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Once we were just a meadow next to the river: Oprah gets it right about GR and open dialogue

Tommy Allen

After Oprah comes to Grand Rapids for CBS' 60 Minutes, Publisher Tommy Allen reflects on the importance of community dialogue in an era of Facebook.
When folks try and define a moment, they often look for those flash points. Within these junctures experts often capitalize on them in the hopes they can extract clarity and then explain away its meaning for history’s sake or a witty soundbite in the hopes of scoring a few clicks.  

But too often, in fact, it is a million tiny things hurling us through time with a dash of chance that make all the right pieces fall into place, delivering what can best be called clarity of the moment—and almost always with little real fanfare. 

This holds true whether it is a civil rights moment or a point at which a city suddenly becomes “cool.” The many encounters we chance upon each day are part of a bigger picture being created. 

As we, as a city, collectively watched Oprah last fall and then again this past Sunday night on CBS’ 60 Minutes, we got a peek into the real Grand Rapids that, while assembled by a pollster, did do a pretty good job of showing us the landscape before us beyond all the fanfare of endless listicles and pints of beer.

Prior this moment, many on the outside may have believed that the only marker of our collective and complex “we” could be explained away by how we operate in the socials spaces from a decade of social media driving us to the many digital domains from public comments to Facebook or Twitter.

But as news has broken recently, so has our bubble of excitement for many about our digital domains as we are learning that maybe they are not all they were cracked up to be. And so as I lay sick in bed fighting the flu—something I share with many of you who’ve sweated away any one of the two virulent strains hammering away at our populace—I had lots of time to read the many things we share or post in the name of “being heard.”

Even as folks read the various news outlets reporting on the growing evidence of Russians tampering within our favorite social media spaces during the 2016 election, folks still continue to launch questionable media back and forth to help support a point in this time of confusion. And often from questionable sources. 

But  the Oprah segment on Grand Rapids also highlighted something not to mourn but actually something to consider celebrating or even modeling as we move forward: the importance of gatherings to a community.

I, for one, can say that as an area leader in the arena of social spaces, I jumped in with both feet with a (no defunct) Friendster account to the vastly larger spaces I inhabit today.

When moving past where we are today and the negative news often associated with these spaces, like Facebook and Twitter, I realize, I can’t take the bait so easily in light of this knowledge. I need a new order moving forward.

For when I think back on those early days as to why I joined, it was not to build this other life for me to live, but to have a space where some organization of my friendships could emerge because I was feeling disconnected as I advanced through time. This was the carrot that brought me to the web and I gladly hitched my wagon to it as did so many others.

Now before you think I am about to ask you that we abandon our social spaces (I am not)... 

...I am rather asking that we, as a community, to look at the model that has emerged from that group of folks featured on 60 Minutes who, after airing out their differences, went on to form a group in which community dialogue would flourish. 

Sure, they are still conducting much of their talks in private spaces like their closed Facebook group “America’s Hope,” but they are also engaging outside in the public square where collective experiences help to build a shared vision of community. In this space, something new can emerge that social media cannot not provide. 

They are not starting a movement—or at least I hope they are not—since the beauty of what they are doing is really old fashioned, open and honest, community-building. 

We all know the rules of not engaging in topics of politics and religion since we know too well as we age that folks rarely change these views—although I did start out as a young Republican and a Baptist but that is another story for another day. 

I understand “the other” that often is unduly demonized through unwelcome and over-wrought generalizations is actually worth listening to when trying to have a conversation. 

What I am hoping for, as I write this very stream-of-conscious piece coming off a five-day flu/bronchitis spell, is that we, as a community, will be inspired to introduce more dialogue with one another.

Now before you write me off as some sort of activist for the Kumbaya Club—I’m more of a Lollipop Guild kind of guy—I truly do believe from my experience since 1981 as being one of you is that Grand Rapids is special.

It is not perfect. And yes, it deserves to be called out and even protested when it oversteps or tramples on members of our society unnecessarily or heartlessly.

But it is a place where dialogue can emerge in the hopes that what we learn from one another by meeting in person will be a part of that beautiful million things that make up moments of transformation.

So wherever you are on your path or from whatever level of expertise you posses on a topic of study or learned experience that needs to be shared (and trust me we have a lot to talk about from topics like colonialism to what is real equity to even how the “we” are represented in government), this is a place unlike any other I have encountered in all my journeys around the world. (Ok, I need to hit a few more spots, but I’ve been around.) 

My hopes is that we can begin to move the needle forward in our evolution through meaningful and rich dialogue. 

This don’t have to be complicated. They can be as easy as posting as I often do to meet at a popular pub for lunch. 

Or it can take many other more advanced forms from inviting co-workers to a happy hour/dinner where a topic will be discussed by an invited guest; visiting a different religion’s place of worship like we’ve witnessed with the Kentwood At-Tawheed Islamic Center’s very successful open house; or simply inviting a bunch of your friends or neighbors to your neighborhood park for a BBQ potluck. 

It doesn’t have to be much at all. It just needs to happen more in the spaces where life is happening, and not just those space where folks hurl lines of copy back and forth at each other 24/7.

Through community dialogue we get to be a part of ushering in the city we want to become because it is rooted in conversations. We can learn a lot of each other’s paths when we engage in this manner of conversing. 

We can’t wait for leaders to fix this mess, that honestly we’ve all had a hand in creating together. (And yes, some more than others own that last line.) But the time for community members to gather has never been more important than right now. I believe within this place the grace we hope for us can emerge, and in doing so will allow us a chance to share it with others. 

Once we were just a meadow next to the river. It is what came after that has and will define us as we move forward as a city by a mighty river. It is time to gather again, Grand Rapids. 

The future (still) needs all of us. 

Tommy Allen
Rapid Growth
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