Maintaining a Civil Conversation

Authentic Participation When Civic Discourse is Highly Polarized 


By Ken Snyder of PlaceMatters

The greater Chattanooga region has embarked upon an impressive effort to engage three states and 14 counties in a regional conversation about the future of the area. In November they invited the public to hear presentations from three consultant teams competing to provide technical and planning support for the overall process.

Over 350 people attended the session. During Q&A the meeting got confrontational at times. It was clear a fair number of residents had come to the event with concerns and questions about the project and to what extent there would be strings attached to Federal funds being pursued to support the initiative.


Movement Storytelling

stonewallcelebration_300x291.jpgLike other gay bars of the 1950s and 1960s, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was subject to regular police raids. Mostly, patrons were so afraid of being exposed and losing their jobs, livelihoods, families and reputations that they suffered silently through the raids. But that would only go so far.

Denizens of the Stonewall included lesbians, gay men and transgendered people, some of whom had little to lose, and for whatever reason they had reached a breaking point. When the police raided the bar on June 28, 1969, patrons fought back. The riots that took place marked a confrontational new tack in the fight for LGBT rights. And in the years since, annual marches—now known as Pride Parades—have taken place the last weekend of June in cities around the world.


Not Letting “The Moment” Get Away

hand-reaching-soap-bubble_300x182.jpgWhile I would love to see the economy bounce back to what it was, I believe any further thinking along these lines is tantamount to the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.

I don’t mean to suggest we should just give up; what I do mean is that if we expect things to return to the “old normal,” we’ll miss key opportunities to proactively prepare for the “new normal.”

With our life, culture and society transforming in fundamental ways, it behooves us to embrace this paradigm shift and challenge our old assumptions.


All Stocked Up On Crazy

climate-change_350x350.jpgYes, Thomas Friedman has done it again. He’s made me say “YES!” and “THANK YOU!” aloud to myself in my office.

Why? Because he’s “all stocked up on crazy,” and so am I. Friedman's New York Times Op-Ed column “Is It Weird Enough Yet?”, published on September 13, cuts to the quick of the absurdity and ignorance of recent (and past) claims that climate change is “some fraud perpetrated by scientists trying to gin up money for research.”

I happened to be reading this column while listening to The Climate Reality Project, a 24-hour, live, worldwide stream (currently in its 21st hour) featuring experts and scientists from 24 time zones. One of these scientists was explaining that with each degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold more water—an unsettling percentage more that I have since forgotten, or blocked out.


Start Your Own (Low-Power) FM Radio Station!

prometheus_project_JBblogpost_223x297.jpgSick of news tethered to corporate advertisers? Of mainstream cultural and music programing? Tired of listening only to your statewide NPR affiliate? Want to get the word out about events in your town? Maybe share your quirky taste in music and the arts? Or stir up debate and discussion?

Learn more about low-power FM radio (LPFM) and start your own local station.

In a rare move that wrested some control from high-power corporate communications interests, the US Congress last December voted to open more bandwidth to low-power FM stations, and President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act into law in January.

LPFM frequencies sometimes reach only a few miles out, but non-commercial, locally owned stations can pack a punch, opening the airwaves to citizens in rural towns and urban neighborhoods—anyone who has a voice and a message has a seat behind the mic.


Unlocking H&S: Knowing and Reaching Your Community

As a local government Planner, I never had the time to research and find new ways of communicating with the public, much less creating a two-way communication channel.

Even though I knew there had to be a better way to let people know about citywide policy updates, I often resorted to using the same old public notice with the same formal message broadcasted to everyone in the city. Then I’d prepare for the disappointment when the same five people showed up to the meeting.

I always knew there was a better way of understanding who makes up a community and that a public notice could be designed to actually speak to citizens. With a specific but meaningful message delivered in the right way, more people would recognize that the issues in question really mattered to them, and as a result, show interest and participate in a much more democratic way.


Urban Pioneers and the Rust Belt Renewal

urbanpioneers_blogpost_300x200.jpgYou’ve probably heard of Braddock, Pennsylvania given the attention it’s gotten for its rising-from-the-ashes, against-all-odds resurgence over the past decade or so.

Much of the credit for this renewal has gone to Braddock’s Mayor, John Fetterman, who has committed his own money to projects ranging from an at-risk youth program to a church-turned-community-center to a non-profit called Braddock Redux, which puts up money for community revitalization projects and advances what Fetterman calls his “social-justice agenda.”

Susan Halpern recently wrote a story for The New York Times about Fetterman called “Mayor of Rust”. She lauds Fetterman and his folk-hero status—“a Paul Bunyan hipster of urban revival.” And this seems appropriate given his demonstrated commitment to Braddock, where poverty is the norm and 27 consecutive months without a homicide is really astonishingly good news.


Something Shaking on Shakedown Street: Local Musicians Rally Around Pete’s Greens

Photo: Lauren Bierman
HugYourFarmer_blogpost_300x370.jpgWhen Peter Day of The Grift sang the opening lines of The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” kicking off a heart-pumping rendition of the song by an all-star cast of local musicians at a concert to benefit Pete’s Greens at Higher Ground, it was as though all the key reasons why I love Vermont—spirited community, lively arts scene, delicious local food, good friends—were colliding into a single, adrenaline-packed moment.

“You tell me this town ain't got no heart,” Peter sang, with Clint Bierman and Page McConnell on harmonies. “Well, well, well, you can never tell.”

If you’ve ever doubted the heart of community, this story will give you hope: Before dawn on January 12, Pete Johnson’s barn—housing all his harvested crops, tons of chicken, beef and pork, coolers, freezers and processing equipment—burned to the ground. A total loss. But countless Vermont citizens, driven by their belief in Pete’s mission as well as their reliance on this critical, local resource, have since proven that a community can and will come together to turn tragedy into a force of grassroots mobilization to be reckoned with.