It was Tuesday, October 16, 2012. The evening was charged with excitement as the first guests arrived a full half hour early. There were seven seating arrangements ready to receive the seven facilitators and their guests for a policy discussion of Jeff Prudhomme’s Helping America Talk. This was an important night in that the debate that would follow the discussions was sure to cement for one of the presidential candidates a lead in the race for the seat. As the facilitators arrived and marked their areas with paper table stands with their name and the number 1-7 that had been assigned to them, the seriousness of this evening was part of the conversation. Soon each seating area was filled; facilitators were busy discussing the possibilities.
At my table all six participants enthusiastically answered my opening questions: Don’t we talk already? And how do we improve it? I was somewhat surprised with the responses and made a decision that far more information would come out if I would allow the ideas to flow freely instead of limiting the conversation to the possibilities most of the way through our time together. Everyone felt that we do talk and talk plenty, but that most of the talk might be considered to be not as productive as it could be. When asked to expand upon that, the response was that the talk does not often result in action items. Talk centers most often on money, sports, and sex. Policy charged discussions generally were not talked about at great length. The reason that was given is that people do not feel comfortable enough to talk freely about policy issues. Everyone felt that it is important to create settings where people feel more comfortable. They suggested that forums need to be provided so that people can feel more comfortable and have more exposure to talking.
Then the discussion became even more interesting. One participant said that we need to reevaluate how we socialize. We were reminded of years past when families would get together on a Friday or other weekend night. Every family would bring over to one person’s home a dish of food. There were usually adult drinks and card games and children running around and playing together. The wives would play cards or talk to each other about their week, their children, or their interests. They commented that today everyone is on a cellphones and texting. We need to have more family potluck dinners even when there are often not resources to take the family out to dinner and practice communicating. It is important for children to see adults discussing ideas. That way it becomes a part of a young person’s life expectations.
On the other hand we all should begin to learn how technology can help us communicate. Two examples were given as letting their children know when they want a voice talk and that one participant’s eighty-four year old mother is the “queen of texting”. Everyone thought that we have allowed children to get away from the art of communication and that possibly games such as checkers, chess, and games of thought might be helpful in stimulating conversations.
Then we talked about possibility D., Money Talks: Let the Free Market Determine Access to Public Discourse, saying that mass communication does not have the sway it use to have. Bloggers are getting information out. Money does not rule communication. There is no such thing that there is a free market. There are ways that people can control information without moods or attitudes that skew outcomes. On possibility E., Quality In, Quality Out: Quality Control for Public Discourse, participants discussed eminent domain and the idea that in Washington, DC owning a home does not mean that you own the land and how it caused a mass migration of African Americans to Maryland all because of the myth. The point was that underserved people and everyone else need greater access to communication. So, putting broadband into neighborhoods is a good idea. Everyone felt that Wiki Leaks was good but was used as a smoke screen. Digital literacy training is necessary, but how does one know if information is creditable. The idea was mentioned of how to reach the underserved by putting billboards containing facts and information in rural areas. One participant mentioned Jay Leno Show’s segment, Jay Walking, that highlights and magnifies how much average citizens do not get information, or at least they do not retain it.
The debate was fifteen minutes from starting and the group had not finished sharing ideas, but we ended anyway. The brief, plenary session that tied our time discussing talking more to produce wider access to ideas was a perfect segue to the debate. Everyone was engaged. Periodic applause and some impassioned phrases peppered the room as nearly sixty people who had talked for two hours were looking at our President and a challenger talk about issues.