The Search for Civil Conversation

Mar 5, 2020

The Search for Civil Conversation
By Rebecca Howard
Tulsa City-County Library 

As I type this, I am proudly wearing my “I Voted” sticker. Each time we vote, we are participating in the narrative of our country. We are collectively crafting the future we want to see.  To be sure, our narrative is complicated, and how you read it depends entirely upon your perspective. Naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of the United States. As we mark the one hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage this year and look toward the centennial commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2021, I wonder what the narrative arc holds for the next generations. 

I can only hope that our narrative is one of increasing empathy for each other. For those of us still brave enough to read social media, we must wonder if constructive dialogue is even possible. Debates in the comments of a Facebook post are enough to send you running to the woods. What saves me—because I definitely cannot survive alone in the woods—are the conversations I’ve been having with fellow readers. 

The Tulsa City-County Library recently began a program called Courageous Community Conversations. Described as a reading and discussion program designed to give participants an opportunity for authentic and transformative dialogue about challenging issues, the program’s most recent topic was on the refugee experience. Using Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee as a catalyst for conversation, participants were able to express their ideas, share personal experiences, and speak their hopes about the issue of migration and its impact on our community. 

I had the privilege of co-facilitating one of these conversations, and I learned so much from participants at my table—many of whom were refugees themselves. One of the final questions of the evening was to imagine that you’ve been asked to give recommendations to the City of Tulsa about how to welcome newcomers into our community and provide a stronger sense of belonging. For many of us, the answer involved having more authentic conversations.  

Nayeri’s book is part memoir about her own experience as a refugee from Iran and part essay, weaving in the stories of refugees from across the globe. It lends itself perfectly to authentic conversations, as it asks us to consider if the place where we are born should determine our worth and our access to food, water, and shelter. Beyond that question, the book asks well-meaning citizens to evaluate the ways in which we offer support to those in need. It required me to consider the stories of my own that I’ve constructed about refugees and the expectations I have unwittingly placed upon them. 

Mohsin Hamid, the author of Exit West, wrote in a 2014 Guardian article, “An America that denies the human right of migration can no longer be the America it imagines itself to be." Whomever is on the ballot come November, I’m voting for empathy and imagination. If you’re equally interested in participating in authentic, meaningful dialogue, look for upcoming Courageous Community Conversations coming to a library near you.