Living Room Conversations fosters civil discourse in Saratoga

October 10, 2020 — by Kaitlyn Tsai
Photo by Kaitlyn Tsai

Community members gathered on Oct. 6 to reflect on their discussions on race and ethnicity.

It was perhaps not a  group anyone would expect to talk about ethnicity: a Jewish man in his 80s, three students — one Indian, two Taiwanese — a white pastor from the Midwest, a middle-aged Belgian immigrant and a woman of Thai, Central American and Native American descent. 

Yet there they were, gathered in a Zoom breakout room on the evening of Sept. 1, discussing their relationships with their ethnicities.

This was the second session of a three-part discussion on race and ethnicity hosted by the Saratoga Ministerial Association and Saratoga City Council as a branch of Living Room Conversations.  Founded in 2010, the national nonprofit focuses on fostering civil discourse through conversation guides on everything from parenting to faith in politics.

The ministerial association and city council established Living Room Conversations in Saratoga in the heat of the 2016 presidential election after Westhope Presbyterian pastor Erik Swanson and former Councilmember Manny Cappello noticed tension in Saratoga’s conversations and culture. A friend of Swanson’s suggested Living Room Conversations, and the program stuck.

“We’ve been doing it on-and-off for about four years now, trying to help Saratogans — and anyone who wants to join — talk about important issues in a way that’s respectful and where people really listen to each other,” Swanson said.

When Swanson ran the program prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of community members would gather around small tables for discussions at the Joan Pisani Community Center every month. The intimate conversations and physical proximity to each other frequently led to “a real sense of connection to each other,” Swanson said. On several occasions, the conversations would move people to tears as they told their stories or listened to others' experiences.

Swanson particularly remembers an instance during a session pertaining to the 2016 election. As everyone reconvened to reflect on their discussions, one member remarked that they would have liked to hear a conservative opinion. Shyly, a woman raised her hand and said that she was conservative; no one had expected that the conversation could be civil with people on both sides.

“That’s one of my favorite stories because it so clearly shows what Living Room Conversations can do,” Swanson said. “You and I can disagree about fair housing, for example, but if we listen to one another, the ideas can come together. If we do it respectfully, then we’re drawn closer together and maybe even come up with another idea. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

The program had a hiatus in 2019 because Swanson and Capello felt “a little burned out” from leading it. Although Kareem Syed, a new member of the Saratoga Ministerial Council, tried to bring back the conversations in January, the pandemic made it difficult to fully revive it due to difficulty spreading word about their new plans. Syed viewed the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement as the perfect opportunity to start Living Room Conversations again.

“It’s something the community needs right now to help move things forward,” Syed said.

On Aug. 4, the group held their first virtual session on race, in which members discussed questions such as “What is a powerful memory of race that still informs how you navigate relationships where race is a factor?” During their next meeting on Sept. 1, community members discussed their experiences with their ethnicities. 

Freshman Sarah Thomas, who attended the Sept. 1 meeting, said that she appreciated how the people in her group all had different experiences but ultimately came to many of the same conclusions about their ethnicities and identities.

“I remember when another person on the call talked about having a similar experience to me, when we were discussing feeling ‘whitewashed’ or not connected enough to culture,” she said. “It was validating to know I wasn’t the only person who struggled with a disconnect from my ethnic background.”

To wrap up the race and ethnicity series, Swanson and Syed hosted a final conversation on Oct. 6. Members reflected on previous discussions and talked about their concerns and goals for addressing race issues in the future.

As of now, Swanson and Syed said they have seen almost no problems with bringing back the program, with their only issue being further expanding it. 

“Every meeting has been civil and cordial,” Syed said. “The only challenge I see is that we need to do a better job of advertising and marketing the program. I think that if a younger demographic joins, they can help with that.”

Swanson added that moving forward, he hopes that Living Room Conversations can partner with other organizations to increase the number of participants from diverse backgrounds. A grassroots organization like San Jose Strong, for example, which connects residents to South Bay organizations and businesses, could provide these conversations with “a wider variety of opinions, experiences and backgrounds,” Swanson said.

Although Swanson said this is more of a wish than a concrete goal right now, he hopes that in the future, they could even consider partnering with other branches of Living Room Conversations across the nation.

“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is that we have different demographics represented and it’s exciting to see,” he  said. “A couple times, I’d sit down and have Muslim folks in my group, and it’d be great because then we can bring that whole idea of our faith life into our conversation as well — or not, it doesn’t matter — but either way, you have a diversity of opinions.”

Although the pandemic would make national partnerships much easier, Swanson said that he still hopes that he can host Living Room Conversations in person when it is safe to do so. Holding these discussions is still more personal and impactful when people can speak face-to-face, he said.

But online or not, Living Room Conversations has shown a way for a deeply divided nation to connect in spite of their differences. 

“The miracle of it is that sometimes there aren’t these big dramatic stories of people connecting, but every single time we do it, we build connections between people because they just listen to each other — and what a difference that can make,” he said. “I hope that people get a deeper respect for those who are not like them, and I hope we continue to build a deeper, closer community.”

 

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