Should Oak Park be a safe space? Or should it be a “brave space”? After several weeks of tempestuous conflict at village board meetings, one can’t resist channeling L.A. street philosopher Rodney King who famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” 

Evidently we can’t “just” get along. We need to learn to get along even when we passionately disagree.

But is that even possible? Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who assumed the role of peacemaker at last week’s board meeting, seems to think so, and since he grew up in Palestine, that’s really saying something. He read part of a poem about creating “brave space,” a place for uncomfortably honest dialogue.

He runs marathons. He writes essays of surprising depth and substance. He even quotes poetry. Anan will surprise you.

And he may be a fan of On Being, the spiritually uplifting interview show on National Public Radio every Sunday at 7 a.m. (listen anytime online). The poem Anan referenced about “brave space” was featured during Krista Tippett’s interview with Rev. Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers, who co-founded The People’s Supper, bringing together those who passionately disagree to share a meal — over 1,500 meals, in fact, since 2017.

Not all of us are ready to be “bridge people,” they pointed out, but we can still ask people to “be brave.” Their mantra at The People’s Supper is: “Relationships move at the speed of trust, but social change moves at the speed of relationships.”

“There has been no movement for justice or equity in this country that didn’t start with relationship,” Bailey said.

Interaction, in other words, is the yeast. Why did same-sex marriage become the law of the land seemingly overnight? The foundation was laid painstakingly over long years by dedicated advocates, but the final push was provided by relationships between ordinary people, gay and straight, who got to know one another, which elevated their comfort and caring level. Family and friends, no longer “other.” Familiarity breeds content, it turns out, not contempt. 

But relationship-building isn’t easy, especially now. In response to Rev. Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?” Bailey wrote, “I choose community. The community I long for will not be found in shallow platitudes promoting reconciliation. It will require the courage of everyday heroes to dig deep and find within themselves the wherewithal to lean into one another and repair the breach of relationships this election has exposed.”

We need to step into the fray and make ourselves vulnerable. Too often, said Flowers, “I think we’ve outsourced the role of being human to experts and professionals.” 

Bailey added, “If we are going to grow into being fully human, to grow into the promise of America, to be in process, then we have to be teachable. We have to be willing to engage one another and be wrong sometimes.”

In other words, accepting “An Invitation to Brave Space,” the poem by Micky ScottBey Jones, which Anan quoted from, that begins every one of The People’s Suppers:

Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a ‘safe space.’

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love.

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But it will be our brave space together, 

And we will work on it, side by side.

Ironically, the recent village board squabble was about revising the Village Diversity Statement, which aspired to make Oak Park a safe space for all residents. Those who pushed for the revision wanted to take the next step and make Oak Park (and all village institutions) a brave space, working hard together to achieve “equity,” breaking down “systems of oppression.” A couple of trustees thought the language went too far. Civility broke down.

I wouldn’t have phrased it the way Susan Buchanan did, but I agree with her that males — white males in particular — would benefit from talking less and listening a whole lot more. 

The poem above says there’s no such thing as safe space, not if it rules out truth-telling, so we must create a brave space where we call each other both to more truth and more love. That space will always be imperfect because we are imperfect.

Any village board is susceptible to toxic reactivity. There will always be personality conflicts. This board, I think, would benefit from 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation before every meeting. Mindfulness makes us more aware of our tendency to react impulsively, reflexively, and excessively. It adds an important tool to our toolkit: an inner voice that allows us to step back and say — without berating ourselves — “There I go again. What’s that all about?” It’s amazing how much it helps.

I suffered from excessive reactivity for many years. I still do from time to time (just ask my friends). Some of you, though, have probably noticed that my columns are not as angry as they used to be. If Trump had come along 10 years ago, my head would have exploded. But not now. At Farmers Market recently, someone came up to me and said, “You’re one of those guys at Wednesday Journal who hates Trump, right?” I said (truthfully), “I don’t hate him so much as feel sorry for him.” He was taken aback but stayed on message. “Hating,” he said, “is not a good thing.” I agreed with him wholeheartedly and he moved on.

That was a brave space moment.

Board members might want to try mindfulness.

And once in a while, one-on-one, they might also want to share a meal.

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