

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 15, 2014

Conversation. A process during which two or more individuals talk with each other. Conversations may occur for any number of purposes. They may be business of social. People may share experiences, good or bad. They may seek to solve problems. They may converse to learn from each other.

Conversation is inherently communal in nature. It involves a dialogue, a back-and-forth sharing of ideas, thoughts, questions, and plans. The American Foundation for the Blind, in a lesson on social skills, says that “in the dialogue of conversation, each person has the opportunity to ask questions, inform, add to existing ideas, assert needs, agree or disagree, listen [and] share emotions or feelings. . .”

Culture at Work, a nonprofit devoted to helping cross-cultural organizations negotiate, create and learn, agrees. According to Culture at Work, “conversation is fundamentally interactive. It requires response.”

Historically, Belmont has been bad at having community conversations, particularly conversations the end result of which is not known (and perhaps not knowable). A failure of public dialog often renders forbidden words and phrases such as “maybe,” “perhaps” and “I don’t know.” It’s one reason many local problems go unresolved.

I hope to help remedy that. Through this column in the weeks and months to come, I hope to start some “community conversations” affecting our town. Education and the environment. Government and business. Civil discourse and government communications. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are we not doing at all? All are proper topics for community conversations.

I will ask questions, some (but not all) of which may have answers. How might we accomplish this goal? How might we address that problem? What if? Why (or why not)? How? If not this, then what? All are legitimate questions to ask through our community conversations.

I will offer suggestions, some (but not all) of which may ultimately found to be justified.

I expect (or at least hope for) reactions. A conversation is, after all, a dialog. I would ask, however, that reactions evidence the listening, as well as the responding, element of conversing.

The title of this column is concededly not original. Rather, it is taken from an initiative of the same name, sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities (NYCH) and funded by the “We the People” initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. According to the NYCH:

“Our civic life is a shared endeavor that requires the informed participation of all citizens. Community Conversations provide arenas in which people come together for thoughtful discussion and dialogue about shared values as Americans—past, present, and future.” NYCH explains that its Community Conversations initiative allows participants “to join in discussions that offer an alternative to received wisdom and provide an opportunity to take part in a shared national dialogue.”

Connecticut, too, has a Community Conversations initiative, but has targeted its process exclusively to the topic of “education” (in its broadest sense).

The Italians have a word, qualunquismo, that doesn’t fully translate into English. Roughly speaking, however, the word refers to an attitude of indifference, genuine or feigned, toward political issues. Ultimately, the purpose of this column is to challenge, through engagement, the qualumquismo that exists within too much of our community.

I look forward to the dialogue. I look forward to pursuing our very own “community conversations.”


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