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Village Life

Conversation on the Village Cafe menu

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When conflict arises in a community, sometimes the best strategy for engaging with that conflict is to talk about it.

That’s the premise on which the upcoming Village Cafe rests. As promotional materials point out, the Village Cafe is not a restaurant, but an event at which folks are encouraged to engage in a proverbial meal of conversation with fellow community members around a series of questions. At event’s end, Village Cafe organizers hope, those who attend will have both shared and received broadened perspectives in dialogue with friends and neighbors.

The Village Cafe event will be held Sunday, Jan. 21, 2–4 p.m., in the Mills Lawn gym.

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The News spoke this week with Len Kramer and Ena Nearon, two of a dozen local residents who have been working in recent weeks to organize the upcoming event. The genesis of the Village Cafe, Kramer said, was a talk he had with a friend before the local November 2023 vote for the school facilities levy. Public conversation around the most recent levy, and the two others that preceded it, he noted, has at times been divisive.

“A friend of mine, Artie Isaac, asked: ‘Are we ready for what happens after the election? Somebody’s going to get what they want, and somebody isn’t,’” Kramer said.

A 55-year resident of the village with a longtime involvement with the Village Mediation Program and, in recent years, a facilitator of the “Courageous Conversations” program, Kramer said he’s lived through a handful of public issues that polarized the community. These issues have, over the years, exposed what Kramer called “fault lines in the community” — divisions that have sometimes been difficult to overcome once they’re out in the open.

“The question is, can we build bridges across those fault lines?” Kramer said. “So who I am is a person who thinks people should talk to each other when there’s controversy.”

And the mechanism that fuels the World Cafe approach, on which the upcoming Village Cafe event is based, is people talking in community. A similar event was held in March 2023, as the school board was making its final decisions about a facilities upgrade plan to place before voters.

The format of the upcoming Village Cafe will be much the same as last year’s event, with those attending broken into groups to discuss three questions. During the course of the event, the makeup of the small groups will change, so that participants have the chance to discuss each of the questions with different neighbors.

The intention for the event is not to plan any action, Kramer and Nearon stressed, but, as the event’s website points out, to give community members the opportunity to “engage in civil discourse, to build new relationships and to hear and be heard.”

Nearon, an artist and project coordinator who has lived in the village for a few years, said the group of volunteer organizers for the Village Cafe have brought a range of lived experiences to planning the event.

“[Kramer’s] approach to it, for example, is to give people the tools to be able to communicate,” Nearon said. “My approach is the visual piece — with the arts, people come together and you have a central point of interest where conversation occurs, sometimes around very difficult subjects.”

Having worked with the YS Community Foundation shortly after she moved here, Nearon said that experience afforded her the chance to get to know the community and its residents in short order. It also provided her, she said, with “an overview [of the community] that was probably more intense than for many other people who are just coming in” to Yellow Springs.

That overview, Nearon said, has given her a perspective on the village that is, in some ways, unique. To recontextualize an old, and thoroughly debunked, adage about frogs in pots of boiling water: It can be easier to assess the temperature of a room if you’re coming in from the outside than if you’ve lived in it for a while.

“I see myself as coming in and bringing certain things that I can choose to add to the pot,” she said. “My reason for getting involved in the Village Cafe is that I see Yellow Springs as being in transition to some degree, and this [event] is really critical to making that transition flow.”

Kramer and Nearon said a wide range of perspectives is crucial to the event, which will focus on three guiding questions: “What attracted us to Yellow Springs? What makes us feel strongly about Yellow Springs? What do we want to do now?”

Nearon added that she recently posed the first of the three questions at a gathering of friends, and was struck by the depth of conversation the question garnered.

“A lot of times people only talk about the negatives — it just flows easier, you know?” she said. “But the question [of what attracted us to Yellow Springs] really forced us to think about what we like about Yellow Springs, whether we had lived here a long time or were relatively new residents.”

The Village Cafe discussion event is, at the moment, the only such event that’s been scheduled, but Kramer said he and other volunteers are looking to keep the community conversation going.

“We are planning for there to be multiple events,” Kramer said. “The last question of the three [for the upcoming event], ‘What do we want to do now?’ I think that’s really an open question. ‘What do we want to do now that we’ve opened the door?’ That’s up to the people in the room.”

Kramer and Nearon encouraged anyone who loves the village — whether you live or work here currently or have in the past, or if you’re an occasional visitor — to attend the event.

“People love this community — and sometimes that causes us to have lots of opposing viewpoints about the nuances of issues,” Kramer said. “It’s my belief that, no matter how polarized we get, we have more in common than we have separating us. That’s just the belief I have — but it’s been borne out over the years.”

The Village Cafe is funded in part by the YS Community Foundation. For more information on the upcoming Village Cafe event, and the World Cafe program that will guide discussion, go to ysvillagecafe.org. Registration is not required; questions may be directed to Artie Isaac at artieisaac@gmail.com.

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