Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2002

Event facilitated talks, but more to be done, local advocates say

January 27, 2002

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Lots of inspiration. Not so much action yet.

That's the verdict Lawrence-area officials give last year's Bert Nash Community Summit on its one-year anniversary.

"The summit provided a benchmark," said Bill Carswell, chairman of the Lawrence Arts Commission and summit attendee. "A lot of it is anecdotal and a lot of it needs to be built on."

Pat Roach-Smith, a spokeswoman for Bert Nash, agreed. A follow-up summit at an undecided date this fall will provide people with opportunities for action.

"We want to present something concrete," she said.

Nearly 3,000 people went to the Lied Center during two days in January 2001 to hear summit speakers talk about how community ties are unraveling in America. More people are bowling alone than joining leagues, keynote speaker Robert Putnam said.

"Most of us are watching 'Friends' rather than having them," said Putnam, a Harvard professor. "You may ask if the fate of America is based on picnics. Well, yes it is."

Many attendees were inspired by the event.

"We make our community it's not an accident," Carswell said at the time. "We create it, and this is a type of communal gathering on how to do it."

What's next?

But others were unsure what to do next.

"It seems like we didn't have any direction. We patted ourselves on the back for a couple days and didn't take any action," said Jeff Miller, director of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program of Douglas County. "I was hoping for people to say, 'That's a great idea, let's do something.'"

He wasn't the only person who felt that way.

"Our attendees said, 'This is great, but what do we do now?'" Roach-Smith said.

Starting in May, a committee at Bert Nash began trying to answer that question. Ideas include forming neighborhood social groups, increasing the involvement of college students and working to improve race relations.

And in the past year, the work of Lawrence-Douglas County Promise an offshoot of the America's Promise program started by Colin Powell has moved into the spotlight. That organization will help sponsor the follow-up summit this fall.

Lawrence-Douglas County Promise will build social connections, in part, by pairing young people with older mentors.

"The young people of our community are our future," said City Commissioner Jim Henry, a member of the program. "We have to invest in our young people. We have to make it possible for them to succeed, or our community won't succeed."

More recently, the Lawrence Public Library has started to sponsor "Read Across Lawrence," a program that aims to get the entire city to read Langston Hughes' novel "Not Without Laughter."

"I think that's its central mission, is community-building," said Bruce Flanders, director of the Lawrence Public Library. "You have potentially hundreds of people reading the same book, and they'll share a base of knowledge gained from the book."

Measuring success

But some say the summit's legacy shouldn't be measured purely in potlucks and programs. Carswell said he has heard topics from the summit discussed often in committees and community groups. One committee, a Kansas University task force on teaching civic literacy, even obtained videotapes of the summit and watched the speeches again.

"I think a year is a short time for a community to see any response, but I have seen a legacy," Carswell said.

Roach-Smith said she has heard changes in "the language that we use. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people use the term 'social capital.'"

There is still work to be done, however.

"It feels like we're a connected community, but at least with my program, we're feeling some disconnection as well," Miller said. "Maybe for the privileged we're doing a really good job."

That's why more effort is needed, Roach-Smith said.

"Those are the people we want to connect with and address," she said, "to find out how to make them feel part of things."

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