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WE CAN REVIVE LOST ART OF CONVERSATION

A recent News article, "Founders are hoping to rekindle interest in regionwide conversation," leaves the impression that Western New Yorkers, by their lack of participation, are not interested in holding a cross-cultural regionwide dialogue.

The experience hundreds of residents gleaned from the National Endowment for the Humanities Buffalo Conversations on American Pluralism and Identity tells another story.

The project, which ran from October 1995 through December 1996, involved 85 community-based meetings and more than 1,500 visits from participants representing the area's diverse religious, ethnic and social communities.

At the time, the NEH funded similar projects in 160 communities in 48 states. The Buffalo project was the largest and arguably the most successful.

In a report to the U.S. Congress, NEH Chairman Sheldon Hackney cited the Buffalo project extensively, using it as a model for initiating a successful cross-cultural dialogue.

The conversations that began in 1995 continue to this day, not only in organized programs but in homes, churches, bars and community centers.

The project was a success because the participants were the attraction. We came together to speak with each other -- not to be spoken to. The conversations were non-hierarchical -- we sat in circles and discussed our similarities and differences. We visited each other's neighborhoods, utilizing 14 community-based locations for our meetings.

The Buffalo Conversations were also successful because we didn't draw the line at religious differences. We explored all factors divisive to a community, from racism to homophobia.

The News article reported how the recent program, organized by a former congressional candidate, was successful in drawing people to a mass concert, but not to small group meetings. While it is easy to organize concerts, it is impossible to orchestrate friendships.

The original program worked, not so much because of anything we as organizers did, but because people truly wanted to put aside their differences and talk.

Much of the publicity surrounding the recent program centered on the organizers, and not the voices of the conversationalists. During the original program we struggled to keep community leaders from dominating conversations.

While a host of elected officials participated in the original conversations, to their credit, they sat not behind podiums, but as equals in a circle with everyone else. This is the nature of the lost art of conversation -- speaking and listening.

MICHAEL I. NIMAN

Buffalo

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