Talking Democracy Over Dinner

October 26, 2017

Start by asking a question—go straight for the heart. “How do we talk together in ways that will open up our best capacities and our best gifts?” could be a good one. Add to it more of the quote from civil rights activist Vincent Harding and you’ve got a glimpse into conversations about democracy we’ve been having.

This summer, we came together with Independent Sector and the Council of Michigan Foundations under the shared belief that our country and our democracy require our attention. Communities across America are hurting, and we need to find a way to reconnect.

We know that foundations, nonprofits, and social enterprises play a key role in cultivating a healthy civic life. What we wanted to learn more about is how our community leaders draw on their inner strength to catalyze their work, make connections across divides, and model a shared vision for our communities and our country.

As a start, we gathered change makers together in their home communities to explore this question, over dinner. With colleagues at Independent Sector and the Council of Michigan Foundations, we planned five dinners in Michigan, in Ellsworth, Marquette, Traverse City, Gaylord, and Kalamazoo. These communities are varied in size (from roughly 400 people to 75,000); each has its own gifts and challenges, its own legacy and promise.

We met mayors, city council members, and township officials. We talked with academic deans, social workers, teachers, a retired police officer. We listened to librarians, pub owners, volunteers, pastors, an undertaker who was also an EMT, a restauranteur of a pay-as-you-like café.

Our dinners were bookended with two questions:
What inner or core values ground you and your work/service?
What helps and prevents a healthy democracy?

We heard fascinating stories of how seminal life moments shape our values—a teacher befriending an immigrant family, our parents’ lives and advice, our faith, trauma, prejudice, and resilience. We heard how democracy is finding a place to thrive at a local level amid the disconnect, anger, and divisiveness that weighs on our country.

We also learned how much our home informs our understanding of democracy. Each community brought a unique lens informed by everything from its heritage and its immigration history to current economic anxieties and geographic location.

Leaders shared how the conversations helped them see even more the common purpose that calls them and others to serve. They—and we—left revitalized, affirmed, and inspired to continue these conversations to shape and strengthen democratic life in our communities.

We are continuing these conversations at the Our Common Future conference in Detroit this week, and will share more stories about what we’re hearing and the tools we are developing.

Are you inspired to learn more? Explore how we’re helping make democracy work for the greater good of all, sign up for updates, and let us know how you might want to get involved.