An American Girl in Washington

My night in a Citizen Circle

Posted in Just another day in DC by AGinDC on 8 July 2011

Last night I attended a dinner with a community learning group in something called a Citizen Circle.  The point of Citizen Circles is for people from all over the community to join in peer-led learning groups that focus on different subject areas.  These circles happen all over the world but this particular batch of summer courses was initiated by HUB DC, of which I am happy to say I am now a founding member!

I’m always up for new experiences and wanted to try a Citizen Circle even though I am about as far from the community organizing hippie liberal that is usually attracted to this type of thing as possible.  Don’t get me wrong, I love community organizing hippie liberals, but I’m a fully establishment, overly educated, corporate-leaning elitist snob who thinks capitalism, white people, and the mainstream can play a positive role in the world.  A lot of this is the result of growing up in Seattle, when the WTO riots came around we didn’t really get it.  For us, the only reason we had theatre, art, music, parks, and most of our non-profits was because of Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon, Nike, and Microsoft.  Seeing the sign of a huge globalized corporation generally meant that we were getting free tickets to the art museum courtesy of Bill Gates.  As a result, I have a pretty positive image of what the money from business and giant corporations can do.  Look at the Gates Foundation.  And Warren Buffett.  And MacArthur Grants.  I have never understood why people would rather spit in the face of corporations than take their money and use it for good.  So, attending a meeting with people who are generally anti-everything is just not my style.

As you can imagine from the introduction, the evening did not go well.  The host was lovely and dinner was wonderful.  The same cannot be said about the conversation.  Unfortunately, the chemistry just wasn’t there.  On one side we had a 70-something year old man who was born and raised in Ward 8 and, although he has every good intention in the world, is too clouded by his personal experiences and lack of a world view to see that anyone who doesn’t share his background could ever be anything but evil.  Sharing his point of view was a small, young, white Georgetown student who was in the same place that all liberal white men in college get to about halfway through their first anthropology class, the “ohmygodijustfoundouti’mwhiteandeverythingidoisbadandeveryonewholooksdifferentthanmeisbetterandright”.  This, of course, shall pass, but for now he gets away with saying things like, “White people who are trying to help in poor communities are doing it for the wrong reasons” just as he spends time trying to help in poor communities.  Ahhh, college.

We also had the hostess, an incredibly smart and incredibly diplomatic community leader who is more skilled than I will ever be at making unreasonable people feel like they’re making a valid point while gently guiding them towards an end to the conversation.  And then there were two really sweet white girls who made really great points but were perhaps a bit too timid for the environment.

And then there was me.  I did what I usually did, sat and listened for as long as possible while I figured out where everyone was coming from and what they had to say.  Then I made my point, which pissed off the old guy because it was the exact opposite of his point, and then I listened for a while, made one more rather reasonable point (everything I said can be summed up by, “Well, actually, all white people aren’t evil and some non-profits are actually effective and while we’re trying to change the national education system it actually could be valuable for us to teach adult literacy in the community too.  #imjustsaying), and by the end, after one last rant by the old guy, we all decided that these meetings are not something we were interested in continuing.  Sad.  Except the old guy.  He wants to do this all of the time!  But like I said at the dinner, I’ve been doing theory and discussion for 10 years and I’m in action phase now.  I don’t have time to sit around and talk to people who are never going to change their minds.  The sad part is that the reason I wanted to do this was to get the points of view from other members of the community, especially people who were born and raised here.  But, I’d like to do it without getting yelled at and dismissed for having gone to college.

Oh well, I tried.  Maybe next time.



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