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posted: 5/15/2014 1:01 AM

We seek action; we start with conversation

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There is not much we at the Daily Herald value more than conversation. Well, action, certainly, but we're also confident that the right actions almost always start with conversations. The tricky thing is figuring out how to translate the talking into doing.

Our editors are in the process of navigating that transition now, as we reflect on conversations we hosted Monday as part of the On the Table civic improvement program sponsored by the Chicago Community Trust. You've been reading stories this week about On the Table discussions moderated by many of our editors and managers, and we'll have more to say on this page and elsewhere in the paper in the days ahead about the programs we conducted.

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But we weren't the only community citizen participating in this project. The trust sponsored more than 1,050 On the Table mealtime talks across the region, including some hosted by Northwest Suburban High School District 214. Assistant editorial page editor Colleen Thomas and I had the interesting experience of participating in two of those, not as hosts but as guests. Our association with the Daily Herald was no doubt involved in our invitation -- just as our lunchmates' associations with chambers of commerce, village government, volunteer groups, community colleges, family life and high school classes helped produce the diversity in points of view this process aims for -- but our function was to discuss our ideas as individuals from a certain walk of life, not to act as representatives, per se, of the paper.

As it turns out, that distinction played a key role in what became the central topic of conversation at the table where I participated at Rolling Meadows High School -- a perception that it's growing ever harder to get people actively involved in civic, church and community functions. Our group reflected on a wide range of causes for this difficulty -- people are too busy and stressed at home; people and corporations don't identify with their communities as they once did; our techno-obsessed culture has ushered us all into "silos" of self-interest; people have become too reliant on government -- and we bandied about various theories about who is responsible for solutions -- schools? parents? government? society? -- but we didn't particularly arrive at any solutions.

That "but" inevitably produces a cloud of futility after an event such as this. The overwhelming size of an issue and its frustrating complexities at first appear daunting and intractable. Then you realize that things said by others in the group have made you think and may result in little changes in your own behavior or ideas you may take back to your workplace or family. You resolve to follow up with other members, to continue certain lines of discussion. You see a reasons for hope.

"It's a beginning," Erin Holmes Brooks, District 214's assistant director of community engagement and one of the moderators of the discussion at RMHS, told me afterward when I asked what the district planned to do next. "You have to start someplace, and now we have something we can work with to decide what to do next. And we will do something."

Do something. Action. You're not going to solve the problems of the world or even of your community in a two-hour lunch. But you can, I realize, get somewhere.

You just have to have the conversation first.

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