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6 habits to be a better neighbor, courtesy of the Lyceum Movement
The old-fashioned notion of public conversation feels like a smart modern plan for the future of healthy communities.
I suppose the NFL playoffs were the popular entertainment over the weekend, but I was most excited to join a public forum Saturday evening in downtown Des Moines for lively conversation among neighbors.
I make no apologies for my geekery. The more we live our lives in the digital cloud, the more I’m convinced we must go out of our way to preserve and prioritize getting to know and learning from each other in person.
Enter the Lyceum Movement, a revival of a 19th century legacy of public forums. This new series launched in Des Moines little more than a year ago and has quickly sprouted chapters in six more cities, from here to Duluth, Minnesota. Its mission is “to build meaningful communities by providing a space for neighbors to learn together in friendship.” Executive Director Nathan Beacom and his team curate a “shared space to explore great ideas, great deeds, great art, and the questions that affect our life together.”
I had been meaning to attend a session at Gravitate Coworking in downtown Des Moines and finally did as a speaker alongside the insightful Ryan Stoldt, assistant professor of journalism at Drake University.
Our agenda was elegantly boiled down to a single (big) question: How is modern media changing the way we think?
For Saturday’s first half, Beacom led Stoldt and me in an auditorium conversation based on our academic and industry experience. Then everybody pivoted to small-group table talk. To close the evening, a representative from each group shared one “toast” (celebrating some idea or contribution) and one “commission” (a pledge to act based on the evening’s insight).
I won’t try to summarize all the points (especially since active participation hampered my note-taking). You should attend one of the next events, such as “Can We Have Heroes?” on Feb. 18 in Des Moines, to get the full sense of how a single question spiderwebs its way through the room as strangers come together and share views. I was impressed that dozens of residents of a variety of ages and backgrounds cared enough to attend—students from Lincoln High School and Iowa State University, young professionals, lifelong print newspaper readers, etc.
I also loved the six habits of Lyceum behavior that Benya Kraus shared at the start of the event. Here’s the list of habits and how they’ve provoked my own thoughts:
1. Read our neighbor’s words in the best light.
We’ve gotten better at creating ways to communicate with each other, but arguably without getting any better at conveying the tone and nuance we rely on in person. Maybe I’m missing the perfect emoji or meme here to drive home my point.
2. Talk for the sake of truth and understanding, not victory.
These public conversations provide the opposite of a reality-TV diet: There’s no star baker or bachelor to provide a big finish. Incremental community building isn’t sexy, but it’s worthwhile.
3. See ourselves as fundamentally on the same team, even with those who disagree.
We may have gotten too comfortable in hearing three words repeated by a long line of presidents—“my fellow Americans”—without recognizing the persistence of the forces (technological, economic, cultural) driving us apart.
4. Acknowledge what we don’t yet know.
One thing I’ve always loved about quality journalism: It’s a discipline grounded in manic curiosity and the value of daily learning. Another thing: It always strives to clarify the missing pieces in a given story—not ignore or gloss over them.
5. Talk for the sake of building up community.
Our era of the social media influencer, with everybody angling to maximize their individual brands, tends to reward outrageousness and outrage.
6. Look for something to love in every person.
Humanity can’t be reminded of this enough, with or without all the Hallmark Christmas movies.
Lyceums: Thank a farmer.
The six habits build on a long history of lyceums spread across the Northeast and Midwest.
“It’s time to find a new way of talking to each other here in Des Moines and in Iowa,” Beacom wrote in a guest column for The Des Moines Register as the series launched in late 2021. “Rather than let the terms of conversations be set by national entities who profit from our anger, why not get back into a room together and think for ourselves?”
Beacom credits Connecticut farmer and teacher Josiah Holbrook with the early 19th century vision that still fuels his modern lyceums. There’s also Des Moines’ own legacy of public forums in the 1930s—events so successful that President Franklin D. Roosevelt deployed them nationwide through New Deal funding. Those forums spread to 43 states until Americans focused their attention on World War II. (Local writer and historian Michael Wellman outlined that history in his own guest column.)
As I mentioned, we can use ever more varieties of these public events focused on building community. The Des Moines Storytellers Project, for instance, while more performance than forum, shares DNA with the Lyceum Movement in how it invites local residents to step up and share their authentic voice. The Iowa Writers Collaborative is experimenting with ways to convene contributors and audiences.
The more experimentation to bring neighbors together and promote greater understanding, the better. Because we can’t silence each other in our daily brick-and-mortar lives as easily as we silence our phone apps—although sometimes we may want to.
One of Saturday night’s commissions: Bring a friend to the next forum.
Iowa Writers’ Collaborative Columnists
Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Nik Heftman, The Seven Times, Iowa and California
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politic Behind the Curtain, Washington, D.C.
Macy Spensley, The Creative Midwesterner, Davenport/Des Moines
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
To receive a weekly roundup of all Iowa Writers’ Collaborative columnists, sign up here (free): ROUNDUP COLUMN
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