Empowering the True Spirit of American Democracy

By Amanda Kathryn Roman ~ If you look back throughout the history of our country, many of our grand visions and democratic ideas began with informal conversations in taverns and parlors, coffee shops and living rooms. Patriots, activists, elected officials and volunteers, these Americans talked about their passions, hopes and dreams to good effect. They developed transformative action plans in the melting pot that is the United States of America. Sadly, at this time, the art of civil conversation and the ability to harness the power of genuine connectedness and alignment is at a historic low. Political parties are failing to collaborate or even compromise to the detriments of our future. Citizens are deeply disillusioned with the dysfunction they are witnessing. It is time for the citizens to lead the leaders. Living Room Conversations aims to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind our fellow Americans of the power and beauty of civil discourse.

I want political discourse in the United States to be respectful, constructive, collaborative, solution focused and conducive to empowering healthy communities. Average Americans understand that it's not always about bringing someone to your ‘side’ but understanding where they are coming from... and then it is possible to see different angles and possible areas of mutual concern and therefore agreement. After a successful pilot project last year, Joan Blades and I have partnered to launch a new website which we hope will be instrumental in bringing the Living Room Conversations project to new heights.

Living Room Conversations empowers average Americans within a small group (6) to come together to get to know one another in a more meaningful way than usual, by talking about issues that are of personal priority and concern to each participant. The purpose is not to debate any issue but rather to be open and curious about all perspectives and see what we learn from one another.

At LivingRoomConversations.org you can find free, open-source materials that will guide you through an evening of conversation. This project is ever evolving based upon participant feedback so I strongly encourage you to let us know how your Living Room Conversation goes – what worked? what didn’t? do you have suggestions for improving the process and/or making it more accessible?

This past weekend, Joan and I co-hosted a demonstration of a Living Room Conversation at the 6th Annual Engaging the Other Conference in Santa Clara, CA. While this model can be applied to any topic that you are interested in, we chose money in politics. Joining the two of us were a Republican statewide candidate for office, a Republican Mayor in the Bay Area as well as an award-wining progressive blogger, and an adult literacy activist who also writes on the philosophical subject of happiness. While our backgrounds varied, we found a lot of common ground on this topic and are pursuing an additional conversation on the topic of immigration early in the new year.

Each time I observe average Americans coming together with the genuine desire to seek understanding, I see an amazing transformation. The defenses are down, the ears are open and sometimes – if you look closely enough – you can even see a light bulb go on when a new perspective is revealed during the conversation. It is moments like that which have inspired my work in the transpartisan field. In both my professional and extra-curricular pursuits, I have always endeavored to find ways to support the wisdom of we the people. I am passionate about elevating the voices of American citizens no matter what their political affiliation might be. With genuine listening and collaboration, new solutions and opportunities reveal themselves and to me, that is the true spirit of American democracy.

I feel so fortunate to have found such a kindred spirit and someone that I am glad to call a friend to partner with on the Living Room Conversations project. Joan Blades and I certainly come from different political circles but our life’s work has an incredible amount of synergy. My background working with the national Republican Party in Washington, DC provided me with first-hand experience of the combative nature of our current political system. I simply got sick and tired of everything being about Us vs. Them - what about We the People? I sought out opportunities for collaboration rather than simply winning. My coalition building work throughout the country allowed me to connect with real Americans and talk to them about what was important in their lives and their communities. Washington, DC and even their state capitals were often seen as a far-off place that would make decisions that would affect their lives but they just felt disconnected and without a voice. Living Room Conversations is one way that individuals can come together about an issue that is important to the participants and talk about possible solutions. The fact that at least half of the participants will not share your worldview opens up the possibilities for new perspectives and different angles to emerge that would not have surfaced without this specifically designed conversation. While collective action is not a necessary outcome of Living Room Conversations we have often heard that is an intense desire of participants after their evening together.

There are a variety of civil conversation initiatives that encourage and facilitate constructive dialogue (Public Conversations Project, Family Dinner Project, America Speaks and Conversation Cafes just to name a few). These projects enable diverse views to be aired and constructive civil conversation to ensue in a variety of venues. They are deeply researched and have impressive accomplishments. In many cases, they train and deploy facilitators. The experts that have designed these processes have worked hard to create successes that we all benefit from. Living Room Conversations honors this work and is intended to fill an important complementary role with a guide that does not require a professional facilitator.

Living Room Conversations has recently affiliated with the Public Conversations Project. Public Conversations is a Boston-based nonprofit that works globally to prevent and transform conflicts driven by deep differences in identity, beliefs or values. Public Conversations has embraced the opportunity to work collaboratively with the founders of Living Room Conversations, as both groups share a passion to reduce the polarization that is damaging our country’s public life.

“The heart of our work is bringing people together,” said Cherry Muse, President of the Public Conversations Project. “We focus on deepening trust, improving communication and collaboration, and strengthening teams. Living Room Conversations has the similar goals of encouraging Americans to begin talking across differences to move our country in a positive direction. We especially appreciate their focus on respectful conversations that embrace many viewpoints. It’s challenging… and important… to speak with people who see the world differently than we do. Otherwise, we’re just talking to ourselves.”

Living Room Conversations aims to empower any American, anywhere, to establish and deepen relationships within their community which may be challenged, contentious or at an impasse. This model brings friends and friends of friends together for an intimate conversation on subjects that they might have avoided for fear of conflict. My Christmas wish is that you will consider co-hosting a Living Room Conversation in your home and help my dream of thousands of respectful conversations across party lines helping to shift our culture and awaken the spirit of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.