An extraordinary conversation about building community

22 Nov

When I arrived last Friday afternoon and had been buzzed in and escorted through several locked doors, there were three people sitting at the table. One large man was looking down at his hands quietly. Another trembled markedly as he tried to stand. And the third person, a young woman, was furiously concentrating as she wrote on a lined yellow pad. Over the next ten minutes, more people shuffled in until all the spaces around the four large pushed-together conference tables were full.

I was there to facilitate a conversation about aspirations for the future of our community, sponsored by our local United Way of Lane County. This United Way is working with the Harwood Institute on a national pilot project to help nonprofits better hear from and act upon the aspirations of all people in their communities, and in particular, to surface the voices that aren’t often heard. The folks in the room that day were members of the “consumer council” for an organization that serves people living with serious mental illness and brain injury challenges. I didn’t know what to expect. I was inspired by what I experienced.

When I asked my first question “What kind of community do you want?”, words immediately tumbled out around the table. “A community that is understanding and kind . . . where people have respect for one another . . . where people support each other . . . where there’s reciprocity . A community where we don’t face constant stigma . . . where we don’t get automatically treated as criminals because of our appearance or manner . . . where people are empathetic, and they shouldn’t need to be ‘trained’ to be that way.”

Later, I asked “What would it mean for a person or family to be financially stable?” The issues raised by council members, many of whom cannot live independently, were not dissimilar to what any community member might say.  “To not feel vulnerable . . . to feel like I have choices . . .  to be able to get to where I need to go . . . to have the information I need to manage my interactions with government and service providers. . .” Then, one gentleman, who hadn’t yet spoken, piped in with “to be happy” and everyone nodded.

Throughout the ninety minute conversation, people listened intently to each other and did not interrupt: it was one of the easiest groups I’ve ever facilitated.  Though there were times that the conversation shifted toward shared frustration about various community conditions, different people around the table would offer a problem-solving idea: more advocacy, more communication, sharing a resource that not everyone knew about, and more. It was a very action-oriented group, which was inspiring.

As the meeting drew to a close, I asked if anyone had additional questions. A particularly soft-spoken man in the back corner raised his hand and asked “Is there a way that someone like me could do more for the community as a volunteer?”  He took my breath away, as it hit me right in the gut how much we can learn from the energy and selflessness of people far from the seats of power in our communities.  It was truly a privilege to experience this company.