On May 22, 2011 a tornado ripped through North Minneapolis destroying homes, tearing out trees, and taking two lives. Oblivious of this tragedy unfolding nearby, I was in the Brookdale Library community room, facilitating a tense, stormy townhome association meeting. The association board had asked me to assist them as discord within the group had escalated, with accusations being hurled and various interests groups aggressively rallying people to their “sides.” With the help of a facilitator the board hoped to find a mutually-workable resolution amidst the intense animosities.
As I opened the meeting I commended the members, about 25 in number, for coming together for a difficult conversation. “We have a chance here to practice democracy,” I said, “which is sometimes a challenge.” Then as we were just underway, making some progress, library staff interrupted our meeting to notify us that the weather had shifted—a tornado was heading our way—and the entire library would be evacuated into our windowless room.
Suddenly, our mostly middle-aged, caucasian gathering became inter-generational and multi-racial/cultural. We all pitched in, setting up more chairs, and welcoming everyone into the room. Every chair was filled and people lined the walls and sat on the floor, perhaps 75 or more altogether. A number of townhome owners gave up their chairs to our visitors. “Now what?” I pondered.
“How shall we entertain ourselves?” I asked the crowd, not wanting to forego any interesting opportunity. “Any good books to recommend, stories, jokes?” A young asian boy in the front row was full of riddles and jokes, much to everyone’s delight. They were mostly about pirates: “What kind of socks does a pirate wear? …Arrrrgyle.” A few adults shared jokes and then a Hispanic man walked to the center of the room and said he’d always wanted to be a standup comedian and this was his chance. He entertained us for a good five minutes, savored the applause, and thanked us all for being at his debut.
Then someone asked what our meeting was about. The homeowners told about the townhomes, and talked about their neighborhood and what they loved about it, describing, for example, all the wildlife they saw. This led to a riddle about geese and a discussion about the benefit of their flying formation, the way they need each other in order to travel the distances they must cover. “Isn’t that true of us, too,” someone offered. Smiles and nods appeared in the crowd.
After 35 minutes we got the “all clear” signal and our visitors left, many thanking us for the good time. We proceeded with the association meeting in a very different mood, brought resolution to the issues, and then concluded on a positive note, as members connected with each other and made plans together.
When we began our meeting, Sunday afternoon, May 22, 2011, we had no idea we’d have the chance to practice democracy in a whole new way, and to bring out the best in ourselves.
Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library