Practicing democracy in a diverse community does not need to be stressful or tense. At the small apartment complex in Southern California where I live, 19 residents engaged in enjoyable practices rooted in kindness and hospitality. Together we reflected on what it means to live in community with shared resources and to imagine taking committed actions for the common good of all.

Our community is diverse in culture, race, socioeconomics, age, ability, religion, and gender. To host an inclusive event took detailed preparation and planning. To make our event intimate and conversational, we let everyone know to come prepared to share a bit of their experience in the apartments, engage in sincere listening, and extend empathy.

To start, we welcomed each person and asked them to grab a drink of their choice and take a seat in a circle. Then we invited everyone to a spiritual practice of gratitude. We asked them to share one thought, emotion, and/or relationship for which they are grateful. This provided a bit of context for each person and showed what mattered to them.

Next, we asked each person the question: What is your favorite place to be at our apartment community? We invited them to draw (or write if they preferred not to draw) their answer on a blank piece of paper using colored pencils. It was fascinating to see what each person chose. One drew a picture of her kitchen with family sitting around the table enjoying their favorite meal. Another drew a bed and a television to watch, and some drew the swimming pool with ice cream and music. After everyone drew a favorite place, we asked them to draw or write about the people, resources, and materials that make their place possible.

Apartment residents drawing their favorite parts of the apartment complex.

It was fascinating to hear the insights of each resident. An eight-year-old girl wrote, "I am so thankful for the maintenance team for keeping the pool clean for us to enjoy. Without them we could not have such a great time when it is hot outside!" Another resident who recently moved in mentioned being grateful for a job that, even when it's difficult, provides rent money.

The group shared how this practice helped them to better understand themselves and even their neighbors whom they hadn’t known much about before. They also gained a renewed sense of how much place impacts our experience and the importance of taking actions that support everyone's good.

We finished by asking the residents to consider what new actions they might take to support each other in ways that could influence local and national matters. Many shared that small acts of kindness, care, and consideration would have a ripple effect to people and places beyond our community. Here are some of the ideas they shared:

  • Say thank you to management and the maintenance team in our property and extend that gratitude to those who work for our public utilities departments, including trash, electricity, and water.
  • Treat one another with kindness and respect. Seek to understand another person’s life and perspective by asking questions and withholding judgment.
  • Greet one another in the property and at our jobs with a smile that expresses gratitude.
  • Be more aware of how much noise we make and the impact it might have on others after a long day.
  • Respect the land by not littering. Instead cultivate thankfulness for it.
  • Avoid wasting things, because others may be in need. We can share resources.

Whether people who came to this gathering have lived in the community from 30 days to 30 years, these practices created a unique opportunity to get to see what is often missed in one another and to encourage us all to be more kind. They inspired residents to cultivate empathy and seek to understand each other amid a divisive world. While this event was done on a small scale, it was a wonderful time of connection and has immense implications for helping the national climate by modeling how we can care for one another.

Would you like to host a community event like this one? If so, you will find this Practicing Democracy Conversation Program Plan helpful.

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