Uniting America through Civic Dialogue
Chicago residents gather at a community store-front. One by one each participant arrives at to meet their fellow Chicago residents, enjoy snacks, and share stories with one another. Attendees gather in an intimate space with no more than a table and a stack of chairs to sit next to one another for the very first time, while facilitators from the community await to begin with a fun icebreaker. At a first glance this scene may appear like a set up for a debate or a club; yet, this gathering happens to be a civic dialogue.
Civic dialogue is a form of conversation among neighbors, residents, or strangers to share stories and build mutual understanding in a comfortable environment on a particular issue, where respect and tolerance are the core principals. It begins like any event, with a welcome and soon after with defining the purpose of the dialogue. The civic dialogues in Rogers Park, Englewood, and Humboldt Park, shared a purpose of discussing kindness in Chicago’s neighborhoods due to the rapid demographic changes, such as gentrification and influx of immigrants.
The purpose of the civic dialogue is tailored to participants and their interest, so that no aspect of the civic dialogue is imposed on the participants. In fact, the magic of such community work are the grass-root elements. Even before the dialogue begins community facilitators encouraged participants to set the rules of the discussion. Some suggestions may follow: (a) respect each other, (b) listen not only hear, (c) turn off cell phones, etc. Facilitators record each suggestion on a large sheet of paper.
This type of community work has the power for city residents to face each other to build community through a shared purpose. Facilitators lead the participants through each step of the dialogue, as well as probe participants to think beyond their comfort level. Facilitators are often knowledgeable members of the community with a unique perspective on the issue discussed, who often offer at the dialogue their own personal stories. This was the case of the civic dialogues at the above mentioned neighborhoods, where facilitators from ethnic communities-- South-Asian, African American, Chinese-American, Polish-American, and etc.--shared stories of strangers offering a kind gesture to experiences of accepting assistance during a crisis. One facilitator shared her story about a complete stranger assisting her with student visa application to the U.S., which had invited other participants to share their own personal stories.
What is possible when strangers sit around a table and discuss a topic, such as kindness, in their communities? After the three civic dialogues, participants expressed feeling uplifted and looking forward to other dialogues. In other cases, participants came away with hopes of learning more about their neighbors and developed a greater respect for their fellow participants. Formally strangers, but at the table, in these cases, Chicago residents chose to share personal stories maybe not for the across-the-fence conversations, yet somehow appropriate for a civic dialogue.