GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 19, 2013

Group eyes 'conversations' on city issues

Group launches civic project on city issues

By Ray Lamont
Staff Writer

---- — With looming city elections and hot discussion topics ranging from a proposed new school to the future of the former Fuller School facility, a group of residents is seeking to focus such talks and harness residents’ energy on such issues through a new forum project.

The group, called Gloucester Conversations, is being led by Leslie Sarofeen, John Sarouf, Kathy Eckles, Susan Oleksiew and Nancy Goodman.

The format is rooted partly in the federal Public Square Grant-funded Public Conversations Project, with which Sarouf works and which is headquartered in Watertown. And the Gloucester group is building its series of discussion sessions on a model used by the New Hampshire group Portsmouth Listens, with an initial set of sessions grounded in addressing Gloucester’s public facilities and the city’s needs.

“It’s all based on the idea of working past the polarization we’re all seeing on issues around the country, and locally as well,” said Sarouf, who formerly served as facilities chief at Gloucester Stage Company. “And it’s a project based on rebuilding the idea of a ‘public square,’ where everyone with an idea or a view on a subject can speak up and be heard.”

Sarofeen, who has worked with previous and current efforts aimed at raising awareness of local issues — including Gloucester’s Committee on Citizen Participation and Public Information, which spotlights local public meetings through, among other things, the weekly Gloucester agenda listings in the Times — added that the local discussion groups are “all about listening — listening to what people have to say, letting people know that they are being heard, and that we can discuss these issues civilly and without confrontation.”

Sarofeen added that the goals of the talks — which are expected to involve groups of a dozen or so participants, each committing to join in four weekly discussion sessions — is not necessarily to build a consensus, and she emphasized that any talks will be facilitated, but not steered toward any agenda or view.

“If we get to a consensus, fine, but that’s not necessarily the goal,” she said. “We just want to build to where people feel they can express themselves in this type of setting, that we can develop ideas, and then can bring them forward.”

While the group is continuing to nail down specific sites for the discussion sessions — called study circles, under the Public Square model — the talks are being planned for a variety of times, and in different parts of the city. Organizers noted, however, that residents need not merely attend a study circle in their own neighborhood, and that all sessions are open to all.

The discussion schedule for the study circles is as follows:

Sunday, Sept. 29 — 7 to 9 p.m. in Lanesville, with followup sessions set for Oct, 6, 13 and 20.

Monday, Sept. 30 — 3 to 5 p.m. in East Gloucester, with followup sessions set for Oct, 7, 14, 21.

Tuesday, Oct. 1 — 7 to 9 p.m. in downtown Gloucester, with followup sessions planned for Oct. 8, 15, 22.

Wednesday, Oct. 2 — 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. in Magnolia, with followup sessions on Oct. 9, 16, 23.

Thursday, Oct. 3 — 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in downtown Gloucester, with followup sessions on Oct. 10, 17, 24.

The project organizers emphasized that participants in any of the groups should commit to attending all four of the group’s sessions.

The local group, which has sent information to a number of local nonprofit groups and other institutions, is also asking that residents interested in participating contact them via e-mail to gloucester@publicconversations.org and let them know their preference for the day, time and location of the conversation they want to participate in. The group also has a website now up and running at www.publicconversations.org/gloucester.

Sarofeen also emphasized that the first issue to be addressed for all of the study circles will be the city’s public buildings and other facilities.

“We’re taking one issue at a time,” she said.

“And it’s not about pushing any particular view,” she reiterated. “It’s about generating ideas, it’s about listening — it’s about having conversation.”

Times Editor Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at rlamnt@gloucestertimes.com.