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Client Success Story

Town of Reading Community Conversations Part 1:The Power of Community

September 30, 2011 by Deborah Gilburg

I was asked to facilitate a world café style, community conversation in my town in response to two recent drug-related murders that happened in August. The victims were young men, former Reading High grads. The news was a wake-up call for the community about substance abuse in our town and, more pointedly, in our youth. And, as is often the case when people are afraid, fingers were pointed at the police and the schools.

Reading, MA is a residential town 14 miles outside Boston. We have big houses here, lots of trees, good schools, low crime and high taxes. The people who live here are mostly white, middle class, and fairly conservative (by Massachusetts standards). And many settled down here thinking that they were avoiding issues like teen substance abuse and drug-related murders.

This story is not unique – communities throughout our nation wrestle with issues like this, and the “suburban blight” of teen substance abuse is not news – heck, it wasn’t news when I was in high school. But the way we are starting to talk about it might be. 

Rather than host a town meeting where angry, frightened people speak accusingly of local oversight, or demand solutions to the perceived problem (More enforcement! Zero tolerance!), community leaders decided to start a public conversation about the topic.

The conversation, attended by almost 200 people – teachers, parents, neighbors, local officials and teens – was the first of three events planned to open up this issue to civic dialogue.  Despite the public appetite for “solutions,” community leaders recognized the need to first take time to develop a shared understanding of the problem.

Sure enough, many came with strong beliefs about what they thought the problem was and how it should be addressed — and conversed with others who had similar convictions about their view of the issue. And yet perspectives varied widely. As we “harvested” themes about the community impact of substance abuse, it became clear that the impacts were everywhere, and that many initial perceptions were colored by denial, fear and an overall naïveté about the problem. Talking about root causes, the complexity of this issue started to reveal itself, as everything from inconsistent consequences (“zero tolerance is OK for your kid, but not for mine”), teen stress, peer pressure, lack of parental oversight, and a host of mixed messages from adults who use and abuse, were named. Not so simple. Not so black and white. Maybe not their problem to fix, but ours.

Graphic Recording by Amy Gilburg: Root Causes & Community Impacts


And this is when I felt the shift. As the somber reality of our complicit involvement in the problem began to emerge, I noticed a new energy in the room, a heightened consciousness and connection among the participants. One might expect that this new awareness would be depressing – that the complexity of this issue would feel demoralizing, overwhelming, even futile. But despite comments expressing grave concern, despite the fact that we ended the evening on this serious note, the atmosphere felt almost hopeful.

I believe I witnessed the power of our human and mammalian heritage, residing in the mechanics of our neurology. Nature has hard-wired us with the ability to bond in the face of adversity and collective challenge; by inclusively sharing our personal truths and confirming what we value most, we open ourselves up to become part of the solution.

Our capacity to manage cold, hard reality together is impressive. When groups explore the nature of challenging issues together they are able to move past personal survival responses—which tend to be narrow and simplistic—and become better at identifying collective possibility and taking concerted action. This is the power of community, and leaders in all sectors can benefit from its strategic potential. Capitalizing on this power can pull us through—can help us respond and adapt to the challenges that no one person or expert can solve.

I closed the evening with this statement – if you are feeling uncomfortable, good. It will help keep your attention. Come to the next event and learn more.


To read about the two follow up meetings see Part 2: Blind Spots & X-Ray Vision and Part 3: Transparency, Ownership & Heros