Variations on the Theme

By: Rodney Ferguson

Tuesday night I drove up to Concord, CA to participate in a Living Room Conversation hosted by Mental Health Consumer Concerns . Having participated in some rather livelypolitical Living Room Conversations, I didn’t know what to expect. This was not going to be a different kind of  Living Room Conversation. The groups would be larger; there would be people who were mental health clients, providers, and doctors as well as people who have been homeless and help the homeless, and people who are coping with addiction and recovery specialists. This was going to be a new test of the Living Room Conversation format.

There were about 30 people in attendance and the event, thankfully, started off with great lasagna, salad, bread and tasty muffins. Each of us shared our names and the role we would play in the conversation. Some shared a little bit of their history. My first thought was that this sharing would take too much time from the main event, but getting a small glimpse into these strangers’ lives, from the outset, added to the openness and warmth of the room.

We broke up into what I believed were two large and unwieldy groups, but in our group, the gentleman hosting (reading the LRV format), put everyone at ease by with his convivial personality and his football coach’s enthusiasm. He even read the guidelines with such conviction that people were nodding in agreement like they were in church.

Living Room Conversations are organized into rounds. Round One gets folks talking about who they are. Now many of the folks there were (are) recovering addicts. For those of you not familiar 12 step type meeting, people share snippets of their personal stories, especially about the problems they’ve faced. These folks really opened up, talking mostly about they’re experiences in attempting to get help from various social services--powerfully serious stuff.

The rest of the rounds get people get deeper and deeper into the topic by helping them to speak thoughtfully and listen carefully. Typically, there are two sides on opposite ends of the political spectrum trying to express their respective truths while searching for common ground. In this setting, there were clients, direct service providers, and administrators all sharing their points of view about social service delivery in Contra Costa County. Contra Costa is merging it's mental health, drug and alcohol and homeless services, so this is an important time to enable all members of this community to be heard. As participants became more engaged in conversation their stories became more personal and poignant. I was only supposed to be an observer, but I got so enthralled that I found myself sharing and asking questions. It seemed natural and I think my comments were appreciated.

My group worked through all of the rounds, staying mostly within time limits until the very end, where we kept sharing and talking, talking and sharing. This happens every time, but unlike traditional Living Room Conversations, the emphasis here was “Community” Living Room Conversations. This includes people who don’t have living rooms. I discovered that the LRC system is open-source because LRC is robust enough to be used by most any group in any setting—living room or not.