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May 5, 2008

The "Other" Boston Commons

A small church hosts a lively community forum that brings the neighborhood together

On a Sunday night in March, more than 200 people huddled together in a two-century-old stone church in Boston to hear Canadian activist Maude Barlow speak about the global water crisis.

“Water is a commons,” Barlow said. “We must reclaim this commons from those who would treat it as a commodity.”

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On any given Sunday morning in the same church, an average of 60 congregants fill the pews for worship services. When the church decided to create the Jamaica Plain Forum, they envisioned it as both a way to strengthen the church and to serve as a crossroads for important “community conversations about the great issues of our day, locally and globally.”

Early programs featured a variety of topics including local agriculture, the Iraq war, effective parenting, and preserving the neighborhood’s thriving independent business sector. Speakers included national experts and authors, but also “local heroes,” residents doing interesting work in the world. One forum was a “report back” by six local building-trades workers who spent two weeks volunteering in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In the fall, the J.P. Forum added regular documentary films and became a community viewing site for PBS’s “Independent Lens series.”:http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/

“There are so many remarkable documentary films that never see the light of day,” said Sarah Schwartz Sax, the coordinator of the Jamaica Plain Forum. “You either see them during the four days they are in a theater–or rent them and watch them alone in your house. We bring people together to watch and discuss these films; it is much more powerful.”

In the winter, the Jamaica Plain Forum instituted “Cheap Date Jamaica Plain” with timely speakers or movies, $5 childcare, and free popcorn. In their first year, over 3,000 people have attended 25 different talks and films.

“We’ve created a commons,” observed Schwartz Sax. “And most of what we talk about is protecting and expanding the commons.” Commons related themes have included “the commercial encroachment on children,” “climate change,” and Peter Barnes talking about his book, “Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons.”:http://capitalism3.com/

The Jamaica Plain Forum received funding through the Unitarian Universalist denomination to assist with the development of forums around the country. They’ve identified and surveyed more than 75 existing forums at UU congregations to learn best practices. Through their Forum Organizing Project, in conjunction with the Institute for Policy Studies, they are providing technical assistance to new forums and writing a start-up manual for congregations and community associations interested in convening similar forums.

Some of the existing forums have roots dating back to the early 1830s when “lyceum” and “Chautauqua” movements led to the formation of hundreds of cultural and discussion forums, primarily in rural and small towns. Their history is woven together with popular reform movements including abolition, women’s suffrage and labor rights.

Lyceum refers to the garden of the Temple of Apollo Lyceus where Aristotle taught young Athenians. The U.S. version was established in New England, but quickly spread west in the 1840s with the expansion of the railroads. Famous speakers who traveled the “lyceum circuit”:http://members.aol.com/AlphaChautauquan/lyceum.html
included Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, Mark Twain and Emma Willard.

It is not surprising in the age of the instant message, there is a hunger for face to face discussion. With the easy availability of DVD films and projection equipment, there is are new opportunities to link together “bricks”—local religious congregations and community centers—and “clicks”—email contact technologies—to create new venues for topical films. And like reformers from an earlier age, authors and campaigners can plug into these emerging networks of organized forums to engage audiences and stimulate grassroots action.

“We see this network of forums as part of building a vibrant commons,” notes Schwartz Sax. “When people come together to learn, talk and act, we are strengthening what we hold together.”