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Long after the holiday cards, with their bright hopes for “Peace on Earth,” have been recycled, filed or forgotten, a stalwart group called PeaceAble Cities Evanston is making plans to hold tight to the message of peace – and to make it come true.
In two of a planned series of community conversations, the group’s members asked, “What would a peaceable Evanston look like?” and “What do we need to do to make it happen?”
In their search for a perfect society, “utopians went off into the wilderness,” says Joey Rodger, acting executive director and co-founder of PeaceAble Cities Evanston. “Our vision is bolder. We can create [that society] here in Evanston.”
The idea and the organization grew out of a September 2009 conversation between Ms. Rodger, a member of the police clergy team, and Bob Thompson, the retired pastor of Lake Street Church.
PeaceAble Cities Evanston (www.peaceablecitiesevanston.org) was founded on their belief that people can live together with respect, kindness and creative, nonviolent conflict resolution. Ms. Rodger and Mr. Thompson recruited a board, applied for non-profit status and began making plans to attain, they say, “a completely peaceable [Evanston] by 2020.”
“We believe Evanston could be the first city on earth to make violence obsolete,” says Ms. Rodger. “How much violence is okay? The only answer that makes sense is ‘none.’”
The PeaceAble Cities vision stems from their premise that “anything is possible in Evanston,” she says, and that “everyone in Evanston has the skill set and inclination to live together peaceably.”
Ideally, she says, PeaceAble Cities Evanston, perhaps with the cooperation of Northwestern University, could create a useful model of how a diverse community achieves peace.
PeaceAble Cities’ began with the notion of “building on what is positive,” the assets already in place in Evanston. The board planned for a number of community conversations where facilitators would lead participants to “discover, dream and desire” – and later, deliver – an Evanston that is “Heavenston for all, not just some,” says Ms. Rodger.
“It’s time to create a new ‘we,’” she says – one that says, ‘If it happens in Evanston, it happens to us – to me.’”
The first public meeting was held in November at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library, with participants representing the general population as well as the City and non-profit organizations. The second conversation took place on Jan. 25, hosted by Family Focus and again co-sponsored by the Library. Many attendees were members of a Family Focus support group for grandparents caring for grandchildren.
The meetings followed the same format, using a procedure called Appreciative Inquiry. The procedure moves from mapping the City’s strengths to imagining a peaceable town to looking honestly at how to eliminate stumbling blocks to reaching the goal. Each conversation generates lists of the assets, dreams and needs for transforming Evanston by 2020.
In both conversations each participant joined a small group with a facilitator. After introductions, Ms. Rodger asked the small groups to catalog Evanston’s assets. Telling what they loved about their town seemed to put everyone in a good mood. In November the responses ranged from programs and services (for seniors, youth, the homeless) to organizations (various churches and non-profits) to intangibles (“friendliness of the people,” “strength of the historic districts”).
The Family Focus conversation, which Ms. Rodger praised as “fertile,” highlighted a few different assets, she says: how churches tailor opportunities to community needs; adults who are involved in children’s lives; City Services like the foot patrol officers who attended the meeting; the City’s Kwanzaa celebration; neighborhood watch groups.
The second phase of the conversation brought people to the wall to post sticky notes on which they answered the question, “What one word describes a peaceable city for you?” Among the responses were “resilient,” “courageous,” “tolerant,” “compassionate “and “food and jobs for all.”
Though the third step ventured into more negative territory, it elicited some creative responses. Ms. Rodger asked, “What do we need more of to get there?” Answers included affordability, empowerment, help for ex-offenders, support not just for children but for families, and developing different models of success so all kids can be successful.
Other responses included the need for experiences that take youth outside Evanston to learn about opportunities elsewhere; a “work exchange” for the likes of a Y membership, to make opportunities for youth more affordable; a bowling alley and roller rink; and “boot camp” for learning skills for peace and conflict resolution.
The PeaceAble Cities board needs to hear more voices, says Ms. Rodger, before delivering on a design for peace. More conversations are in the offing.
The organization does not see itself as a service provider, she says. It will not be in competition with existing non-profits for funds. Rather, it envisions having a continuing role in “stimulating and supporting work that leads to peace,” says Ms. Rodger.
She has already seen that work in action and expresses her admiration for “the good people doing things for each other,” she says.