Remember the fracas surrounding the town hall meetings on health care? The founders of The Village Square do. Their efforts to bring together diametrically opposed ideological groups has earned a $72,000 slice of $24 million offered through the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. The money will be used to support programs that help concerned individuals follow Albert Einstein’s charge: “To the village square we must carry the facts … from there must come America’s voice.”

The Village Square is the type of resource citizens of this country, and more distinctly, area residents will need as we consider opposing points of view with a mind toward strengthening our republic.

Through conversations over group dinners, political discussions over a pint of beer, and soon, online tools that will allow community members to post, read and edit information on locally focused topics, Executive Director Liz Joyner and members of the board are striving to “bring communities back together again as neighbors taking care of what neighbors used to handle.”

Round-table and panel discussions sponsored by The Village Square, through the use of the Knight grant, could serve as the antithesis of the well-intentioned — but easily maligned — local “town hall” meetings.

A good example was the one held on health care reforms Aug. 25 at City Hall. Though it was attended by U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, it quickly fell victim to an ideological shouting match because it was sponsored by some community agencies that stood to benefit from federal stimulus dollars. An opportunity to meet with our congressman was drowned out by rhetoric from both sides, and an opportunity to truly hear and understand opposing views was crushed.

By contrast, Village Square forums would primarily focus on the local issues, including topics such as the great biomass debate, coal plants and constitutional amendments. The group’s outreach efforts encourage individuals to read, think and opine for themselves rather than allowing their talking points to come from nationally focused partisan agendas.

The first test of bringing the community together in such a down-home fashion is to raise matching funds for the Knight grant. The group is halfway to its goal, but it’s important that donations (and participation) come from throughout the community.

“Knight wants to see that the community supports the idea,” Ms. Joyner said.

Input is sought on how The Village Square can best use its grant money to unify the community in the exchange of ideas.

“There is a way for anyone who’s interested to get involved, whatever their abilities are,” she said.

Whether residents of this area support The Village Square with their dollars, their attendance, contribution to an online Wiki of information pertinent to local topics or in some other form, Ms. Joyner and members of the board march forward with a charge by writer Patricia Nelson Limerick: “Let friendship redeem the republic.”

We hope that it can, and will.

(Photo credit.)