Whether those who attended the second Lexington Lyceum Advocates’ Community Conversation came because of an interest in civic engagement or government or to hear a particular speaker, they came away with an array of varied concepts and interesting strategies for encouraging community participation. The event was co-sponsored by the Lexington Observer.
Dr. Ofrit Liviatan, who lectures in Harvard’s Department of Government, has also written a novel, Anything But Steady. In it, she used the power of narrative, letting the story generate empathy to moderate harsh judgments, allowing fresh ideas to gain traction. She often uses narrative as a framework for understanding why it is so hard to change hearts and minds that hold opposing, polarized opinions. She suggested that the concept of “selective perception” — overlooking data and instead conforming to the listener’s closely held beliefs — might offer an answer, citing Charles Dickens’ distinction between the wisdom of the head and the wisdom of the heart.
With a strong background in community engagement, Town Meeting Member Anil Ahuja (P5) spoke of choosing Lexington as his hometown. In order to create community, he pointed out that newcomers “need to feel welcome, included and heard.” As a “melting pot” that blends many cultures, opportunities for community celebrations abound in Lexington and can serve as conduits to resident participation. Local decisions have huge impact and the process can expand to include newcomers: Indian Americans represent 8% of the town’s population, Ahuja noted, yet they comprise 11% of Town Meeting Members. “Lexington is my home, it is your home, and it is our town,” he concluded.
Jerren Chang, one of the founders of the four-year-old nonprofit GenUnity, described the impetus for the organization as seeking to “bring residents together across differences to build trust, collective knowledge and power to drive change on the issues most impacting our communities.” Also citing “fun”as a strategy to facilitate the willingness to undertake difficult conversations, GenUnity uses art or music to “create a unifying experience” as a base for their work. “Unpacking the ‘why’ [of a system], can inform a deeper ‘how,’ Chang explained. “Once they understand the ‘why’ [the cohort] stays engaged to create a deeper ‘how’.”
State Sen. Michael Barrett, (D-3rd Middlesex), noted the importance of consideration for both winners and losers in order to maintain civic equilibrium in any negotiation, in a “struggle for honorable compromise.” His comments built upon the concept of “loser’s consent,” which Dr. Liviatan had already introduced, as a foundation of democracy, acknowledging its importance not just in political contests but in all conflicts. Barrett’s work involves compromise when a problem is perceived differently from one constituency to another. As an example, he mentioned the North Airfield development where the growing demand for private jet travel is in conflict with a range of concerns evinced by the four towns contiguous to Hanscom Field.
After the panel discussion, moderated by Shannon Murtagh — an independent educational consultant, Lexington parent and Vision for Lexington committee member — attendees were invited to “talk, share, question, listen, and learn.” During that portion of the evening, individuals in a dozen small groups raised interesting questions and observations. One conclusion to arise from those conversations was that an assessment of personal bandwidth is important, along with clear expectations, in engaging in civic participation — although there almost always seems to be enough time to do something one enjoys. A resident with experience in aviation wondered how to engage in the airfield conversation. One of the presenters pointed out that civic engagement is a muscle that benefits from frequent exercise. Adding creativity to communications can open new pathways among organizations.
The next Community Conversation will examine the role of local and regional news in helping to protect communities against disinformation, ensuring coverage of underrepresented populations, and supporting civic health. It is scheduled for April 13 in the Follen Church Community Room, and tickets will be available through the LexObserver website beginning March 15.