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A Gathering on Gatherings

I attended the Pomegranate Center's Annual Gathering today, whose theme was "Community-Built Gathering Places".  The center's gathering places model is based on the premise that "unintentional encounters happen in intentional environments":

Gathering places are where social encounters happen freely and unexpectedly, contributing to a stronger sense of community, better relations among neighbors, reduced vandalism and crime, increased safety on crime, renewed volunteerism and stewardship, and enhanced environmental beauty.

Cason Swindle, Pomegranate Center Board President, welcomed the group of approximately 60 participants.  Milenko Matanovic then provided an introduction and overview for the event (and moderated discussions throughout the day).  The morning included presentations by

In the afternoon, we broke out into smaller subgroups led by the morning presenters for two sessions.  It was a tough choice, but I decided to attend the sessions by Linda and Ron.  I hope that much of the material will eventually be made available online ... meanwhile, I'll share a few of my notes below.

In the first afternoon session, Linda Beaumont presented a number of public artworks she has created, focusing primarily on Truth Crushed, which includes an image of the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King etched into the floor at the King County Courthouse to commenorate it's renaming in Dr. King's honor (Kent Scott informed us that the county was originally named for another King, Rufus DeVane King).

One of the themes that Linda discussed was the notion of public art as an expression of -- and perhaps even surrender to -- vulnerability, and how a public artist has to be willing to "risk looking like a fool, for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive" [my paraphrasing, inspired by Oriah Mountain Dreamer's poem, "The Invitation"].  Vulnerability has been coming up for me in a number of venues and dimensions lately, including Merrit Quarum's NWEN presentation last Friday.  I'm also reminded of the vulnerability expressed in another verse of "The Invitation":

I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

Ron Sher led an engaging discussion focusing on the continuum of the small and the large, ranging from individual instances of third places to hierarchical networks of third places, which form the core of great cities (which, in turn, attract people to live in cities ... which, in turn, helps reduce the wear and tear on the environment).  Ron invoked the teachings of John Stuart Mill regarding the value of reaching a steady state rather than being obsessed with -- and consumed by -- the need to always be growing, which reminds me of a radio program I recently heard comparing the obsession with economic growth with cancer.

There were many other gems I picked up throughout the event, but I'll comment on just a few more here.  Alyssa Martin made an astute and provocative suggestion that the increasingly transitory nature of our workplaces and homeplaces may be contributing to the detachment many people seem to feel from the places where they work and live (fewer people expect to work or live in the same place for long).  Mark Wainwright drew attention to the Pomegranate Center's "Ground Rules for Public Participation", particularly the one emphasizing [again, my paraphrasing] accountability, I-statements and compassion:

Confront internal contradictions; practice compassion towards those who, like yourself, contribute to the problem they wish to solve.

On that note, I'll conclude with noting that during the wrap-up, I suggested that social responsible investing can be applied by individual consumers (not just large investment companies) -- reflecting a theme that arose in several discussions throughout the day -- and voiced a concern that, while there were many engaging and illuminating discussions, we were preaching to the choir rather than reaching out to others who may not be as convinced of the value of great gathering places. After the meeting, Milenko gently informed me that many of the other people attending the event, were, in fact, actively engaged in promoting third places in contexts where their value is not readily recognized.  This revelation, in turn, suggests to me that I may have been contributing to this problem myself, but not voicing my opinions outside of "safe" containers like that provided by the Pomegranate Center.  As is so often the case, any judgments I have about others is, ultimately, about me.  This blog post is a small action toward contributing to the solution, and I will practice compassion with myself now that I can see this internal contradiction.

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