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Column: Creating community through conversation

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Substantive discussions can build empathy, trust and stronger civic bonds

On April 26, more than 80 members of the Lancaster community came together to take part in the Community Conversation on Civility in Public Life.
Sponsored by the J. Marion Sims Foundation’s Community Engagement Corps and USC Lancaster, this gathering was part of the National Week of Conversation, a nationwide effort to cultivate meaningful and respectful dialogue on our nation’s greatest challenges. Across the nation, 131 communities across 35 states took part in their own conversations on civility.
Here in Lancaster, small groups of college students, professionals, educators, retirees and other residents came together for guided discussions, intending to learn from each other, build relationships, and look for ways to reduce polarization in our civic life. The groups agreed to listen to one another with respect and to look for common ground.
The conversations offered insight into our community’s hopes and fears. When asked what made them most proud about America, many mentioned their sense of freedom, diversity and opportunity. Others spoke about the nation’s technological achievements and the selflessness Americans displayed in responding to crises.
When asked about our greatest public challenges, participants pointed to the spread of misinformation, the valuing of “things and ideals” over human needs, and the impact of divisive and disrespectful political speech. By making people “fighting mad,” such language frequently reduced people to stereotypes and upset relationships, creating an atmosphere of fear, frustration and anger.
To address these issues, participants expressed the need for open and respectful communication. Some spoke about political reforms like term limits and restricted lobbying. Others mentioned informed voting, independent thinking and accountability for political representatives. When asked about individual actions they could take, some stressed listening over attacking, learning more about complex issues, and making greater efforts to understand different viewpoints.
The Lancaster perspective was shared with the national organizers and helped inform “What Voters Want To Revive Civility and Respect in Our Elections” – a standards of conduct guide for debates and campaigns put out by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, www.revivecivility.org.
The views shared during these conversations were revealing, but the experience itself – the gathering of such a large and diverse group – indicated a heartfelt desire for more meaningful civic connections in Lancaster.
Many of those involved were born and raised here. Many were not. Participants had different political allegiances but shared similar perspectives on loyalty, negotiation, compromise, connection and sacrifice. Some groups had broad age differences but still shared meaningful things in common and discussed serious, personal and heartfelt topics.
When the formal discussions concluded, many continued conversations on their own and expressed interest in future gatherings.
With this first Community Conversation, we witnessed the ability of respectful dialogue and active listening to create connections. Our community is strengthened when we cultivate meaningful relationships – recognizing what we have in common and honoring what makes us different. Substantive conversations can build empathy, trust and stronger civic bonds. And they give us the foundation needed to confront the most serious problems we face.
Building and growing our community is at the heart of the Community Engagement Corps’ work.
The corps is a network of individuals who are working together to support resident engagement and community dialogue. Begun as a companion to the Community Heart & Soul initiative in the region, the corps is sponsored by the J. Marion Sims Foundation.
Our next conversations will be a series of intimate discussions, open to all and designed to build community connections, around the Lancaster area throughout the rest of September.  The conversations will center on the questions below:
◆ What do you most appreciate about living in Lancaster?
◆ What makes a community? What kind of community do you want to live in?
◆ What do you think needs to happen for Lancaster to become the community we love to live in?
◆ What specific actions can individuals, businesses and community groups take to help strengthen community connections?
This Thursday, we will host a conversation over lunch from noon-1:30 p.m. at the Lancaster County Library, 313 S. White Street. On Sept. 24, we will host a conversation from 6-7:30 p.m. over dinner at the Lancaster Bowling Center, 1352 Reece Road. And on Sept. 27, we will host a study break with coffee and pastries from 2:15-3:45 p.m. on the USCL campus.
All are welcome to join us to experience the community-building power of thoughtful conversation and active listening.  We are looking for more locations to host conversations and invite all community members to participate in an upcoming event.
Learn more at http://bit.ly/CEC_Sept18 or call (803) 286-8772.

More public discussions
The Community Engagement Corps is sponsoring three more community conversations this month. All are welcome.
◆ This Thursday – Noon-1:30 p.m., Lancaster County Library, 313 S. White Street.
◆ Sept. 24 – 6-7:30 p.m. at the Lancaster Bowling Center, 1352 Reece Road.
◆ Sept. 27 – 2:15-3:45 p.m. at USC Lancaster.