Finding the Village Square Again

A model in Tallahassee


“Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

–              NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON


It’s the start of another school year and public school teachers throughout Florida will begin a race against the testing clock.

In Florida—and in other states—education has become about the standardized test.

I get it. Children need to learn specific skills and they need to be measured, but it’s hard to argue that something special has been lost when the test becomes the be all and end all. We lose the opportunity to teach the soft skills and perhaps the ability to think critically. We also might lose the chance to train leaders and the importance of empathy and emotional intelligence.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my visit with the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. What emerged from that discussion was a concern among those who served our country that we are not doing a good job teaching civics in America. They see the results of that deficiency in the current toxic state of our politics.

As I read, watch, surf social media and talk to friends I’m sensing a tremendous concern about the state of our society these days. Yes, to some extent these concerns have been here since the founding of our Republic and throughout our lives. But something feels different today. The level of toxicity feels higher, our discourse seems meaner and fear, anxiety, anger and despair appears to be deep and widespread.

The results are showing up in a variety of ways: trust in institutions is at historic lows according to the Edelman Trust Survey, a landmark poll. Congress, the press, corporations and our justice system are all suffering from low levels of trust.

Spasms of violence are breaking out too—from mass shootings and school shootings to extraordinary gang violence in places like Chicago. When the school year began this week, local and national press were focused on steps that were being taken to prevent massacres—important for sure. But also terribly sad. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we were anticipating all the amazing learning opportunities being rolled out for our children instead of fretting the next school shooting?

These are all symptoms or larger societal issues—but they should motivate us to find the root causes of these issues and begin the process of healing and uniting.

Of course, we run a hyperlocal blog which means that we believe in the power of “localism.”
So that means addressing issues at the grassroots community level.

While we may never drain the swamp in Washington (I happen to think we’d be better if everyone resigned) we can fix our neighborhoods and cities.

When it comes to improving dialogue, there are models throughout America that have proven to work.

One example that is worth mentioning and modeling is “The Village Square”, a Tallahassee program that describes itself as “A nervy bunch of liberals and conservatives who believe that dialogue and disagreement make for a good conversation, a good country and a good time.”

The Village Square hosts about 30 programs a year all centered on fact-based discussions of the issues between people who disagree. The effort has been chronicled in “Governing” magazine and is credited with building community by lowering the temperature around divisive, hot button issues.

What a concept.

The Village Square was founded on the belief that the hostile tone of our national debate is a predictable result of the worrisome reality that we’ve essentially formed tribes. We’ll all grow old waiting for Washington to fix it, so we’re going to have to get it done ourselves.

“The solution to this complex problem is surprisingly simple: To revive the American marketplace of ideas, we have to breathe a little life into the neighborly civic connections that used to exist without much effort on our part. It’s past time to bring back the spirit of the quintessentially American town hall, where foes become partners in futures that are inextricably linked. As much as we want to blame Washington, ultimately this work can only be done in hometowns like ours and between neighbors like us,” according to the Village Square website.

Through dialogue combatants are reminded of what we often forget: we are on the same team.

I had a similar thought last week when I was reading about a baseball player who joined a rival team. Once he was “on the team” all previous animosity went out the window. His new teammates may not like him personally but they remember that they are now on the same team, with the same goal in mind: to be successful and win.

Reading that, I wondered why elected officials can’t adopt the same mindset. In order to do so, it requires that you first acknowledge that your personal success and the community’s success is tied inextricably together. If the other team consistently blocks your initiatives or undoes your accomplishments we get locked in a perpetual zero sum game. The people lose in this scenario every time.

But if you realize that you may have differences but your success is tied to coming up with some sort of workable relationship you have a chance to solve problems and seize opportunities.

Washington lost the plot a long time ago. But local communities don’t have to.

I worked with a city commissioner who explained that some votes were votes of principle and others were votes of preference. On votes of principle, he was dug in. On votes of preference, he was open to compromise or supporting a contrary idea, especially if it was important to a teammate.

It seems to work and allows for issues to move forward and for accomplishments to occur.

There are other examples, but the main point is, politics can work if we are invested in outcomes not just in thwarting those we don’t like or agree with.