I just returned from a conference I attended for three days where I heard more words that I was unfamiliar with since I traveled to Italy. The conference was put on by the David Matthews Center and the Kettering Foundation and was structured around asking the question: "How do we strengthen citizen engagement and community problem solving?" The people there were mostly from a field totally unrelated to mine that is heavy on the jargon which meant I was lost for some of it. The main words were "deliberative dialogue to lead to decision making." I learned an immense amount in those few days that I'm eager to further explore. As the time passed I started seeing how their field is actually really related to my field of graphic design if I make it. Some of it was heavy on the political/social justice side of things but peppered throughout were these moments where someone would say words I could latch onto like "storytelling," "sense of place," "community building," "sustainability," "inter disciplinary," "cross cultural," and "designing change."
The reason for my attendance was because a friend who helped coordinate it, Lydia Atkins, invited Amanda (PieLab) and I to come share about some of our experiences at PieLab. Several of the workshops were round table discussions; we were specifically part of the session titled "Stranger in a Strange Land" in order to talk about what it is like to come into a community as an outsider and build trust/influence, engage, etc. A lot of the attendees were very interesting and sounded like they were doing great stuff. Then some of them just sounded like they had these fancy ideas and theories but didn't really know how to enact it. PieLab started making more and more sense to me while I was there and I realized, "These people are trying to figure out ways to do what we're doing." And it's simple: pie. Pie brings people into a neutral space to converse. Conversing leads to discovering your community's values, forming opinions that lead to decisions. Those decisions lead to actions. And those actions lead to a community living out its values in a hopefully positive way. We're here to foster that conversation and culture so that it can move in a positive direction. A lot of people don't like the word "change" but as my professor/now friend pointed out, "Change will happen no matter what so why not push it in a positive direction?" It was interesting as well that so many of the "how do we get people together?" answers kept coming back to food. People come together in more equality when they gather around prepared meals and meals are often one of the strongest cultural ties we have the the ones that are most often passed down through generations with the most longevity.
Some random tidbits from my time there: David Matthew (not to be confused with the 1990s rocker) pointed out that my generation will not live in the middle class homes that our parents lived in, but rather a few steps down and in neighborhoods they probably wouldn't have. This means that more and more people who are unlike each other will come in increasing contact and have to make decisions with them. We will live near people who make there living "by the sweat of their brow, not the use of their mind." This puts the urgency on cultivating the ability within society to have dialogues around issues that we will have to resolve/decide on/enact. And we can't come to a table with complete equity until we understand the various factors that shape our mindsets and worldview (race, religion, sex, ethnicity, family structure, age, etc.). Furthermore, to understand peoples' social identity structures, we must also understand their story's.
-All communities are looking for ways to "save their communities" and make them the best place for all people there to live, flourish, and function because all people want a better quality of life.
-We must continue to travel and personally engage because more and more because our universe is increasingly stopping in front of our faces (at our computers) and will narrow our tangible experiences.
Part of my time in Greensboro has been spent soul searching over how change really happens in a community and if you can be of good use to a community while there for a short term or if you have to be there long term to see any results. I have come to see both sides. I do think short term things can do some good but long term things will see the most results, if people don't lost steam. One of the long term ways to really shape a community is to really invest in its education system. Without educated individuals you breed indifference and prevent community members from having the most effective civic engagement and equality. The gap between educated middle/upper class and uneducated lower class is growing in this nation (and many others including China). There somehow has to be major investments in building better education systems so we can have community members who can formulate valid opinions, pursue the community's well-being, and financially invest back into it. This probably isn't news to anyone but me, as I am a growing 23 year old, but I'm noticing how a community seems to be only as strong as its education system is because education feeds civic engagement. Democratic freedom must come with taught responsibility. Organizing/Dialogue/Action lead to community change.
The icing on the cake of this conference was that it was in Point Clear, Alabama at the Grand Hotel. I have had a renewed love for Alabama over this past year and it only deepened this week. The hotel was absolutely glorious and the bay beautiful. The walks I got to take in the morning alongside the bay and quaint houses with gnarly oaks out front covered in Spanish moss made me want to explode in gratitude for such a splendid creation. It also made me realize, "Wow, taking a break, thinking, walking, resting, is quite nice. I work too hard/too much." It's amazing how refreshed I was after taking a one hour walk to not think about the to-do list I had to get back to. The hotel was built in the early 1800s and is chock-full of history. We spent an afternoon in Fairhope exploring its cute stores and artsy streets. I think every traveler asks itself in a new place, "Could I live here?" and I very well think I could. The conference meals consisted of several seafood dishes that made me proud of our Southern cuisine. Two Alabama storytellers were invited to do some telling of stories one night; two photographs shared how they capture Alabama through a view-finder; and a Mardi Gras brass band orchestrated a night of toe-tapping and dancing. I swelled with pride to be an Alabamian as our culture-makers were brought in for the works. Sweet home.