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Marys River Grange March 2019

The Marys River Grange, site of the April 11 "Neighbor" conversation. 

I live in a part of the mid-valley that is covered by Nextdoor, the social media network for neighborhoods, and the various postings by my neighbors offer a snapshot of what's going on — lost (and found) pets, dishwashers to give away, people looking for babysitters, that sort of business.

Last week, though, I was struck by an invitation posted on Nextdoor by the Marys River Grange, just outside of Philomath. The grange has elected to host three separate sessions of The Conversation Project, the intriguing program run by Oregon Humanities in which people gather to discuss important ideas and issues. The Conversation Project offers many different programs run by facilitators, and from that menu, here was the first one that the Grange was offering: "Won't You Be My Neighbor? How Relationships Affect the Places We Live."

I had two different reactions: First, I thought, this is a fascinating topic. 

And then I thought this: Wait. Isn't the Grange all about being neighborly in the first place? After all, the national Grange, now more than 150 years old, was originally founded to promote the economic and political well-being of the community and agriculture. Grange halls, still scattered around the nation, have served as community gathering places for generations; they are veritable symbols of neighborhood.

That's kind of what Karin Bolender thought as well. Bolender, a relatively new member of the Marys River Grange, serves as the Grange's co-lecturer, the position responsible for arranging for programs. She knew about The Conversation Project (she actually is the facilitator for another Conversation Project program, about how we live with animals) and knew that the Grange in Corbett had sponsored the "Neighbor" discussion.

Other Grange members were enthusiastic about The Conversation Project, so Bolender took the menu of offerings (the full list is dizzying), and narrowed it down to a list of 10 for consideration. The "Neighbor" session rose to the top, along with two other sessions: "Good Food, Bad Food: Agriculture, Ethics and Personal Choice," scheduled for May, and "Beyond Invitation: How Do We Create Inclusive Communities?" scheduled for June.

So the members of the Marys River Grange (and other interested souls) will sit down for conversations about important issues beginning April 11.

Facilitators of these Conversation Project discussions pitch specific programs to Oregon Humanities; if a proposal makes the grade, the facilitators  receive training designed, in part, to ensure that facilitators don't give in to "the tendency to come in and expound" on their topic, Bolender said. Instead, the goal is to guide the conversation, to create a safe place for diverse viewpoints (not unlike the goals of the Civil Discourse Club at Linn-Benton Community College, the subject of last week's column).

The facilitator of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is Jen Mitas, who comes by her interest in neighborhoods naturally: She's lived in more than 40 places in her adult life and "now I've settled in east Portland, in what looks like a classic suburb."

So she's had plenty of opportunities to think about neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods are vibrant places. Others are, for all intents and purposes, places where people go at night to sleep. And recently, there has been a tendency, she noted, for people to "disinvest themselves from neighborly relationships" in favor of other relationships — online groups with shared interests, for example.  

When Mitas leads the "Neighbor" conversation, she said, some themes often emerge that suggest a hunger for more traditional neighborhood connections: For example, she might ask participants what they want their neighbors to know about them. Here's a common answer: "I want my neighbors to know that I want to be neighborly." But that can lead to a tougher question: "Why don't they know that about you?"

The conversations that result sometimes cut deep: "I'm constantly surprised by people's willingness to speak about their personal experiences," Mitas said. "I've been really surprised by people's willingness to do that with strangers."

And that gets to the heart of what The Conversation Project aims to do, Bolender said: "It really is such a rare gift to be able to sit in a room with a group of people and just think and talk together."

The Marys River Grange "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" session is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 11 at the Marys River Grange Hall, 24707 Grange Hall Road. It's free.

For more information about The Conversation Project and how your group can host one of the sessions, go to this website: http://oregonhumanities.org/programs/conversation-project/

Correction

Last week's column about the LBCC Civil Discourse Club incorrectly referred to Mark Urista, the club's adviser, as the chair of the college's communications department; his stint as chair ended in 2018. (mm)

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