Using Town Meetings to Foster Peaceful Coexistence
By Maria R. Volpe
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Maria R. Volpe, "Using Town Meetings to Foster Peaceful Coexistence," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 382-397.
The ability to maintain a civil dialogue is a key element of peaceful coexistence. Volpe examines how regular town meetings can contribute to peaceful coexistence by creating and maintaining a culture of civil dialog. Volpe bases this examination in her many years of experience with the regular town meetings held by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Communication and Coexistence
By town meetings Volpe means "the public convening of individuals or groups to discuss relevant and controversial issues with the assistance of a facilitator."(p. 383) The purpose of the meeting is to allow community members to vent their feelings, to express their concerns, to share information and to get answers when they are available. Because town meetings make no promise to produce an agreement or resolve a controversy, they may be easier to manage than negotiations or mediations.
In 1989 undergraduates at Jay College took over the college buildings in protest. Jay College is a culturally and ethnically diverse institution. Their demands addressed student sues, and issues of local concern more generally. The negotiated agreement to that take-over included plans to hold a town meeting to discuss the local issues. That town meting was well attended by a wide range of community members. Emotions ran strong but the participants maintained respectful dialog. The meeting was so electrifying that students requested further meetings be scheduled. The college administration did not comply, and in 1990 students again took over the college. This time their demands included a call for regular town meetings. The college administration agreed, and town meetings have been held on a regular basis since then.
Volpe argues that regular town meetings are particularly valuable in structuring ongoing communication and thus supporting coexistence. Regular meetings create a culture of communication, in which " shared meanings, norms and knowledge [are] transmitted over time by a group of people about a particular kind of communication forum."(p. 386) In the case of the Jay College, the existence of regular town meetings gave student clubs a forum to express grievances which the student government had been unwilling to hear. Without this forum the clubs would have invaded the student government executive meeting-- an alternative that even the club members conceded would be confrontational and unproductive. Volpe observes that within the Jay College community "on a regular basis when concerns arise, it is very common for individuals to view the town meeting as a forum for communicating with others, raising relevant issues, and receiving information from others."(p. 387) The Jay College town meetings have also prompted other local groups to hold town meetings to address particular controversial issues.
Planning Successful Town Meetings
Convening effective town meetings does require planning and attention to detail. Generally a committee is formed to plan the meetings. When town meetings are first proposed, the convening parties must decide what sort of committee is needed and how its members should be chosen. The Jay College Town Meeting Committee includes members from the student body, the faculty, the administration, and the head of the Colleges Dispute Resolution Program.
In choosing a location the planners must consider accessibility, audience capacity and the sort of image the venue conveys. Jay College meeting were held in a room large enough for the participants to sit in a circle. Microphones were located in the center of the circle and no tables were used, thus minimizing barriers between the participants.
Planners must decide how frequently to hold the meetings, and set a time that is convenient for everyone. In particular, community leaders must be able to attend at the chosen date and time. Jay College meetings were held monthly during the school year, meeting for two hours. Meeting dates and times were rotated between afternoon and evenings, and scheduled on different days of the week, in order to meet most student and faculty schedules.
Meetings may have an agenda or theme, or the topic may be left open. If a theme is set, then resource experts may be invited to address the issue. Experts may be asked to make brief opening comments, or may be present simply to answer audience questions. The Jay College planning committee specified a theme for roughly three-quarters of the town meetings; the remaining meetings were declared open. Non-theme issues could be raised at any meeting, however. In some cases the theme was ignored as other issues dominated discussion.
Volpe notes that "ground rules are central to maintaining civility at town meetings."(p. 391) Planners must decide on the rules, and on how to publicize and enforce those rules. At the Jay College meetings copies of the rules were placed on every seat, and the facilitator reads the rules at the opening of the meeting. Audience members help enforce the rules by encouraging fellow members to be respectful.
In order to give as many people as possible a chance to speak, meeting planners generally limit each speaker's time. At the Jay College meetings speakers are given two minutes--two more if there is no other speaker waiting. The meeting facilitator keeps time on a large digital timer which the speaker can also see.
Meeting planners must also decide whether and how the audience will participate. If audience participation is expected, what will happen if no one speaks? Jay College meetings open with five-minute speeches by the college president and the president of the student government. Audience members usually line up at the microphone to ask questions or make comments. The person addressed is given a brief response time.
A facilitator must be chosen for each meeting. Planner must seek individuals who are generally perceived as fair-minded and non-judgmental. The facilitator will present and enforce the ground rules. They must refrain from making their own comments, or affirming or denying any speaker's points.
Meeting planners must make arrangements for amplification if needed. They must consider whether any special services may be needed, such as audio-visual equipment or an interpreter. They must decide whether and how to record the meeting, and what to do with any recordings. They must also publicize the meeting, in order to attract the desired audience. Serving refreshments adds a further opportunity for civil dialog and socializing, and so enhances coexistence. Jay College town meetings are videotaped, and the tapes made available for viewing at the College. Meetings are publicized by fliers, voicemail messages, and posters. When funds were available, the student government provided refreshments after the meetings.
Advantages and Challenges
As a means of fostering coexistence, regular town meetings have a number of advantages. Town meetings present a very low cost opportunity for dialog. They serve as a diagnostic tool, allowing participants to bring previously overlooked concerns to the attention of community leaders. Regular town meetings empower the members of a community and enhance their voices. They can also serve as a first step toward convening meetings and procedures explicitly directed toward resolving community differences
Holding successful town meeting can also pose some challenges. Planers must secure the participation of community leaders. Leaders may be reluctant to participate, fearing they will be "put on the spot," vulnerable to being asked embarrassing questions or attacked. They may also resist having their authority questioned. Town meetings are not always the best forum for careful, thorough exploration of an issue. It is often difficult to give follow-up on issues raised in earlier meetings. Sessions can be very unpredictable, ranging from boring and repetitive to highly emotionally charged. Changes in the context can call the facilitator's impartiality into question. And while the facilitator is charged with applying the ground rules, he or she must also decide when a situation justifies departing from those rules.
Volpe concludes that, although not sufficient on their own "when town meetings are held on an ongoing basis, they can play a major role in helping to set the tone for culturally diverse parties to communicate with greater ease, a key ingredient for constructive ethnic coexistence."(p. 396)