Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Sept. 8 newspaper on Page A1.
For a certain group of Athens community members, the power of face-to-face communication is lost in a modern dialogue defined by instant messaging and heated debates on social media apps.
“I think with the way society has changed over the last decade, we find ourselves spending less and less time talking in person about important topics, and we’ve removed some of the humanity in the dialogue,” said Sarah Davis, an associate professor at Ohio University’s Voinovich School.
As a professor, Davis has heard concerns from students, residents and coworkers about the perception of today’s society being a polarized environment, where conflicts quickly escalate online and are never resolved. In response to this unease, she founded Open OHIO, a collective effort that invites the public to join in respectful and productive conversation.
“Open OHIO sets up a space as a place where people can talk, person-to-person, and potentially disagree on their views, and see the power in creating a culture where we can do that,” she said.
Open OHIO launched in September 2018 with a central goal of bridging the gap between Athens residents and Ohio University students, faculty and staff through communication. Davis and a team of volunteer facilitators began by hosting public forums where all were welcome, with the promise that participants would engage, listen and be open to new perspectives.
At each session, participants gathered in groups to discuss issues they felt were most pressing. Papers were distributed with open-ended prompt questions to spark conversation, like “What issue is most important in the community right now?”
“During these sessions we encourage people to leave notes behind about what they discussed as a group, and then we use those notes to develop a call for art proposals,” Davis said.
Last year, over 200 people engaged in the Open OHIO forums and left notes behind that inspired pop-up art displays at Baker University Center, Alden Library and Dairy Barn Arts Center. Davis said the pieces were collaborative efforts between science and the arts that included painting, dance and monologues.
This year, conversations began in July with the same goal of connecting the community and university, but with a “clean slate,” meaning discussions are meant to flow organically and generate new ideas.
The third installment of the 2019 Open OHIO forums took place on Sept. 4 at Armory Parkand was informally called “The Root Beer Dialogues” — an ode to the ice cold root beer floats served during the event.
“It’s neat because people are always saying the university and community should do things together, and that’s what this is all about,” said John Schmieding, co-chair of the Athens Community Relations Commission. Schmieding collaborated with Davis to bring Community Relations affiliates to this Open OHIO session, and he served as a volunteer facilitator in the past.
This event followed the same structure as previous discussions, welcoming in all community members who agreed to listen thoughtfully. The park quickly came alive with discussion and included an array of participants: students stopping by before class, university employees, local residents on lunch breaks and Athens’ own Mayor Steve Patterson.
Suggested conversation topics centered on diversity in Athens and how the town can improve inclusivity, though groups sparked their own discussions based on individual life experiences. After two hours of face-to-face dialogue, Davis and her team encouraged participants to draw or write a reflection on a large banner that Open OHIO will use for inspiration.
“Seeing all the ideas here on the banner is really cool, and it’s not something you get from just talking online,” said Ren Hopkins, a graduate student at Ohio University studying environmental science. “Yes, you can talk about important topics over social media, but you don’t get that human aspect, which I think is so important.”