Why would anyone root around a dusty basement for old documents? The allure of wine cellars and the necessity of furnaces notwithstanding, basements have a bad rep.
And yet a dozen of us systematically gathered town meeting documents from a basement storeroom at the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) in Chicago. Though long in the tooth and mostly arthritic, these 170 cabinets practically tick with the background radiation of history and creativity.
The story begins a couple of decades earlier, but we’re diving into the stream in the mid-’70s. The gist: “Little-known church renewal group helps Americans celebrate Bicentennial. Volunteers lead town meetings in every U.S. county.” We’re making sure that we don’t lose any of that 35-year-old documentation.
America’s 200th birthday came at a time of growing political cynicism. Representational democracy in the U.S. was already in disrepair. Citizen participation mostly meant allowing the extraverts and the annoyed to comment. 5,000 town meetings that engaged mayors, doctors, teachers and janitors on an equal footing for several hours at a time gave people a taste of real participation.
The concept was simple: mobilize volunteers, work through local leaders, gather citizens and provide a simple process. Elicit hopes and concerns. Help people create projects for moving forward. Have a few creatives conjure up a new community story, song and symbol. Listen to group reports, sing the community song and hand everyone a document on the way out the door.
Why the interest in old town meeting documents? They sampled the sociological pulse of grassroots America in the 1970s. Identical questions were asked 5,000 times. What do you hope for? What stands in the way? What will you do about it? The questions gauge a peoples’ sense of their own power. The answers reveal whether people know how to create fulfillment in the here and now. They are the questions communities of faith should always be asking their neighbors—and themselves.
In a decade when people across our planet must act together, how could we help one another ask these questions 500,000 times?