The power of political conversation

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Happening Now Monday, December 23, 2013 View Count = 1711

The power of political conversation

Today's guest post is from Kelta Coomber, a former Samara intern from Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently writing her undergraduate political science thesis on the role of play activities in citizen engagement.

This summer, I abandoned the wonders of Edmonton (the river valley, perogies, and my mom) for the streets of Toronto. I traversed the country to work at Samara - an 
organization that I knew only three things about: (1) Samara has a very soothing tangerine-coloured website; (2) Samara’s Executive Director is the bright and energetic Alison Loat; and (3) Samara conducts research on (gulp!) Canadian politics.

I gulp because Canadian politics - or more specifically, the behaviour of some Canadian politicians and political parties -  has never made me jump for joy. Even as a political science student, Canadian politics conjures up a series of depressing images: political actors whose flurry of election promises never materialize; political discourse that focuses on partisan loyalties over public good; and reactionary risk management rather than innovative thinking.

Well, at least it used to. I can say with real honesty that my experience at Samara has transformed some of my fundamental attitudes about Canadian politics. In particular, it has encouraged me to focus less on the flaws of political actors and institutions, and more on the joys that engaging in political activity can inspire in me as a person. What’s most fascinating about this change is not that it happened, so much as how it happened. My perspective didn’t shift because of some great epiphany, or through the continued prodding of my co-workers. It happened in a much more casual and simple way, which it is best represented by the following formula:

(conversation x people who get joy from politics) + (a regular space for conversation)

Although it doesn’t sound profound, having a regular space to engage in political activity - in the form of political discussion and debate - with people who delight in politics facilitated a real shift in attitude for me.

Through conversation, I was forced to communicate and defend my position on what I understood as the state of Canadian politics. In articulating my thoughts, I thought more deeply and critically about my understanding of and relationship to politics, and realized that I had engaged in the fatal error of lazy thinking by generalizing the behaviours and motivations of all political actors and institutions. In dialogue with my co-workers, I was exposed to a whole other way of understanding politics - as an activity that we engage in, rather than the thing ‘out there’ that we try to understand or affect. I learned that citizens are not simply the spectators to politics; they are the actors that make ‘politics’ possible through their actions and interactions with other people.

Chatting with my co-workers, I was reminded that people make the conversation. That is to say, the particular personalities and commitments of the parties involved greatly affect the quality and depth of conversation. My co-workers at Samara were not only fascinated by and invested in politics, they got real delight and joy from engaging in political activity. This drew me into conversation, not for the pragmatic reason to defend my position, but so I could experience something that seemed by all accounts terribly fun and invigorating.

Finally, although it sounds odd, having the Samara office as a space to engage in conversation was critical. The shared open space at Samara facilitated more regular and informal conversations about politics, and got me into the habit of chatting about politics every day – on slow mornings, lunch hours, or afternoon chocolate breaks (!). This is a habit that has been lasting, something that has stuck with me to this day.

But with all of that said, perhaps this story is a bit anti-climatic. You might be wondering ‘you just talked with people who love politics in an office and that’s what fundamentally transformed your attitudes about Canadian politics?’ Well, that’s what I’d like to suggest. And if I flip over to Samara’s "The Real Outsiders" report, my claim seems to be consistent with something that Samara itself gathered through talking with citizens across Canada: real progress can be made in transforming citizens’ attitudes about politics by focusing on improving the everyday, concrete experiences citizens have with politics (4). With this in mind, generating a more healthful and participatory political culture in Canada might not be as difficult as it appears on first glance. Perhaps the first step will be a simple one: the creation of more opportunities and spaces for conversation.

Kelta nominated an Everyday Political Citizen, and you should too!

See Kelta's nomination.

On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g