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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Community Foundation schedules an invitation to civil conversation

    Democracy and protest share a starting point: Both can begin with a revolution. Democracy builds up, however; protest can wear down.

    Americans are small-d democrats to the bone. Even though much public dialogue seems to have become Rant v. Rave, thoughtful people recollect that the nation began in civil conversations among patriots. It is in our civic DNA to assemble, to discuss and to build up.

    Locally, we are about to have that opportunity. The "Thriving Communities" series soon to be launched by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut invites the public to four open meetings with a tone of "safe civil discourse" about matters all can agree are urgent, even if not yet on how to resolve them. 

    At last, a public conversation — about such critical issues as women's rights, empowering young people, whether the arts matter, and environmental preservation — to appeal not just to liberals or just to conservatives. It doesn't tap government funds and it will be discussed by ordinary citizens, not debated by politicians. This sounds like something we can all get behind.

    The strategy is to welcome contrasting points of view in a respectful setting. A moderator will host each of the two one-hour discussions this spring and two in the fall. The aim is a new understanding among adults and young people who are worried about the future and pessimistic about the nation's disunity. "Do the arts matter?" is the first topic.

    The Community Foundation, which serves about one-quarter of the state's towns, makes grants on behalf of arts and culture as well as education, environmental programs, projects specifically benefiting women and girls, and various worthy initiatives conceived by nonprofit agencies. With its experience in evaluating programs for grants and students for scholarships, the foundation has an excellent handle on the region's needs and its greatest asset: people of all ages striving to do their best.

    It won't come as a surprise if the foundation's board and its president and CEO, Maryam Elahi, believe that the arts do matter. Merely asking the question gives a strong hint. More important will be what their donors, nonprofit partners, community leaders and members of the public have to say.

    Expect insights from the gamut: maybe the fifer or drummer who marches in a half-dozen Memorial Day parades, the artists whose painted submarines dotted the region in honor of Connecticut's Submarine Century, or an emerging performer from New London's annual Youth Talent Show. What do "the arts" mean to each of them? What does their art do for the rest of us, individually and as a community? Does art make a difference worth sacrificing for?

    Participants can expect to learn much about the reasons others think as they do. People now get their information from many sources, some of which are downright antagonistic to those who disagree. Online commenters have picked up on that, sometimes dismissing others with contempt or sarcasm. The series aims to overcome that dynamic.

    Hoping that some participants will be moved to build on the conversations, the foundation will offer small grants to nonprofits and student groups to organize their own follow-up projects. That step further could be the leap from an inspiring afternoon to a genuine change in the tone of public give-and-take. 

    To join the conversation from the start, attend "Do the Arts Matter?" at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 20, in the Blaustein building at Connecticut College. The second conversation, on the subject of empowering young people, will be at Norwich Middle School at 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 17. Look for wide-ranging views on what "empowerment" means and how to foster it.

    John Dankosky, executive editor of NPR's New England News Collaborative; host of "NEXT," a weekly program about New England; and former vice president of news for the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network and host of "Where We Live," will moderate the first two debates.

    By fall, when the Community Foundation hosts conversations about women's rights and preserving the environment, the tone of civil discourse in this region could possibly have turned a corner. That would set a good example, and it would be good for democracy, too.

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