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Building community: Why honest conversations matter

We can't grow as a community- or as individuals- if we aren't willing to engage in hard conversations. Willingness to be honest takes courage. Why are we so afraid of that here in Grand Rapids?

/Holly Bechiri

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Recently, a friend said they really appreciated the article about the Downtown Market by Levi Gardner on our platform- and were glad to see The Rapidian growing into a place where honest conversations can happen.

This is not our first jump into the honest conversations pool. In fact, it's in our DNA. Our first months online were full of articles outlining local citizens' concerns with the newly-formed ArtPrize. Much like we said yes to Levi Gardner, we say yes to publishing anyone's article as long as they follow just two rules: stay hyperlocal, and follow basic journalism guidelines. We are an open and welcoming platform available for all voices in our community. No exceptions. 

This is what we do. We provide a platform where all voices can be raised. Whether they're singing the praises of a new brewery or sharing concerns about a local institution- all voices are welcome here.

We are thankful that so many of our local citizens are willing to be brave, willing to be honest, willing to have their voices be heard. But we're more than thankful. We believe this kind of discourse- and this kind of open media- is a necessary component for a healthy community.

What is it that keeps us from being willing to have honest conversations? Is it the desire to be- or perhaps the training to be- nice at all times? Is it that we think it isn't possible to be honest and kind? Is it the game-playing that doesn't take political risks by having a difference of opinion? Is it that we think it's better if we all just get along- even when we're not actually getting along?

I've been thinking a lot about this reticence to participate in honest conversations in the last month. What I think it all boils down to is this: fear.

We are too afraid to be honest- with others, and with ourselves. We're afraid of admitting we don't have it all figured out. We're afraid of losing a promotion or a friend. We're afraid of being ostracized. We're afraid of admitting when things aren't working and we're afraid to take the steps to let go of what didn't work so we can focus on what could work.

We're also afraid that even if we do speak up, nothing will happen. We'll just look like the one that always complains, and get more disheartened because it didn't even make a difference.

Believe me, I've been there. 

As the saying goes, courage doesn't mean an absence of fear- it's recognizing the fear and then moving forward anyway.

And that is why we wanted to make sure that the conversation about how we support our local food economy- the growers, producers, entrepreneurs, vendors and yes also the eaters- didn't stop at one article on our pages. We wanted to encourage us all to continue to be courageous, and have those conversations in person as well. 

We hosted an event last night that brought together the author of the article (Levi Gardner, Urban Roots), a farmer (Rachelle Bostwick, Earthkeeper Farm), a neighbor in need of greater food access (Tommie Wallace, Heartside Gleaning Initiative), a food justice worker (Stelle Slootmaker, Our Kitchen Table), a market director (Melissa Harrington, Fulton Street Farmers Market) and an urban farmer and youth educator (Lance Kraai, New City Urban Farm). And each of them was honest, respectful, transparent- and courageous.

Gardner started off the conversation with some opening remarks, setting the stage for us to remember that it is possible to have honest conversations about complex and difficult subjects- and do it well- but that the layer of cultural conditioning to avoid those conversations runs deep.

"Many of us were taught from a young age, and still believe, not to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. We aren’t taught this because there aren’t things to discuss or because we don’t have things to say, but conversely because we more often than not lack the courage and self-actualization to engage complex and challenging- and deeply personal- issues with civility, honesty and empathy," he said. He expressed his disappointment that the Downtown Market declined our request to be part of the event, but said he doesn't think it was because they didn't want to be part of the conversation. "I think that it was rather because there was a belief that the conversation couldn’t be had with civility, honesty and empathy. There was a fear - not unlike the family dinner table - that we couldn’t have honest disagreements that point to very complex and system injustices while simultaneously recognizing our shared humanity and shared need to be welcomed."

During the panel discussion the question was raised, "Why don't we have a 100 Lance's?" Why don't we have more young people going into farming- that was the crux of the question.

But I want to know: Why don't we have 100 - 1,000 - 10,000 local citizens that are willing to be as transparent and thoughtful and courageous as Lance Kraai and every other panelist was last night? Too often, we shy away from being honest about our own struggles, the success of our local institutions and so on- whether it's in personal conversations, in public forums or on media platforms around the city.

What's stopping us? Are those reasons a good enough excuse? Or is it time for our community to get honest, get transparent, get brave?

If we truly want our community to be great, we're going to have to get brave. If we actually want to see real change happen, we have to engage in the hard conversations. We have to stop using the justice and access buzzwords just because they're popular, and we have to hold others accountable for misusing those buzzwords as well. We have to start talking about these things and using this terminology because we're putting it into practice, because we're passionate about what's right.

Succeed or learn: if we want to actually learn from our failures then we first have to admit that things didn't work out the way we had planned. Listen, that's okay. We're a growing community and we have to accept that we're still figuring it out. But if we can't even admit when things aren't working like we say they would, then how can we make it better? If we aren't willing to even engage in hard conversations, how are we going to engage in the hard work to make change?

I look forward to continuing to participate in and support the important conversations that our community is having.

So speak your truth. Use the platforms available to you. Our community, if it is going to be healthy, needs all of our voices.

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