A dinner time to talk, listen about Rhode Island

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Have you felt underrepresented or even outright ignored by your community or by your elected officials? Have you felt as though your voice or opinions don’t matter? The Rhode Island Foundation is giving you a chance to have your voice be heard at a series of community dinners from March 21 through May 5 all throughout the state.

“TogetherRI” is ultimately an attempt to do just what it implies, bring people from all different communities and demographics together to discuss the issues most important to them, and provide feedback into ways that Rhode Island can be improved.

“We want the Rhode Island community to be vibrant,” said Neil Steinberg, director of the Rhode Island Foundation. “We want people throughout the state who want to have a voice, who want to be heard, to give them an opportunity.”

That opportunity will take the form of 20 sessions over six weeks with locations all over Rhode Island, including a session at Pilgrim High School in Warwick on March 21 at 6 p.m.; a session for Scituate and Johnston at Scituate High School on April 12 at 6 p.m.; a session in Cranston at the American Legion Auburn on April 18 at 6 p.m.; and a session in East Greenwich at the Varnum Memorial Armory on May 1 at 6 p.m.

The round-table discussions will be organized into tables of 10 people, and a professional facilitator will be at each location to prompt topics of conversation and encourage people to participate. While everyone will be encouraged to give their feedback, the intent of these sessions is not to argue or debate – rather it is to let everyone share what is most important to them.

“We need to listen. We want to hear,” Steinberg said. “We want people to have the opportunity to do two things: One is to talk with each other, and the other is listen to each other. It has to be both sides of that…Whether you agree or disagree with what you hear, it’s done respectfully.”

Steinberg said that the primary impetus to begin the conversation series was how millions of people have moved to having conversations primarily online – where numerous studies have shown people are more likely to be short, disagreeable or show outright contempt for others in their communications – which has resulted in a general degradation of peoples’ ability to interact with one another and share their opinions in a civil way.

“Compromise used to be the goal,” he said. “I grew up on, ‘You want to sell that for $3, I want to give you a buck, an hour later we settle on $2 and we shake hands and go away.’ Now, $3 goes to that corner, $1 goes to that corner and they never meet.”

Steinberg hopes that by getting people physically into the same room, and sharing a table with people they do not know, the original spirit of communication will reemerge.

“People find common ground when they’re not on social media,” he said. “Any of us can yell and scream and call each other names – when we sit down, and we figure out who knows whose cousin, we figure out about those Red Sox and that common ground. It’s to build community.”

The Rhode Island Foundation has partnered with the University of Rhode Island so that, once all 20 sessions are finished, URI staff will be able to compile data and hopefully ascertain some common areas of focus that were brought up in the conversations. The Rhode Island Foundation will then announce major findings at their May 24 annual meeting.

“Our commitment is to communicate at the end what we heard. Beyond that, we don’t know,” Steinberg said. “We don’t know what will come out of it. Whether people will want to keep doing this in their own area, whether projects will come out of it – we hope great ideas come out of it and we’ll be glad to communicate ideas that come out.”

TogetherRI is similar to other initiatives rolled out by the Rhode Island Foundation in the past, such as Make It Happen RI and Our Backyard, but on a much larger, unprecedented scale. All are invited to the open sessions, but there a couple ground rules – especially regarding public figures and politicians.

“What we will require is that everybody leaves their stripes at the door,” Steinberg said. “This is not designed to be a political platform. But they [politicians] are entitled to come as much as everyone else.”

And although it is uncertain how much interest these conversations will generate, Steinberg said that so far, interest in the initiative online has been a good sign.

“Judging by a day of the website being up, people are coming,” he said. “And we don’t think it’s just because of the free dinner.”

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