Let’s Talk America

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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