Conversations of Significance

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Gregg Ramos, president of Conexión Américas
Gregg Ramos, president of Conexión Américas

Engaging the community in discussions to change society

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “community” as “a unified body of individuals.” But for people living out their lives each day, the American community certainly doesn’t appear to fit that definition.

Party politics have polarized people more than we have seen in a generation. Immigration has caused disagreements over access to services and employment. Financial excesses and resource shortages have sparked a variety of reactions among the population. And this summer leaders took on health care reform, an issue so divisive that it has been stalled for decades.

As the world becomes increasingly complex, it appears that people agree less and less on how to work together to build a healthy community. Webster’s alternative definition for “community” seems much more appropriate: “an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location.” A recipe for conflict.

This year, Lipscomb University launched a series of Conversations of Significance, challenging leaders of Nashville and the nation to think differently about the definition of community. Webster’s defines “community” as “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.”

Instead of focusing time and resources on resolving the issues raised by our differences, the university began dialogue about the interests we share and that drive us daily. There can be unity without unanimity.

Beginning in January, Lipscomb began to engage local and national leaders in conversations regarding some of the most significant challenges facing communities in America: immigration and multiculturalism, potential health care reform, earth stewardship and continued altruism in the face of economic crisis.

Hundreds of leaders representing the state, region and nation have participated in these Conversations of Significance and were encouraged to build on them through continued meetings. Through these conversations, Lipscomb encourages all community leaders to reject arguing about the issues and to develop collaborative and creative strategies to address the foundational issues holding our communities together.

Collaborate for a Cause

Nashville’s Center for Nonprofit Management joined the Institute for Law, Justice and Society and the SALT program in January to bring together more than 70 representatives from Middle Tennessee’s nonprofit industry. Collaborate for a Cause was a day-long seminar designed to foster collaboration among agencies to meet increased need with fewer resources during the economic crisis.

Author and Christian ethics professor Shaun Casey, who served as senior advisor for religious affairs for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, urged participants to “engage in ego disarmament” and come together to serve the poor better in the coming years.
“It would be so easy to be depressed and fearful,” Casey said. “But if your community sees you lose hope, they will lose hope.”

Casey was joined by Howard Gentry Jr., CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber Public Benefit Foundation, and a panel of leaders from five major foundations.

“Last year our member organizations recognized the importance of maximizing resources by working together in a slowing economy,” said Lewis Lavine, president of the Center for Nonprofit Management. “This conference provided organizations with essential equipping and networking opportunities.”

The participants presented a number of interesting ideas for new and innovative collaborations, such as an all-purpose training center for service workers, an executive directors breakfast to share information and more resources listing all the nonprofits and their services in the area.

“It's exciting to see the diverse group that is assembled here and the discussion that we had on collaboration. I applaud Lipscomb University and the Center for Nonprofit Management for being forward thinking,” said Gentry, former vice mayor of Nashville.

Green Business & Living Summit & Expo

In 2009 the business world is jumping into the “green revolution” with both feet, so there is more need than ever before for businesspeople to have credible, solidly researched and practiced green methods to implement in their organizations.

“At the Institute for Sustainable Practice, we want to do for the sustainability movement what centers for information technology and new IT academics did for the information revolution,” said Dodd Galbreath, executive director of Lipscomb’s Institute for Sustainable Practice. “Without professionals who are equipped to deliver sustainability solutions and can provide the leadership to expand the movement, Tennessee may not enjoy the progress and benefits we all deserve.”

As part of that mission, the Institute held its second annual Green Business and Living Summit and Expo in April. The Expo was attended by hundreds and the business summit provided 250 Nashville-based businesspeople practical information on finding and hiring green employees, financing sustainable companies, green facilities management and entrepreneurial opportunities in the green industry.

Headlining the Expo and Summit were Gary Hirshberg, president and "CE-Yo" of the world’s largest manufacturer of organic yogurt, Stonyfield Farms; and Joel Makower, founder of GreenerWorld Media, Inc., and the sustainability consultant the Associated Press once dubbed “the guru of green business practices."

Sixty vendors gathered for the Green Expo in Allen Arena to present a wide variety of products for all aspects of green living. Energy use, fair trade products, low emission building products, re-functioned jewelry and products made from recycled materials are just a few of the offerings made available to the community at the expo.

Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors)

The university’s first Hispanic forum – Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) – featured a call by Lipscomb President L. Randolph Lowry to engage in deliberate dialogue about Nashville’s future as a multicultural city.

More than 100 public officials, teachers, parents, educators, community and business leaders from around Middle Tennessee heard talks in April by Mayor Karl Dean, Nashville Police Chief Ronal W. Serpas and Gregg Ramos, president of Hispanic nonprofit Conexión Américas. The group also developed action steps to address Hispanics’ access to community services.

In his opening comments, Lowry urged community and political leaders to move toward addressing issues through dialogue involving the entire community. He suggested potential legislation supporting cross-cultural engagement by expanding the Davidson Group (a multicultural business mentoring program housed on the Lipscomb campus) or insuring that Tennessee schools focus on creating cross-cultural competency in students.

“Are we going to expend limited resources of time and money on issues that confront us or open the door to dialogue on the interests that drive us,” Lowry asked. “Why don’t we refocus our energy and refocus our effort…on what’s actually driving people, motivating them.” 

“We started a dialogue today,” Ramos said after the event. “It’s a great opening step, but we need to follow through. Lipscomb University helped us gather a passionate group and now we have to take the next step and act on it.

Conversations on Health Care

In January, the Institute for Conflict Management partnered with Vanderbilt Medical Center and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee to convene a group of 70 high-level decision makers in regional, state and national health care providers for a summit on affordability and accessibility of health care. The summit produced a clear call to action: “Enhanced collaboration and immediate coordinated action is critical to support the delivery of quality, affordable and accessible health care.”

Lipscomb has hosted a variety of other community-oriented guest speakers and organizations in 2009:
  • Middle Tennessee Diversity Forum
  • U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
  • Metropolitan Nashville Police Department’s annual community status meeting
  • Tennessee Higher Education Sustainability Association
  • Howard Witt, Pulitzer Prize finalist for civil rights reporting
  • Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen
  • Urban Land Institute
  • Nashville Mayor’s Green Ribbon Committee on Environmental Sustainability
  • Debbie Tate, former FCC commissioner
  • John Seigenthaler, former Tennessean editor

But that was just the first of a planned series of conversations on health care. As health care reform in America became a hot topic over the summer, conflict within the health care field became more likely to crop up.

“Year after year, efforts to enact health care reform have failed because the leaders have been unable to build consensus,” said Larry Bridgesmith, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. Litigation and partisan political approaches to driving change have not worked effectively, so the institute decided “to bring together the thought leaders in health care and take a different approach – a collaborative conversation that may lead to better outcomes.”

The second conversation on health care was held in cooperation with the NASBA Center for the Public Trust and featured U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) discussing the ethics of potential health care reform methods such as rationing services or reallocating funding according to new criteria.

America doesn’t need to ration health care, because the country is wasting so much money within the system today that plenty can be cut without harming the standard of care, said Cooper, who has been an outspoken supporter of health care reform.