TOM WARD - Let’s get TogetherRI for civil conversations

TOM WARD - Let’s get TogetherRI for civil conversations

So, do you wonder, in this era of people becoming more and more disconnected from each other as they stare at and interact with their beloved phones, is it time yet to push back? As people spend less and less time looking at the face of another person and having a conversation, have we had enough of our addiction?

Is it time, after two years of friends “unfriending” ex-friends because of an errant or hot-headed political post or tweet, is it finally time for a time out?

The Rhode Island Foundation thinks it might be, and so is putting a bit of money, and much of its energy and credibility, behind “20 neighborly get-togethers” around the state, chats where we all can get to enjoy a free family-style meal, then put down our smartphones and speak to one another – fact to face – in a round table discussion. They’re calling it “TogetherRI.”

What will be the topics?

“We don’t know what we will learn,” says Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg , in a recent visit with me. “We don’t know what will come out of it.”

While that may seem a bit unplanned and chaotic, it’s not. In fact, it’s downright “small d” democratic. And at each event, professional facilitators will be on hand to guide the conversation, moving it in a positive direction.

“There are many, many people in the new age of social media who feel they don’t have a voice anymore,” said Steinberg. “We want to get back to civic and civil dialog, where people can respectfully disagree.”

Let’s face it, who can argue that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, civility has declined sharply? The “community foundation,” as the Rhode Island Foundation calls itself, hopes it can help turn that around.

“We’re the hosts,” said Steinberg. “This will not be a town hall. You don’t get to take the floor for a half-hour make a speech. Anyone can come. Everyone can come. We hope strangers might become friends.”

People of political, or business, or civic rank, said Steinberg, “will have to leave their stripes at the door. Here, everyone will be equal. We want everyone to come, speak, and listen. To hear other points of view, and have a civil discussion.”

“We want everyone to feel comfortable,” said Steinberg. “We hope to hear themes, the needs of people, and great ideas to move our state and communities forward.”

And then what, I asked? What might be learned, or communicated? What happens when the meetings are over?

“The Foundation,” said Steinberg, “will partner with URI to compile all the information we’re hearing, on site. After each meeting, that information will be added to what we’ve learned at other meetings.” URI’s work will be done by its Social Science Institute for Research, Education and Policy.

“Finally,” said Steinberg, “we will communicate what we hear to leadership – government, business, and educational – at the top of Rhode Island.”

Results should be available for the Foundation’s Annual Meeting May 24, and will be released in a report this summer, according to a press release.

I hope you can stop in to one of the northern Rhode Island events. If not, check the web site, , for a more complete list.

Dates & Times

TogetherRI evenings of food and conversation will be held at the following locations in northern Rhode Island:

• Thursday, March 22, 6 to 7:30 p.m., WOONSOCKET: Woonsocket Middle School.

• Thursday, March 29, 6 to 7:30 p.m., FOSTER / GLOCESTER: Ponaganset Middle School.

• Thursday, April 12, 6 to 7:30 p.m., SCITUATE / JOHNSTON: Scituate High School.

• Saturday, April 14, 9 to 10:30 a.m., PAWTUCKET/ CENTRAL FALLS: Pawtucket Family YMCA.

• Tuesday, April 24, 6 to 7:30 p.m., CUMBERLAND/ LINCOLN: Cumberland Public Library.

• Thursday, May 3, 6 to 7:30 p.m., NORTH PROVIDENCE / SMITHFIELD: Meehan Overlook, Notte Park, North Providence.

All gatherings will be catered by Emery’s Catering. Registration is suggested, but not required. Please register online at if possible. I hope to see you there.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze newspapers.


You are correct in stating that many have "disconnected", myself included. I hide behind a multitude of screen names to offer my unsolicited opinions on every subject that I scroll by on my newsfeed, hoping to remain anonymous for fear that my children will suffer the consequences of my voiced opinions. We have all been forced to choose a side. And the line can't be crossed without incurring judgment. My prediction for these well intended meetings is that they will start out civil, but soon turn into divided and opinionated factions of local shut-ins shouting at each other, eventually scaring the rest of us away, back to the safety of our keyboards. This is not the world our parents and grandparents grew up in. The internet changed all that.