The quality of public dialogue in Richmond

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.

I'm a strong advocate of the general concept that good dialogue can work wonders for resolving conflicts, building community, and improving the world we live in. (That's dialogue instead of, say, violence, explosive angry yelling, paternalism or monarchy, snap judgments, knee-jerk fear-mongering, heated debate, or silence and avoidance.) As a result, I am constantly aware of the need for better dialogue in my own community of Richmond, Indiana, and for venues that facilitate that practice. I would go so far as to say that Richmond is, on the whole, handicapped by the poor quality of public discussion about the issues that matter to us, and that addressing this handicap is one of the opportunities most ripe for the picking in our community today.

When you think about it, there aren't that many places for the citizens of Richmond to encounter each other regularly about the concerns and opportunities affecting us all. What does that mean about how we make decisions as a community? What does it mean about how we shape our driving vision?

  • Those who do have a public voice tend to influence the process heavily
  • When decisions are made that are contrary to our own wishes, we have a harder time accepting and adapting to those decisions if we weren't involved in the process
  • When we don't know our neighbors and their desires, interests, and needs, we can't serve each other as community members
  • When we don't talk to each other, other forces fill in the gaps, and they often don't have the best for our community in mind
  • Our private lives tend to be less fulfilling when we are isolated from those around us

I could go on - Parker J. Palmer explores these kinds of issues well in his book Company of Strangers: Christians & the Renewal of America's Public Life. But it seems that no matter how you look at it, any hard choice to make or difficult situation to face - whether it about zoning or preservation or poverty or racism or cultural values or the future - is going to be a lot harder when people can't exchange ideas about those choices and situations.

So, I'd like to review the venues for dialogue that I know of, and seek comment from anyone else out there who can add to or comment on this list.

  • The Palladium-Item Op-Ed Page
    The local paper has a fairly active op-ed page, but it is by no means what I would call an engaging public forum. Because it is the only such page in town and is subject to the interests and idiosyncrasies of its limited readership (and the smaller number of whom bother to write in), the quality and quantity of relevant thoughts on a given subject are not very stable. The Pal-Item also has a limit of 300 words for a letter to the editor, which tends to restrict any serious commentary or in-depth exploration of an issue unless they invite you to be a guest columnist, which just adds to the already significant discretion they have in shaping the quality of the conversation. They also seem to have a severe problem with the same small group of readers writing in regularly (thus, I assume, their requirement that you wait 30 days between submissions), and responses and "threads" of discussion are cumbersome in general, which further limits the quality.
     
  • Public Common Spaces
    Richmond has little in the way of traditional public spaces where people come together to engage in conversation with whomever else might be there to do so. The layout of our main street / uptown is perhaps most suited for this, with its wide sidewalks, public benches, and variety of attractions that could bring an equally diverse slice of the population together. Unfortunately, it's largely quiet on evenings and weekends, and isn't perceived by most as a place to come meet others for conversation. The parks are similarly well suited and wonderfully maintained common spaces, but rarely attract a critical mass for meaningful dialogue. Malls of all sorts tend not to encourage spontaneous conversation, though the Richmond Square Mall is certainly well-used as a gathering place for all ages and backgrounds. Some neighborhoods have active neighborhood associations and perhaps even street parties and the like, but they tend to be limited to very localized areas in their benefit. My sense is that the use of public common spaces for striking up conversations with "strangers" is a practice fading in most of America these days, so Richmond isn't uniquely constrained in this way.
     
  • Online Forums and Blogs
    I'm an advocate of using the technologies of the Internet to build community, and there are some good resources out there. The WayNet.org Talk of the Town forum isn't very high-traffic but hosts conversations about everything from history to education to genealogy to restaurants. As the number of bloggers in the area increases, some interesting conversations are going on in the comments and cross-posts happening there - I think the G101.3 blog became the most popular one almost overnight (but maybe that's the power of radio, eh). Some coffee bars and other hangout spots in town are creating online discussion areas to complement their physical spaces. And, hey parents, did you know that your teenager is posting his or her innermost thoughts on LiveJournal for their friends (and the rest of the world) to see? But of course there's the constant problem of lack of regular access to the Internet for much of the county, and online discussion formats tend to be very limiting in their own right, removing a certain human element from exchanges. So these virtual discussions are certainly contributing to public dialogue, but for now remain a very small slice of it.
     
  • Public Events
    Being a fairly small city with a full roster of clubs, organizations, and special events, there are certainly a number of times throughout the year when you can go to meet your fellow citizens. The county fair, music festivals, the Rooftop Rendezvous, Chamber of Commerce events, Young Adult Professionals, various cultural happenings at the local educational institutions, etc. Even events like a Civic Theatre production or a Symphony performance can be great opportunities for discussion. I guess the "down side" to these is again that because they aren't really dedicated to raising the quality of public dialogue in the community, any progress made in that area through them tends to be accidental. They don't serve as a vehicle for that discussion unless the people attending are very proactive about it.
     
  • Religious Organizations
    Richmond certainly has an active community of churches, and I know that the various congregations have a lot of opportunities for dialogue between regular services, community service events, common meals, and similar gatherings. I might suggest that these gatherings are some of the most active venues for public dialogue, but while there are certainly some inter-denominational events too, I think it tends to be the case that discussions had within a given church community don't often expand beyond their walls on a regular basis, and often don't have the goal of engaging the community as a whole.
     
  • Private Gathering Places
    The bars. More bars. Book stores. Coffee shops. Restaurants. All of these places are locations where people go to socialize, but most of the ones we have in Richmond are not laid out to be open public discussion spaces. The average restaurant experience is fairly isolating. The average bar sports loud music and other distractions. I do see people making spontaneous connections and striking up conversations at places like Charlie's Coffee Bar & Gallery or Readmore Bookstore and Coffee Shop, but they are sadly under-used and under-appreciated as such.
     
  • Intentional Public Discussions
    These are the events that are specifically organized to facilitate public discussion about a given topic or topics. Perhaps the most widely attended are City Council meetings (and related commission meetings), especially when a hot topic is on the agenda. Those particular meetings tend to be more about presenting viewpoints in front of the meeting body and public television cameras, instead of exchanging ideas freely with fellow citizens, so they are fairly restrictive. But other kinds include the Study Circles and Community Builders groups that have been organized around issues like racism and ethnic violence, community forums organized by places like the Townsend Center and Earlham College, and other one-off events put together by various civic and non-profit institutions.

This last category of venue is the one I would *love* to see more of: spaces created intentionally to bring people together to have respectful and in-depth conversation about the things that matter to us. It's not that I think all social exchanges need to be so cerebral, but I think there are good middle grounds where people can have fun while also engaging each other authentically. Something like the Conversation Cafe Initiative provides a cookie-cutter format for such experiences, and is easy to do if you can just get the people there.

So - those are my note on where we do and don't have quality public dialogue in Richmond today. What am I missing? How do you like to engage your fellow neighbors? What are the other opportunities out there?

6 thoughts on “The quality of public dialogue in Richmond

  1. Chris:

    Your careful dissection of the breakdown in community in modern society is very disheartening, but I appreciate your optimism for the future.

    I think I found myself generally falling within the parenthesis (explosive angry yelling, paternalism or monarchy, snap judgments, knee-jerk fear-mongering, heated debate, or silence and avoidance) when it comes to public dialouge.

    One area that you did not cover was government meetings, which are the institutionalized mechanism for public decision making. I have a fair degree of skepticism about the vitality of the public's interests and means to influence local government, but there is supposed to be some level of interaction/airing of views at public meetings. Most public officials devise ways to make decisions outside of public meetings, and that clearly undercuts the interest any citizen would have in showing up for those meetings, but the structure is there.

  2. Thanks, Thomas - I hope it was the implications of the dissection and not the method itself that seemed disheartening.

    I tried to cover government meetings in my mention of City Council in the last item, but I think you're right that they're under-represented here as perhaps one of the more intentionally designed public discussion spaces, and also (as you said) one of the least effectively used. I'm always so excited to see the incredible turnout at government meetings about the issues that matter to us, and usually equally as dissapointed in the failure of public officials to really hear what is being said. Let's hope that tendency is an unfortunate function of the office holders, and not the process itself.

    Chris

  3. Excellent post. Both you and Mr. Kemp are right about the lack of fora available for pulbic discussion and decision making. A few years ago, when the county gov't had decided on building a new jail, a group of citizens decided to let the County Commissioners know that they wanted the new jail to be located somewhere other than the old Swain-Robinson site. I was not part of that group, nor did I particularly agree with their stance on the jail. Nevertheless, the people in the group had rights as citizens to make their feelings knows to county officials. The county officials acted as if they had all the answers and that nothing was open to debate. Several months later, the Commissioners received an award from a state association of counties (or some such. Sorry I can't remember the name of the group.) The award was for having to deal with a group of disgruntled citizens who had dared to question their decision on the jail. The Commissioners laughed and joked about how the jail interest group had disrupted the process, made their lives difficult, etc. I thought it was shameful.

  4. Having formerly worked for news services at the Pal-Item, I can tell you that the problem with the dialogue on the opinion page is simply a lack of a diverse letter-writing body. I understand the word limit and wait between submissions seem problematic for ideas to really be explored, but perhaps if it weren't the same ten people writing in to espouse their neo-con world-view or condemn us all to hell, those limitations wouldn't have to be in place. And honestly, I have so many mixed feelings about the editorial voice of the paper because of my experience there, but I will say that if you write a letter and it fits the guidelines, they really will print it. It's not the paper's guidelines that are dissuasive toward community discussion, it's the general apathy of the community at large.

    I'm not sure how I follow that if more spaces were available for public dialogue, people would make use of them. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but no one is really taking advantage of the venues in place.

  5. Mel: Point taken about the issue being quality and not quantity, although I do believe there are those rare cases where, "if you build it exactly the right way, they will come," and perhaps that's what I was pining away for more than anything...

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