Against today’s backdrop of one tragic news story after another, I constantly ask myself what we can learn from events around us and how we can find ways to move forward to something better. Several speakers at Town Hall Seattle recently offered both specific and distressing insights into the state of our economy and our democracy, but the same speakers also expressed hope for the future, hopes that lie in similar places.
Robert Reich believes that with knowledge, people could ally themselves to form a new “countervailing power” — “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.” He also places hope, he said, in young people who surround him in his teaching and who are interested in public service, to which the young African American woman standing next to me responded by smiling widely and nodding vigorously.
In their talk, Robert McChesney and John Nichols told us that what’s needed to make the necessary structural change in our political economy is “an army of aroused and informed citizens.” The “power supply” for change, they said, is “the great mass of Americans, many of them already active, many more ready to be engaged.” “There is only us,” they say in the introduction to their book, People Get Ready. “We the people are the only force that can make a future worthy of our hopes and our humanity.”
As a first step in sharing my own response, I offer the following piece, written a few years ago. Its connection to the challenges identified by Reich, Nichols, and McChesney may seem like a stretch, but in part it’s about breaking down an impression I hear again and again, the sense that everyone, especially young people, are just holed up, wearing head phones, staring at their screens, unconnected to other, live, breathing human beings. In the piece I ask whether an active culture of conversations with a purpose and a new sense of the commons can play a role in creating this “countervailing power” and “army of aroused and informed citizens.”
Written in 2013, the piece was part of “Get up!” – my contribution to “Chamber Music,” an exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. “Get up!” had several parts: a wall piece, historical documents for “the living library,” and a series of conversations and new writings. This was one of the writings and a theme of a conversation.
Conversation, gossip, and the commons
Positioned in the middle of the Chamber Music exhibition* is a three-armed, specially designed and built piece of museum furniture. The inspiration for it is the pinwheel-shaped, antique “gossip chair” long found at the Frye that suggests the gallery was meant for talking, not just solitary contemplation. Similarly this contemporary, extra-large version of a “gossip chair” proposes conversation as an integral part of the show. With this inclusion, the show itself reflects a trait curator Scott Lawrimore sought in the artists included: it both celebrates “individual mark making” and offers an opportunity to strengthen community ties among all who show up – artists and others. Built into the big chair’s arms are benches for sitting and cubbies for artists’ materials designed to spark ideas, conversation, and maybe even gossip.
Lately I’ve been intrigued by how often I hear or read about yet another conversation, and more than that, about another series of conversations or gatherings with some intention or focus. I know that this observation could be affected by the phenomenon that causes us to start seeing red cars everywhere once a red car is called to our attention. But the sense of being surrounded by the desire for conversation feels bigger than that.
Names of specific gatherings come to mind, some more formal than others and all in Seattle: Art Klatch, What’s Up?, John Boylan’s Conversations (which recently took “conversation” itself as a topic), Thirsty Thursday, Poetry Potluck, Civic Cocktails, Think & Drink, Canoe Social Club, Penny U, Melting Seattle, Transpartisan Salon on Art & Creativity, Geeks Who Drink, Thought Shop, Cheap Wine & Poetry, Conversations on Creative Aging, Soup Salon, City Table, Table Talk, One Pot, Aging Your Way Gatherings, Conversations that Matter, and more. We’ve also recently seen the rise here of “co-working spaces” and the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance – seventeen co-working spaces including the Hub Seattle, Makers, and Office Nomads. All this is set against a backdrop of book and movie clubs, all kinds of meet-ups, “communities of practice,” and civic and business breakfast clubs. While not discounting the role of digital forums or the possibilities of interaction between digital and live exchange, my interest here is in-person, face-to-face exchange, gatherings with focus and intention. And, of course, it doesn’t even begin to include all the Seattle activist groups organized with specific causes in mind.
A few names given to conversations in other places or at other times include the Back Room (Portland), Creative Mornings (Vancouver), Philosophers’ Café (Vancouver), Zócalo Public Square (Los Angeles), and the Long Table of artist Lois Weaver, as well as more structured versions like National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, Fierce Conversation (a kind of career counseling), and a real favorite of mine, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.
This country’s history is full of gatherings with a purpose, from town hall meetings, quilting bees, camp meetings, and barn raisings to the voluntary associations and free expression that Alexis de Toqueville identified as being at the root of American democracy when he visited in the 1830s. Longer ago, Scottish coffeehouse culture in the 1600s is credited with establishing key foundations of civil society, and, farther back still, the Lyceum in ancient Greece was a place for philosophers such as Aristotle, who engaged students in cooperative research and walked as he taught.
Over the years, I’ve wanted to understand the concept of “the commons” as part of searching for whether and where we can find common ground today. I’m interested both by what the concept of the commons has meant historically and where we find versions of it in our lives today. One of the best short descriptions I’ve found is from Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess. “Commons,” they write, “is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people.” They say:
Historically, in Europe, “commons” were shared agricultural fields, grazing lands, and forests that were, over a period of 500 years, enclosed with communal rights being withdrawn by landowners and the state.
Historically, in the United States, “commons” has most often referred to shared spaces that allow for free speech and the democratic process…The U.S.-type commons underscores the importance of shared spaces and shared knowledge in fostering viable democratic societies.
A friend and colleague, Peter Pennekamp, has been actively involved with communities in northern California for over twenty years learning how people in the region come together in what he has called “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy.” Among the underlying principles of this “community democracy” is an essential requirement for community commons. “Space is necessary for a rich public life,” he writes, “space where people come together to build and experience civil society in an environment that assertively values community knowledge and where the playing field is level.” And he says:
In an era focused on private ownership and rights, such space is declining as is recognition of its value. When people speak with passion about community it is often the value of the commons that they are referring to. Community “commons” is where innovation and community change happen. It is the place where the individuals, groups, and networks that make up a community come together to spark ideas, develop agreements, and build trust for common action.
These places are essential, he says, to “countering hierarchies, static power structures, nonproductive decision-making processes, and official sources of knowledge that suppress improvement.”
So with thoughts of Scottish coffeehouses, de Toqueville’s observations about associations and free expression, community democracy, and the commons in mind, I wonder whether all the conversations going on around us now might in some way be laying groundwork for a new or revitalized sense of the commons in our lives, or of civil society and democracy. And I don’t mean “democracy” as it’s played out through all the layers of our representative democracy, as important as those are, but rather something closer to Peter’s “living, breathing, on-the-street” democracy.
All this leads to a few comments and questions:
- A good conversation goes beyond where you thought it would, said someone at John Boylan’s Conversation about conversation. It is an improvisation or a collaboration in which one is changed by the exchange, by listening. There’s a moment when the questions stop and the real conversation begins.
- At the same time, John’s conversation considered almost exclusively the exchange between two, with some in the room feeling that real conversation among three or more is very difficult. So how do we come together in creative or community commons, in a group larger than two? Do some of our conversations create the “shared spaces and shared knowledge” that Ostrom and Hess claim are needed to “foster viable democratic societies”?
- To be a “community commons” that encourages the innovation and change Peter mentions, people with different experiences and perspectives from one another must be in the mix. And differences often cause tension, something I consciously or unconsciously avoided most of my life, perhaps as a learned response in childhood. We need conversations among people with whom we share values and experience, but how well or how often do we move beyond a fairly homogeneous group? Where are opportunities for conversations in groups that are heterogeneous and prone to tension?
- While I’m interested in conversation that isn’t monotone, I’m not convinced that the only way to avoid simply talking to ourselves is to bring in the most extreme, opposing view, though that can be invigorating. Despite today’s polarized public dialogue, things are often – or even usually – more complex and multi-faceted than can be explored through black-or-white, either/or positions and point/counterpoint debates.
- I also doubt that many of us, on whatever side of an issue, are converted in public by a single event. Rather, understanding and change more often come over time I think, through listening and gradually letting trust grow. I’d love to know of conversations where that happens, or to work with others to establish conditions where it could.
- Another good point made at John’s conversation is that meaningful conversation takes many forms besides talk and that, for one, the physical side of an exchange is really important. One of the best ways to build common understanding is to work together, to cook or garden together, to move or sing together – those barn raisings and quilting bees. The World Dance Party that started a few years ago in the south end of town seems much to the point, with 100-250 people of many cultures and ages coming together for an evening of “just food, dancing, and community.”
These thoughts have drifted a long way from the art show that prompted them. Considering the context – that is, an arts exhibition – makes me wonder whether my perspective on the commons and conversation and gossip is affected by a life spent at least partly immersed in the arts and also by some understanding of myself as an artist, an identity this show has encouraged me to consider again. Artists certainly know something of gossip, and conversations are all around us. But how are we, or could we be, part of establishing living, breathing community commons as vital, collaborative forms?
And referring back to the 2016 introduction to this writing, what kind of role can we play in creating an “army of aroused and informed citizens”? How do we add to the power supply for change?
* More information about the exhibition Chamber Music is here. And elsewhere on this site I’ve posted another essay I wrote as part of the exhibition, “Am I an artist?” where I give a little more background on the show.