Sunday, June 10, 2007

Conversation History and Structure

The Conversation
Where talk IS action
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This document on the values, process, and activities of The Conversation Tacoma is offered in the spirit of a social contract describing who we are and how we operate. We will use it to stay aligned with our larger purpose and original inspiration. As we evolve, we will revisit this document, revising it as needed so that it continues to reflect who we are and how we are engaging with one another and with our communities.


The Conversation is a group of Tacoma and South Sound residents committed to building diverse, critically engaged communities of justice. We promote social justice through ideas, ideals, and action. Our goal is to model a just, open, compassionate community. Our foundational principle is “Justice for All.” We are a family, an affinity group, a think tank, and a safe house. We envision a world free of racism, mistrust, and intentional harm.

We welcome people of every race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, religion, and sexual orientation and all who live with physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

Two questions guide our work together: The first is philosophical: what is the meaning of our lives – our relationship to each other, the world, the universe? The second is practical and pragmatic: What are our immediate socio-political responsibilities and how do we fulfill them in a world burdened by bigotry, hostility, and unnecessary suffering?


At the Conversation’s weekly gatherings, we engage with issues, values, perspectives, tasks, and one another. To sustain genuine engagement over the long term, we are committed to four integrated processes:

We listen respectfully and talk purposefully:
share life stories
generate ideas and strategies
stretch to learn across difference
seek guidance and renewal from activists, artists, teachers, and scholars
explore wisdom texts and faith traditions
study root causes of social injustice
learn about peace and justice initiatives

We take action:
create social justice programs for the community
join local struggles for equity and peace
produce venues for artistic expression
support children, families, and neighborhoods
support the work of others in the community

We provide sustenance:
establish a safe place to explore issues misrepresented or shrouded in silence elsewhere
find our voices and renew our courage
grow, support, and nurture social activists and community leaders
strengthen bonds of friendship and trust
share information about what is happening in the community

We seek transformation:
recognize and challenge our biases
acknowledge our limits and then go beyond them
develop our resilience, power, and capacity for change
align our actions and words with our deepest commitments
celebrate our achievements


Our presentations, discussions, and actions emerge from the interests and expertise of those who attend weekly Conversation meetings. There we address moral and philosophical topics, such as the social construction of race, including the construction of whiteness; the existence of suffering; the question of evil; the production of systemic injustice. And we engage critically with specific issues, such as the legal system, wages, housing, food, healthcare, education, and economic injustice with special attention to contesting the racism that manifests within each of these areas. Our discussions interrogate personal and institutional belief systems and invite us to think, stretch, and live in new ways.

Since the inception of The Conversation in January 2006, we have taken action through programming and advocacy work. Our vision for future action includes a multiplicity of social issues, but our current work focuses primarily on education, the arts, and peace and justice, often integrating these areas in innovative ways.

The Conversation has envisioned, initiated, and brought to fruition multiple programs and events in these three areas:

1) Education
Conversation participants founded the Education Action Group, which meets bi-weekly to scrutinize Tacoma’s public education policies, advocate for policy and curricular change, and address the achievement gap through on-going interactions and debate with the Tacoma School Board and local officials. This group seeks equity in education for all Tacoma children through grass-roots involvement in policy change. They maintain a web-site to keep the public informed on issues and problems.

2) The Arts
Conversation participants produce SoJust, a one-day program to promote justice through art, music, and dance, to conduct a food and coat drive for Tacoma children in need, and to share information with the local community on how to make change. This program, first created in 2007, is now an annual local event that highlights the arts as a means of inspiring progressive social change.

3) Peace and Justice
Conversation members produce “Redeeming the Vision, ” an interfaith service celebrating Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision, helping to educate the community regarding the full depth and significance of his liberatory message, and establishing a Civil Rights Honor Roll to honor civil rights activists in Tacoma and Washington State. First produced in 2007, this program is now an annual Tacoma event.

The Conversation also works closely with other local groups to support initiatives aligned with our vision:

1) Education
• Work with the University of Puget Sound and the Community Partners to continue the on-going initiative on education and the color line emerging from the 2006 Race and Pedagogy Conference and the 2007 Race and Pedagogy Summit

2) The Arts
• Attend and promote The New Orleans Monologues, with special attention to giving young people access to the production and supporting the performance of the Monologues at local universities, including the University of Puget Sound, The Evergreen State College, Tacoma, and The Evergreen State College, Olympia

3) Peace and Justice
• Participate in and attend United for Peace of Pierce County debates on the Iraq war
• Work with the Broadway Center, The Evergreen State College, and Temple Bethel to continue the on-going conversation about the multi-racial civil rights coalition


To envision a future, we address philosophical and practical dimensions of our work.

To respond to the philosophical question -- what is the meaning of our lives, our relationship to each other, the world, the universe? -- we will develop in these directions:
• Learn more from one another and from our various cultural perspectives
• Deepen our knowledge of the history of marginalized groups and the processes of marginalization, with a strong focus on African-American history and the history of indigenous peoples, in recognition of how integral those histories are to the rights and status of other racialized and marginalized groups
• Deepen our encounters with faith traditions and wisdom texts so that they inform our work and our relationships
• Practice forms of engaging one another that allow us to address the hard questions while keeping our bonds of friendship and trust intact
• Give each person opportunities to lead, to develop cultural competence, to become more ideologically flexible, more resilient, better prepared for hostilities we encounter elsewhere, better able to work with fear and overcome voicelessness

To address the practical question -- What are our immediate socio-political responsibilities and how do we fulfill them?– we will sustain current commitments and explore going beyond them by acting creatively in these areas:
• Develop more programming for children and youth at the Conversation and in the community, such as visual or written arts programming—including monthly classes (on hip-hop; on artist as change agent, etc.)
• Increase our presence in the community, at elections, in schools, at School board meetings, at city council, at anti-war rallies
• Serve as a community resource on racial justice: provide programming and on-line and print resource lists that engage people in the journey to justice through anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-classist practices
• Contest anti-immigrant practices, homophobia, the exploitation of race, and restrictions to the rights of the disabled
• Work with local libraries to support their acquisition of books and films aligned with the vision of The Conversation
• Become more intergenerational, more diverse, more supportive
• Develop multiple levels of leadership
• Grow our volunteer base
• Connect with our community through joint programming
• Help families and neighborhoods become centers of social justice


At the Conversation, talk is action because it provides us with momentum and direction for wise action. Action is talk because our actions communicate our values and commitments, our vision for a better world. When we enact our vision, we serve others, and we develop our own resources, physical, moral, emotional, and spiritual.

Our action focus for 2008:

Plan carefully for service and social action:
• Organize SoJust 2008
• Organize Redeeming the Vision 2009
• Extend the influence of the education action group on public education policy
• Sponsor a 2008 youth summit
• Identify and develop new leaders for the Conversation and the South Sound
• Establish a weekly or monthly Conversation youth group that meets in the afternoon
• Create a partnership with Lincoln High School or with a classroom there, working with students, teachers, and families
• Adopt a family through the program at the YWCA
• Annotate and increase the number of resources listed on the website
Attend to self- education and renewal:
• Increase the Conversation’s education about racism, white privilege, homophobia, the status and treatment of immigrants and indigenous peoples, and the rights and struggles of the disabled
• Read a text together that speaks to our work and sustains our direction, perhaps inviting the community at large to join us

Establish a future for the organization
• Prepare a capital campaign, create a checking account, and establish a mechanism for securing funds to cover operating expenses
• Consider the legal standing of the Conversation, especially potential 501(c)(3) status
• Grow average attendance to 50 by October 2008
• Develop a ten-year plan for the Conversation

Our long term focus:

• Establish a fully developed program of activities to serve our entire community. These activities include, but are not limited to, advocacy for those victimized by injustices that pervade the law and the economy as well as employment, housing, food, healthcare, and education; and intervention in the systems that perpetuate those injustices.
• Increase regular attendance from 25-30 to 70-75
• Increase our diversity in all dimensions
• Adapt our schedule to balance whole group meetings with smaller action group meetings

On January 1, 2006, at the request of the leadership of Urban Grace--A Downtown (Tacoma, WA) Church--Dexter Gordon, in collaboration with Dennis Fulton, started teaching Martin Luther King’s second book, Why We Can’t Wait, to an adult Sunday school class. As a result of word of mouth and other publicity efforts, primarily by members of the class on their own initiative, approximately fifty people, who were not members of Urban Grace, attended all or some portions of the class.
Some participants expressed a desire to see the class continue beyond the scheduled ending time. Eventually, tensions and disagreements between the leadership of the church and the group led the group to seek a new meeting location. The group moved first to King Books, then to the Washington State History Museum, then to the YWCA, and then to its present location at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma.

• Each Sunday, doors open at 11:45am--coffee, chitchat, and settling in will occur between 11:45 and 12. The leadership team arrives by 11:45.
• We begin at 12:00.
• The Sunday program is structured as follows:
o Welcome & Introductions
o Personal Stories
o Moral Philosophical Question –Lecture
• Break
• Small Group Discussion
• Plenary Discussion
o Announcements & Closing
o Voluntary contributions to the Donation Box
The group is guided by the “V Team,”a voluntary leadership team responsible for the following:
• Program
• Calendar
• General development
• Promotion
The V Team leadership positions are voluntary, rotating and successive. When a position becomes open, the V-team approaches qualified potential applicants who would be a good match for the position and also announces the vacancy to the whole group so that all who wish to serve can apply. This process gives the V-team a role in identifying qualified applicants while also encouraging participants who wish to serve to step forward.
Each leader is at the forefront of a role for a year with a successor as an associate. Thereafter the associate takes on the leadership role, and another volunteer is invited to become the new associate. Thus part of the V-team role is to develop a successor to provide leadership in the future.
The current volunteer leadership team:

Dexter Gordon - Conversation Facilitator
Associate- OPEN
Tom Hilyard - Political Mappigator
Associate - Open
Rosalind Bell - Purveyor of Arts, Letters and Epicurean Delights
Associate - OPEN
Laurie Arnold - Town Crier
Associate- Marla German
OPEN - Media Coordinator
Associate - OPEN
Julia Harris - Finance & Budget Manager
Associate- Mona Baghdadi
OPEN - Development
Associate - OPEN


We welcome anyone interested in promoting social justice to become a part of The Conversation. We frame our relationship as a healthily functioning family--we should be able to challenge one another, ask one another the hard questions, and still love one another--still be committed to one another, just as family members are. And as a family, we strive to provide intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual support. We are mindful that people from different religious traditions and from no religious tradition share our commitment to social justice, and we welcome and embrace all with an awareness that our founding is grounded in the prophetic vision of liberation.


The Conversation is financed by voluntary contributions from meeting attendees.

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