The Village Square



 

 Allan Katz is hoping for new ways to bridge the nation’s political divide, and he’s starting his crusade in Kansas City.

   Katz, former U.S. ambassador to Portugal and now professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has named Kansas City as the national headquarters for his civic civility experiment called The Village Square.

   The Kansas City chapter will serve as the prototype for the estimated 20 chapters planned across the country in the next five years. Bipartisan co-chairs are Mary Bloch and Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn, and partners include UMKC, the Henry W. Bloch School of Management, and the Bloch Family Foundation.

   The Village Square concept first emerged in 2007 in Tallahassee, Fla., after a local vote on a coal-fired power plant issue bitterly divided a community.

   Katz wanted to create a venue “where polarizing civic issues are discussed in a casual setting by people who don’t necessarily agree.”

   “The problem is that we can’t have a meaningful conversation with each other in public places any more, and this is an attempt to grab it back,” he says.

   To keep the conversations all-inclusive and civil, The Village Square has three facilitation tools, or pillars, that participants must accept: no clapping or booing, the presence of on-the-spot fact checkers, and a “civility bell” that must be rung every time someone gets nasty.

   All events are meant to be low-key and fun, often dinners and luncheons, because Katz believes people behave better when breaking bread together.  

   A recent UMKC luncheon that underscored the program’s goals served as the inaugural event. It featured two congressmen from both sides of the state line and both ends of the contemporary political spectrum: Missouri Democrat Emmanuel Cleaver and Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder.

   Cleaver compared the issue of decision-making and civility to that of bees, stating that the choice is to make honey or to fight. They cannot do both, but at the same time, one bee cannot make honey.

   The organization recognizes that each party brings something of value to the table, and sometimes that different perspective is what is needed to solve a problem.

   “There are issues that I believe can be solved by people of complete different ideology, complete different political stripes,” Yoder says. “If they would just talk to each other, if they would just listen to each other.”