It was a Facebook post late last week from Rob Breymaier. He’s a school board member at the District 97 Oak Park public elementary schools and longtime head of the Housing Center.

He said he would be at the Buzz Café for two hours last Friday morning and invited people to stop by and talk with him about any of the many projects he is actively involved in. Talking face to face, he said, works better. Specifically, he said it works better than trying to communicate on social media.

This after a 10-day community flameout on Facebook over issues of race at OPRF.

I talked to Breymaier Tuesday morning and it turns out that work conflicts had shifted his morning coffee at Buzz to an evening beer at Kinslagher and that only one person had come by to talk face to face. But, he said, the effort will continue with at least once-monthly opportunities for direct conversations.

“The last couple of weeks were pretty emotionally draining for me,” he said of the social media barrage over the high school. “On social media, discussions almost immediately break down into extreme positions. People want to take sides on social media. There is no nuance.”

Breymaier spends a fair amount of time on social media espousing the work he does on housing integration and educational equity, efforts to boost housing opportunities in Austin and Proviso. He said that if it weren’t for work, he’s not sure how much time he’d spend on social media. And he acknowledged that he has “been guilty” of staking out hard positions when trying to make a point, too.

Of the recent OPRF flare-up, he said, “There is so much emotion. There is the sense of having to make these points. During the last couple of weeks, it got really ugly. People were not listening.”

Breymaier said he had better conversations when a small group of strong-opinioned Facebook posters moved into FB Messenger for side conversations. That back-and-forth was “done respectfully though we didn’t all agree. We had more nuanced discussions. I even called one of those people up and said, ‘I just don’t understand your view. Help me understand it.'”

Breymaier’s experience would seem to mirror that of Jackie Moore, the president of the OPRF school board. In last week’s column, I quoted her as saying, “We saw heightened and extreme talk on social media. My face-to-face meetings haven’t been like that. Even emails to the board have been focused and not damning or disrespectful.”

What advice would Breymaier give to those looking to foster more useful conversations on social media? “Before they post, people should ask themselves, do I want to be considerate and persuasive or combative and provocative? The whole point of social media is to have a conversation. Are we going to use it well?”

In difficult moments in a community, such as we have been facing, I don’t see much upside to social media, or for our newspaper comment boards, in fostering genuine conversation. Breymaier’s point is right. People start at the extreme positions and engage in a battle from those places. There’s heat. And maybe that heat salves some wounds. But it doesn’t move us forward. We end up more polarized, more defensive, less able to get at the real issues of race and racism.

Actual conversation is what we need. Honest, painful conversation. And then we need to get back to the life’s work of this community: 

Equity in an unequitable country. 

Connection in a moment that foments divides.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...