Creating Public People vs. Creating Public Spaces
One of my roles in Minnesota Works Together, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship initiative I'm working on, is to convene public forums. I've been thinking of this as a way to "wake people up" by getting people to think about deeper societal problems and realize the ability they have to combat them. When looking at outcomes, this has led me to focus on causing changes in individual people, preferably measurable. This is quite an ambitious goal... one that I'll continue to work on, particularly by studying forums with different structures and seeing their outcomes... but one that I probably won't see much progress on this semester. Therefore, I was happy when I had the idea, in a discussion with Addi a couple weeks ago, that a more concrete goal could be to create public spaces, rather than public people. This would be an effort to create/encourage actual physical locations people can go to engage in dialogue with strangers.
The best approach would be to look at where this is already happening, with some limitations, and to encourage it there. I'm stil intrigued by the coffee-shop culture. Coffee shops are places where eventually the regulars get to know each other, but it would be nice if it happened more quickly. And there is the issue of their not being true "free" spaces, as you're sorta expected to buy a cup of coffee to earn the right to sit there for a few hours. This requirement actually kept me away from coffee shops for much of my adult life. But the good ones still allow anybody to sit there, with or without purchase, trusting in the caffeine and sugar addictions of the rest of the patrons to keep them in business.
The smoking ban has also created new public spaces, on the sidewalks outside clubs, restaurants, and coffee shops. It would be interesting to do a study of the number of strangers smokers talk to in a given week vs. the number of strangers non-smokers talk to. We need new culturally accepted conversation-starters in the U.S. Ones that will make it clear that you just want to talk, and aren't trying to pick someone up. Why is it so taboo to speak to other people here? Is it like this in other cultures? Was it like this in the U.S. 100 years ago? I get the sense that people are generally dissatisfied with their level of alienation here. That's why I taped up a column of "I Saw You" from the City Pages on my wall. I found it poignant.
But I'm supposed to be looking on the positive side. Existing public spaces. I'm looking into the practice of having discussions after political or other particularly engaging films. When I went to see The Battle of Algiers in Paris, there was a discussion afterwards. When I went to see Fahrenheit 911 here, people just walked back to their cars and disappeared. Hopefully this is something that the Oak St. will start up. Another possibility is catalyzing dialogue at music venues. What if the performer were to hand you, the audience-member, a sheet with their lyrics on it, and then sit down and ask you what you thought about them?