Community Conversations: Starting a civil conversation to explore new topics

  • Tom Bassarear

Published: 2/11/2020 11:03:28 PM

I started a Civil Conversation group in January 2017. More than anything I was disturbed by the vitriol in the 2016 elections and the growing divide in our country. Our group ranges from people on the far right to the far left and in-between. We have met monthly since then, with summers off. We have developed guidelines and norms that have enabled us to listen to each others’ views on topics ranging from immigration, health care, abortion, gun control, income inequality, and many more. The goal of our meetings is not to debate or to try to persuade the “other” side that they are wrong. Rather our goal, as I put it humorously at the first meeting, is to come to understand how an otherwise seemingly intelligent person could have such different views.

While our political views have changed little because of the conversations, we have come to realize that we have many values in common. For example, we all want freedom of speech, a country with fair elections, and equal opportunity for success.

We hosted a public meeting in September, co-sponsored by the Keene Public Library. Thirty people who attended were able to experience, in small groups, a civil conversation on immigration with people who had different views. At the end of the meeting, we were asked if we would host several such meetings a year. Our next meeting will be Feb. 15, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the library in Heberton Hall.

Our group was featured on New Hampshire Public Radio in November. You can read and hear the article by Googling Tom Bassarear on www.nhpr.org.

My other major project comes out of my work with several different groups in Keene addressing homelessness. A group of us are in the early planning stages of an initiative that might be labeled Keene Cares/Everyone Belongs and Matters. Mother Teresa said “I want you to be concerned about your next-door neighbor. Do you know your next-door neighbor? If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

One aspect of this project will be a series of meetings that will focus on a group of people who have been marginalized, stereotyped and often shunned, for example, homeless, gender atypical, physical disabilities, issues that society calls mental illness, struggles with addiction, immigrants, etc.

Each meeting would begin with several people (in the group that is the focus of that meeting, e.g., homeless) tell their story: what it is like being a person with that label. This part grows out of the realization that when we hear another’s story in person, face-to-face, our natural compassion generally emerges. The second part of the meeting will be facilitated conversations in small groups, like our Civil Conversation group. At the end of the meeting, we would have handouts with more information about that group: facts, common misconceptions, resources, etc.

Our goal is for participants who come to the meetings to realize that ‘those’ people are more like ‘regular’ people than they realize, that when we see ‘human being’ first, the world is a better and friendlier place.

My other involvements that go with building bridges include participating on the Monadnock Restorative Justice Project and developing a workshop for people who are or wish to volunteer with organizations which work with vulnerable population, including homelessness, addiction, and abuse.

Tom Bassarear retired from Keene State College in 2016 after 30 years in the Teacher Education Department.

Join Community Conversations: ‘How do we build bridges?’ Wednesday, Feb. 12, at the Monadnock Center in Peterborough at 7 p.m.

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