How to Have a Conversation: Just Do It

I continue to be simultaneously impressed by the scale and quality of some public conversations in the Richmond region -- a Downtown Plan discussion that lasts 18 months, or the continued energy of the Times-Dispatch's Public Square events -- and dismayed by the conventional wisdom that keeps othersuch conversations from even hitting the public sphere. By my count, there are at least a dozen major organizations engaged in some form of pondering, organizing or recuperating from some civic engagement activity -- a charrette, a visioning process, public discussions about big issues or ideas. Fe w of them seem to ever go anywhere. This winter, frustrated by conversation after conversation with people whose jobs are to engage the public around civic matters, I sat across the table from one group of leaders and asked quite frankly, "Would one of you host a damned dinner party and invite the rest so that we can have one conversation about the Richmond region's future?" After some interesting discussion, one of them turned back to me and said, "Why don't you do it?"His rationale was that there are too many conferences, summits, visioning sessions and reports organized by the usual suspects -- the same group of corporate and political leaders. "Wouldn't it speak volumes if you, as a citizen of the region, simply invited a bunch of people together to talk about the future?" he added. I told him that I was trying to start a business, not another nonprofit organization. Two weeks ago, I hosted almost 150 people at a business launch party. The energy was high, and positive. Someone joked that I should hold launch parties every month -- just so people could catch up with each other. Last week, I got an email from a national organization called Conversaton Cafe, which organizes community conversations around the country. They invited me to organize a community conversation in Richmond as part of National Conversation Cafe Week, which kicks off March 23. Nothing like advance notice, I thought. Well, two plus two tends to equal something other than four these days, and the next thing I knew I was scheduling space for two community conversations under the working title of "A Grassroots Conversation About Richmond's Possibilities." The conversations are free and open to the public. Both are limited to 50 people each because of space constraints. One conversation will happen the morning of March 25 in Innsbrook. (Details and registration here.) The second will take place the evening of March 26 at the University of Richmond's new downtown building. (Details and registration here.) I can look at this convergence in one of two ways -- as yet another conversation happening in a vacuum, or as a different conversation altogether. I suppose it will all depend on how I facilitate. And who shows up.