Way back in March, I sent out an invitation to a few hundred people to participate in something I called "A Grassroots Conversation About Richmond's Possibilities". Which is how almost 30 people -- some of whom I knew well, and a few not at all -- came together at the University of Richmond's new downtown facility to talk about ourselves, and our sense of Richmond's future. One participant, Angela Lehman, wrote a few words about it on her blog, The People's Snob. Here's what she had to say:
Metaphorically speaking, a hootenanny is what I went to last night. About 30 people gathered for a guided "grassroots conversation" about Richmond and its future. I was one of perhaps 4 or 5 people who did not personally know the organizer and leader, blogger John Sarvay (sultan of consultin' with his business, Floricane). We moved among small, random groups and discussed the ways in which each of us and Richmond were alter egos of each others. Hmmm... well, not really. But it was all rather abstract and subjective, with no clear purpose. Or, rather: no measurable purpose. I think most everyone who attended was challenged (challenged themselves) to act on whatever intersection of self and city they discovered. For instance, one mother of a young child wants to send him to the local public elementary school, at which most students come from low-income homes. She has already joined the PTA, but now wonders how to reach out to neighborhood parents who probably will send their children to private schools or apply through open enrollment to other public schools. This reaching out requires an extraordinary level of energy and bravery (one which I wasn't able to muster). Throughout the evening, I was reminded that personal, passionate actions count, no matter how small. One (white) man goes to (black) Mosby Court every Sunday afternoon with a friend and spends a few hours shooting hoops, or talking, or passing time. He said, "I had to learn that this wasn't about looking for results." Yet he is hopeful--certain--that his actions will have positive future consequences. But back to the hootenanny metaphor: Pete Seeger helps people see that when they sing together--joyfully, un-self-consciously--they don't need to be afraid of being quiet, raspy, loud or out-of-tune. And then it's very easy to transfer this confidence into action. Last evening, as we were all talking to (not at) each other about a city we all love, I felt in myself the growth of the same kind of confidence. Speaking for myself only, I'm not sure what, or when or even if, action will result from the conversations. But I believe these talkin' hootenannies are important to have.
Angela's thoughts are important. And they echo a very powerful belief I have about civic conversations -- that bringing people together with intention but no specific expectation is essential for community to develop or strengthen. Gatherings need intention. Who is in the room, and why they were invited, and why they accepted the invitation matters. Having a design that invites meaningful discussion is important. And letting the group go where it needs to go is essential. Which means that expectations are created in the moment -- by the people in the room.