Let's Talk America

The fate of our democracy may depend on it

| March / April 2004

All social change starts with a conversation.
-- Meg Wheatley

Thirteen years ago, Utne incited our readers to start a revolution in their living rooms. In a special cover story on salons, we put out a call for people to get together and talk -- about politics, culture, education, the arts, whatever they were thinking and obsessing about. That call struck a chord. Over 8,000 readers responded and asked to be matched up with other Utne readers in their community. The neighborhood salons movement was born.

At its peak in 1995, our Neighborhood Salon Association had 25,000 members in some 600 groups meeting monthly across the continent and in several foreign countries. We eventually decided that the movement had become a force all its own and let go of our role in overseeing salons. Many of these people are still getting together, such as the lively bunch in West Palm Beach, Florida, profiled on the back page of this issue.

Can we talk?

Americans need to talk today more than ever, especially about politics. We don't need more diatribes or name-calling. We need meaningful conversations with people who agree -- and disagree -- with our views and values. In an uncertain era when so many people are frightened and disillusioned, our whole country needs more meaningful discussions of issues in this crucial election year.

Politics isn't inherently polarizing. Politics is people thinking together about their shared future with the freedom to articulate their dreams and voice their differences in a fair and safe arena. Americans want the feel of a classic 'town meeting' again. They need intelligent and respectful dialogue that can be heard across various political divides.

The growing inability of people with differing ideas to speak and listen to one another means that progress on issues that Americans -- all across the political spectrum -- hold dear is at a stalemate. The combative nature of public debate today undermines our confidence in the decency of our fellow citizens and discourages talented people from entering politics. No wonder voters have stayed away from the polls in greater numbers in every election since 1972. America stands more divided today than at perhaps any other time in decades.

A 'democracy salons' movement

Imagine if 10,000 Americans of every political persuasion gathered across the country throughout 2004 for deep, respectful, and searching conversations about what we -- the people -- see as the state of the union, and how we can take responsibility for preserving and revitalizing our democracy during this election year and in coming years. Imagine people saying 'yes, and' rather than 'no, but.' Imagine people thinking in fresh and creative ways rather than simply airing opinions that never change. Imagine hope. Imagine.

And imagine an overflowing majority of Americans registering to vote -- and voting -- in part because they sat with neighbors, friends, and strangers in local caf?s, churches, living rooms, and union halls, sharing their hopes and dreams -- not just their fears and differences. Here at Utne, we've been talking for several years about reinventing our salon organizing efforts in some form for these changing times. And now seems the right moment.

We are working with a number of partners -- including the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the Conversation Caf?s, and the World Caf? -- to convene a national conversation about our hopes and dreams for the future. We're calling it Let's Talk America. This new initiative kicks off this month with salons in hundreds of homes, coffee houses, book stores, and church basements across the country and with large events in several cities. (At press time, the list of cities was not yet finalized.)

We are combining cutting-edge online convening tools, like those used by MoveOn.org, with time-tested measures for fostering meaningful discussion and wise decision making. And at every one of these events, we will provide voter registration materials and information about how and why to get involved with the election campaign and vote in November.

Get involved

The key to making Let's Talk America a success is you. You are the ones who can help resuscitate our democracy: by hosting a salon in your home and inviting neighbors and friends to join you for lively conversation; by attending a launch event near you; by getting your community group, congregation, union, business, or other organization to endorse this project.

Go to www.letstalkamerica.org to find a Let's Talk America gathering in your area, or sign up to host a salon of your own. The Web site also contains downloadable discussion guides, information about how to host a salon, and materials you can use to promote your salon in your neighborhood. And you can join an online discussion in our virtual salon at Caf? Utne, www.utne.com/cafe

Get involved. The fate of our democracy depends on it.

Announcing the New Utne Institute

Utne is pleased to announce the launch of the Utne Institute, a separate and distinct non-profit educational foundation. Dedicated to promoting a diverse independent media and new ideas for dealing with society's problems, the Utne Institute will engage in a wide range of activities including conferences, educational seminars, research, and community-building. The Institute's first project is its co-sponsorship of Let's Talk America. For more information, visit the Utne Institute on the web at www.utneinstitute.org

Leif Utne is co-coordinator of Let's Talk America.

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