Tierny Sharpe Dioffo on difficult topics
The Social Table Awareness Conversations was an event that occurred in conjunction with the annual Indianapolis Festival of Faiths. The organizations responsible for forming this event included The Center for Interfaith Cooperation, The Desmond Tutu Center, Provocate, and the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. This event was meant to provide a venue for face-to-face conversations about social issues during a time when our society is drifting away from personal interactions. The event included a mix of citizens and respected professionals from the Indianapolis community who engaged in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics affecting Hoosiers.
According to the websites of the groups involved, the event organizers’ goal included using the diverse and inclusive Festival of Faiths as an encouraging backdrop for this event. The topics ranged from Religious Institutions to Marriage Equality and Racial Tensions. Citizens don’t often have platforms from which to have their opinions heard; therefore, our leaders often forget that these issues can affect an array of people, not just the lobbyists and legislators before them. Unfortunately, this means that our leaders often simply cannot comprehensively consider policy about these issues as well as they could if citizens have a voice. I believe that the organizers realize this and this was a major goal of their event. This can be evident in the array of facilitators that attended which included Tim Swarens, the opinion editor of the Indianapolis Star; Douglas Hairston, Reverend, and Director of the Front Porch Alliance of Indianapolis; and Hazem Bata, the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of North American. Other equally prominent and important leaders acted as facilitators as well, giving the attendees unprecedented access to experts in the issues discussed.
The target audience for the event were concerned citizens who value each and every opportunity for civic engagement. In addition, due to the range of topics discussed, it was a learning opportunity as well. Each person that attended interacted with not only civic leaders they may never have met but also other citizens of their community they may have never interacted with otherwise. As an audience member myself, I also left encouraged by the camaraderie with other engaged, intelligent, civically responsible citizens; also hopeful that a democratic republic can still work in our country if other similar communities exist around the country.
The event was a great success. In all four of the groups that I was involved in, we had an enriching, although at times, timid conversation. The timid nature of some of the table conversations was more than likely due to the depth of some of the issues we were discussing, and I also attribute it to the respectfulness and care of each individual involved. Many people could have left offended by some of the issues discussed, but most people phrased their words very carefully. The diversity in the facilitators was also extremely well planned, as we often had facilitators that represented opposite sides of an issue. The RFRA/Marriage Equality table was a testament to this, as Jane Henegar, leader of the ACLU, and Tim Swarens, opinion editor of the usually conservative Indianapolis Star were the two facilitators.
Overall this was a great event, however, the time to discuss each topic was much too short. In the future I would suggest making this event a series, so that one to three topics can be discussed at each event, allowing attendees more time to warm up to the conversation. Because some of the issues can be a touchy subject, many people held back at first. Many times the conversation had just gotten underway when we were given our two-minute warning. Also, if only a few topics are discussed, instead of eight, that could also give the attendees time to discuss each topic with more people than those that were at the table the first time they discussed it. Also, attendees could discuss all eight topics rather than being limited to only four. There were many interesting people that I would have loved to hear from, and I simply did not have the time.