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The Risk of Conversation

by Elizabeth McKee

February 6,2007

“The kind of conversation I am interested in is one which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter. …the aspect of conversation that particularly excites me: how conversation changes the way you see the world, and even changes the world.” From pp. 3 & 4: The Art of Conversation by Theodore Zeldin.

When is the last time you had a conversation? Wait a minute before you answer…because what I am really asking is to recall the last time you had an exchange of ideas with some person or persons that did not involve persuading, presenting an expert opinion or information gathering and were open to having your point of view reframed or even altered.

Conversation is hard work. As Zeldin suggests above, it involves risk. It revolves around an exchange of ideas, opinions, and observations. Exchange means that all participants give and receive. Sharing occurs. One person speaks, the other actively listens and vice versa. It does not involve being right or wrong and thus good conversation builds trust. Good conversation excites change and, ultimately, helps build community.

Over the past four years I have had the privilege to be involved with a group of volunteers working to promote such conversation within the Charlotte community. This February 24th marks the sixth annual Southern Summit, an event modeled after the Hilton Head Renaissance Weekends now held around the country. Southern Summit is an off-the-record event designed to bring together individuals of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints in order to create dynamic and engaging dialogue about our community and the issues we face. We want to build trust; we want to build community.

In the past six years through our evaluations, we have learned that people in our community enjoy the opportunity to meet and dialogue with many different kinds of people; especially those with whom they might not otherwise interact. The overwhelming message from past participants of their desire to have open conversations with people of differing viewpoints is why we continually endeavor to offer just that.

The day begins with breakfast with the large group. Between breakfast and lunch, two 75-minute sessions divided into 4 or 5 separate panels will be held. Lunch is another large group and then a second set of two 75-minute sessions occur. We complete the day with a reception.

We are looking forward to our most diverse group of attendees yet. A variety of political, religious, ethnic and generational viewpoints will be in our sessions. Every attendee has the opportunity to “have their say” by participating as a panel member once during the day. Throughout the rest of the day, you choose the topic that most interests you during that session. The panel topics can include discussions about the arts, business, poverty, religion, politics, relationships, travel, Charlotte, current events and more.

Some of our topics this year will include:

• What Happened to the Statesman? How Do We Make Running For Public Office More Attractive To the Next Generation?
• Atheist, Agnostic, Religious, Spiritual. Where Do You Find Your Moral Grounding?
• The Wisest People I’ve Met and What I Learned from Them
• Imposing American-Style Democracy: Do The Ends Justify The Means?
• Seatbelts, Smoke-Free and Nutrition Labels: Common Good or Invading My Personal Freedom?

This is not about experts. It is not about having people talk at you…it is about sharing your perspective while engaging in the opportunity to have your views challenged or expanded. It is an exchange.

There is a good possibility that our registration will be closed by the time you read this…however…If I’ve piqued your interest…Southern Summit 6 will be held at Queens University of Charlotte on Saturday February 24 from 8:30 – 5:00. Registration fee of $95 includes breakfast, lunch and the reception. Need-based scholarships are available.

Come surprise us, come be surprised. Come help us cook the world and make it taste less bitter…sign up at www.southernsummit.org.

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