Sunday, April 15, 2012

Great Conversations

"Talk is cheap."

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Both are familiar sayings; and as a visual artist I’ve said the second, I hope less tritely.

Nevertheless, something called "Great Conversations" is well worth a look.

Dael noticed something about it in the Mesilla Valley Co-op news; then realtor Kevin Wilson (son of poets Keith and Heloise Wilson and grandson of poet Bessmilr Brigham), urged us to go, saying it was both fun and interesting. A varied group of people would meet to talk over some issue.

Sounded good. It also seemed to me that great conversations used to take place in town squares and villages, in churches and pubs, but that maybe they don’t happen quite as frequently anymore, or are limited to a certain age, sex, religion, or ethnic group. Great Conversations aren’t limited. They’re open to everyone.

Looking into Camp Hope increased my interest in Great Conversations. A few sessions of sitting around in a circle got a group of somewhat untrusting homeless folks talking (and listening) to each other, then working together to build something.

Community of Hope staff said these talk sessions were essential to the creation of Camp Hope. One Community of Hope board-member called it "one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever seen." Volunteer Bob Hearn pointed out that the homeless were particularly untrusting after years of living on the street, carefully watching their meager possessions at all times.

Randy Harris, the man behind (or, he might say, beside) Great Conversations disagrees. He says the homeless weren’t particularly untrusting, or otherwise much different from any other group of citizens.

I finally got to gab with Randy at Milagro’s recently, and enjoyed it.

Randy very carefully deflects praise or credit for Great Conversations, which celebrates its second anniversary today.

"We don’t describe ourselves as facilitators or moderators, but as stewards," he says. At another point he described himself as "a janitor. I arrange the room and set out the chairs." In a gardening analogy, he said he could arrange proper soil for a seed, and do some watering and weeding, but "the magic that happens inside the seed, what’s in it, that’s not got anything to do with me."

Great Conversations do, however, satisfy Harris’s lifelong "passionate curiosity about the varieties of the human experience." For the community, they offer a forum in which fellow citizens can discuss issues in a candid but courteous way, with diverse points of view encouraged.

I asked whether Great Conversations was just a local thing or was part of some larger group. It’s local. "It’s an idea that evolved. It’s value is that it’s real people in a real circle," without bells and whistles. "It’s a phenomenal process, I think because it’s dirt simple," he added.

"Because it’s not therapy, it’s highly therapeutic. Because it’s not an educational program, it’s richly educational," said Harris, who also referred to Great Conversations as "a living entity I serve."

The first Great Conversation was at the co-op, two years ago. It was a trial balloon with about ten quite varied people along for the ride. The subject was "What is truth?" (I neglected to ask him what truth turned out to be.) There have now been close to 250 Great Conversations.

The evening before we talked, they’d held a Great Conversation at NMSU as part of a campus interfaith event. Because of numbers, they held two conversations simultaneously, with a total of 60 people participating.

Harris has also held Great Conversations in a senior community and with middle schoolers. "It really blows your doors off to listen to what those little guys have to say."

"Each conversation is different," says Harris. They also vary in the interest they generate. A Great Conversation on mental health care in Doña Ana County filled the room to overflowing with professionals, clients, and other citizens. At the other extreme was his idea to have one on "What is Love?" the evening of February 14. "I learned to love solitude," Harris says. "I sat here alone." Whatever love is, people evidently found something to do on Valentine’s Day other than talking about it.

Recently, a group of retired professionals got together to make sure the Great Conversations would continue. "That brought tears to my eyes," said Harris. Great Conversations is now sponsored by the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico. Harris is grateful. "This is getting to be too much for a broken-down old rain-barrel merchant to do alone, out-of-pocket." (Harris sells rain barrels at the Farmers Market on Saturdays. His booth is near Las Cruces Avenue, and sometimes there are free goodies just baked in one of the solar ovens he also has for sale.)

There’s even a second anniversary fund-raiser today (Sunday) from 5-11 at 125 Main St., with live music, dancing, and a silent auction.
, Sunday
If you’ve enjoyed a Great Conversation, or think it sounds like a pretty good idea for our community, maybe you’ll feel like helping a little.

[ The foregoing column appeared today, Sunday, in the Las Cruces Sun-News. ]


  1. We went with some friends yesterday to the NMSU American Indian Week finale. Moments before reading your column this morning in today's Sun-News, I mentioned to my husband that I had been too shy to ask the Pueblo people there what it is like to be Native American in today's New Mexico. I think that would make a wonderful Great Conversation.

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