One by one community members from the Nestucca Valley School District taped their yellow piece of construction paper on the back wall forming a circle of sun rays. On each paper was written a word or phrase representing what a person wanted to remember after sharing stories with others: Togetherness. Refreshed. Hopeful. Confidence. Renewed Hope. Listen. Trust. Stay open-minded to others. The more we listen and share, the more we celebrate our shared humanity. Working with students and faculty from Willamette University’s Conversation Project, The Hearth helped facilitate a school district town hall that could sometimes be contentious. For months students, faculty, and Hearth staff discussed how to design a public meeting where people might feel safe, respected, and heard. The meeting theme was based on a value stated by many students, staff, and parents in surveys conducted by the district: “Belonging.” Using a series of story prompts, community members sat in small groups sharing their experiences of kindness, hospitality, and belonging. In conversations following this sharing, many towns people reflected on the power of connection that arises when people are given the change to be heard. Through stories people found common values and felt the humanity of one another across difference. “I felt touched by every story shared in my group,” one parent reflected, “I don’t often feel that when I gather with others.”

How can we use story as a regular practice within our community meetings? How can we create safety with one another in times of passionate disagreement? How can city councils, schools, libraries, and other public spaces become places where we experience belonging? This is the work of our time and it’s encouraging to meet so many young people committed to being bridge-builders. I hope you’ll consider registering for our upcoming training in community storytelling or sign up to participate in one of our free monthly online story circles. In these relational spaces we can recall and celebrate the art of community.