Mind and Body:
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Story Evolution

An extension of conversations emerging from Writing Descartes ...
4 August 2004

The "How" of Community Building: Virtual and Concrete

(excerpted in the on-line forum)

I appreciated Sharon's and Anneliese's stories, and am encouraged, in turn, to offer one of my own. It was nice of Anne to mention the 40th St community forum and I would like to tell that story and clarify what I think she may have misunderstood. Perhaps there are lessons in that experience that are relevant here.

The 40th St project was an effort to facilitate a broad community discussion about the hopes and fears around the development of a retail corridor in West Philadelphia, along 40th St (from Baltimore to Market). The community of stakeholders around that corridor is very diverse: Penn students, faculty and staff, community residents of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, with different levels of education and political sophistication, and many long-standing suspicions, many along class and racial lines. Our goal was to get them all to talk to each other and to take some leadership in the future of the corridor, not to be on the same page but -- as we put it -- to be in the same book.

Because of the diversity of the audience, we spent a lot of time thinking about the "how." For us, it was important to create an environment where everyone felt welcome and comfortable talking and listening, where people spoke directly to each other, listened with respect, and emphasized the positive (I think of this as the "simple, shared language" I referred to above, speaking in the "present tense"). We wanted to encourage people to talk without using jargon (sometimes a problem in academic communities) and without the kind of "code" that is inevitable among people who talk frequently to each other. So, at the first of what became six open community meetings, we began by offering a common base of information, so everyone, wherever they came from, could start in the same place, with no one having privileged knowledge or experiences. Our "experts" that night -- that term may not have been the right one, since we wanted everyone to feel like an expert -- set out a basic language that we could all then follow, describing key aspects of retail development (the "main street" concept, the demographics of West Philadelphia, land use and zoning issues along 40th St, etc).

And after that, we did indeed invite people to leave "their histories" at the door: not to ignore the rich backgrounds and perspectives they brought -- why else invite a diverse audience if we didn't want to know their unique histories and perspectives? -- but rather to leave behind the personal and political battles that so often kept people from listening and speaking directly, and to dream big, without constraints from the past. It was an invigorating process: it produced in a set of shared "principles for development" for the corridor and has resulted in the creation of an on-going advocacy group, the Friends of 40th St, which continues to attract an ever growing and extraordinarily diverse group of citizens to tackle issues of concern along that corridor, problems that the participants themselves are defining and then solving.

The relevance to our work here? First: it seems to me that Paul's Descartes essay represents a kind of opening "expert" presentation that has allowed us all to start with the same base of information, and has brought all of us here in some measure. It may be that, in general, it is helpful for people to have something to react to, to get the conversation started. The topic here has clearly changed since the first set of dialogues, as we talk among ourselves and find places of common interest, explore different ideas. Perhaps the bottom line is that by being respectful of the differences in backgrounds and experiences, and being willing to help explain our own stories to people who may not know what we know, we can all be experts.

Second: our discussions around 40th St were facilitated, and that was very useful, since there were inevitably people who came with their own (often obscure) agendas. The facilitators summarized, synthesized, and redirected the conversations, and that was invaluable. I think Paul plays that role here to some extent, though I suspect he would reject the label and prefer that everyone act as a facilitator. It's interesting to think about how we can all help with that.

Third: our 40th St team has become very interested in whether you can "teach" this kind of civic engagement, and we are looking at different models of leadership training and civic engagement with the idea of developing a training program that can be shared at the grassroots level. I think our goal in the Descartes project is to teach each other something similar at both the individual and social levels, by active conversation.

Fourth: the barriers to open and active conversation do indeed require patience and a willingness to change. Sharon's image of "breathing" each other's stories and Paul's reminder that there is no "rush to closure" and "plenty of time to learn/share" are very much to the point. I am reminded of one of my own personal rules: to tell my own stories, not someone else's. I am not always patient, but it helps to know what the task is.

Conversation continues in the on-line forum

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