The Village Square: Political Opposites Break Bread over Civil Discourse

“All politics is local.” – former House Speaker Tip O’Neill

The Village Square is about as local and as grassroots as an organization can get, taking a very bottom-up approach to problem-solving. They serve as brokers of conversation with the goal of setting a friendly tone in civic debate. They are about agreeing to disagree, but doing so in a manner where opposing views are respected and listened to. They are about discussing facts, not distortions, and reaching conclusions after the facts are understood. They are about celebrating what unites us, and engaging in civil, open discussions of what may divide us.

The Village Square is about discussing facts, not distortions, and reaching conclusions after the facts are understood.
The organization, based in Tallahassee, Florida, was formed in 2006 when two good friends on opposite sides of a contentious local issue brought their respective supporters together to have a public conversation. Prior to this, debate over the issue had become an expensive PR campaign, replete with false-truths and distortion. They discovered how vibrant discussion and quality conversation can change the dynamics of civic engagement.

This success led to what they call The Big Idea: “

The Village Square provides a venue for discussion and serves an educational role; never do they take a side in supporting or opposing a candidate or issue. They host town hall style meetings, “Dinner at the Square” events, and even opportunities to “speed-date” local political leaders. Their “Take-out Tuesday” events are free and open to the public, allowing people to bring their own meal while sharing the opportunity to learn about or discuss an issue.

As Liz Joyner, executive director of the Village Square, explained in an interview with IVN, food is an important element of their gatherings:

“If you want to get people together socially over civic issues, then breaking bread really helps a lot.”

Joyner talked about how like-minded Americans spend far too much time “sitting within our own tribes,” watching TV shows and reading books that agree with us. The alternative of sitting within a more diverse group fosters understanding. Agreement is not a requirement, but “it’s a wonderful byproduct if it happens.”

“I truly believe we have caught lightning in a jar. I think it was accidental, but now that we did it we know we’ve got it,” Joyner added.

The Village Square encourages “Lunch Across the Aisle” dialogues based on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who remained friends despite their deep ideological differences. Adams wrote in a letter to Jefferson: “You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”

The Village Square encourages Democrats to invite a conservative friend to lunch, and Republicans to invite a liberal. Then, they say, “like Jefferson and Adams before you, explain yourselves to each other.”

Joyner describes their work of building a reconnecting social civic community by saying:

“I think it’s both impossible and mandatory. Impossible, because every broad trend is moving in the opposite direction, and mandatory, because it’s hard to imagine how American democracy survives if we can’t talk to each other about what matters.”

The Village Square website includes an eclectic array of thought-provoking, often humorous, content promoting civility, open dialogue, and consensus-building. It provides resources for starting an organization in one’s own community, with suggestions for events, along with branding as part of a growing national organization.

I truly believe we have caught lightning in a jar. I think it was accidental, but now that we did it we know we've got it.
Liz Joyner, The Village Square
Unlike many other organizations, however, their website and social media efforts have a predominantly local characteristic. Their messaging is very event-oriented, and strives to build individual community relationships, rather than casting a wide net to disseminate their philosophy. They rely largely on a volunteer network and partner with local governments, newspapers, and leadership organizations to organize their efforts.

Their flagship Tallahassee organization operates on a shoestring $40,000-50,000 annual budget, much of which is raised from $68 in annual membership donations. That amount is based on their idea of a “68% solution” which moves away from simple majority rule toward solutions which bring together a wider middle consensus. Membership in The Village Square, similar to a public radio model, is not required for participation.

The future of The Village Square movement, according to Joyner, is to gradually spread their local model to other communities. Current plans will use grant money to bring the Village Square to Sacramento and Kansas City. Their national effort is working primarily to establish groups at a community level. They have a framework in place to share content across different communities, while still maintaining a very hometown feel. Their local, community-based formula is the right one, claims Joyner:

“I believe that we’ve found the secret sauce to how you do this and I want it to be in as many hands as we can get it into.”

Joyner also related their methods to the original design of the country. The nation’s founders disagreed, she explained, but still had to figure out how to solve problems.

“The jostling of opinion one against the other is fundamental to our system of governance,” she said. “The problem comes when we stop engaging to jostle.”

The Village Square recently was fortunate to have former Secretary of State George Shultz appear in a video promoting the organization. Speaking on The Village Square’s bottom-up approach, Shultz concludes: “Let’s try it. Who knows? It just might work.”

This is the second in a series of articles about relatively small, lesser-known, grassroots movements hoping to reverse the trend of congressional stalemate, political divisiveness, and the lack of civility in public discourse in America.