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Tallahassee's Village Square forum rededicates itself to political diversity with a new executive director at the helm

Tallahassee Village Square Executive Director Vanessa Rowse
Vanessa Rowse
Tallahassee Village Square Executive Director Vanessa Rowse

What began as an effort to bring people from different political viewpoints together for civil discussion is undergoing a reboot. Tallahassee's Village Square is going back to its roots with a new executive director in charge.
That new executive director is Vanessa Rowse.

"I have produced the Village Square's podcast - Village Squarecast - for 2 1/2 years now, which has allowed me the great pleasure of listening to 60+ programs. It changed me in ways that I didn't know I needed. And now I consider myself a poster child for the Village Square, wanting everyone around to have the same experience I did with really making some serious shifts in big ways."

At the same time, Rowse said, the goal is preserving the original vision of the Village Square as set down by its founders.

"We're really drawing on all the experience of our Founder Liz Joyner who's been here 16 years and she had this brilliant idea. She saw the problem we were facing and figured out a way to solve it. And now she's a pioneer on the national stage doing incredible work in teaching other communities how to do exactly what we do in Tallahassee."

And what was the problem Rouse said Joyner was hoping to solve by starting the Village Square?

"We don't have an information problem; we have a relationship problem. And that could not be more true than at this present moment when everything has become so divisive. And so this season, in addition to a full season of events that we normally do, we're also adding in some things that will allow our neighbors to come together and have dialogue together among each other an help break down these divisions, help understand each other better."

Although the stated purpose of the Village Square was to have a fairly even mix of both conservatives and liberals, it seemed to attract more of the latter than the former. So Rowse said there's a renewed effort to attract more right-leaning participants.

"Really one of the main things that we did is start the God Squad program, which is a place where conservatives typically feel more comfortable because they can bring their faith into the conversation about other political issues. God Squad is a Friday lunch time program, where you can bring your own lunch or eat the lunch we serve and we have diverse faith leaders from around the community."

There's also the regular "Dinners at the Square." Rowse said the next one, on Tuesday, September 27th, will certainly have diverse opinions.

"It is actually featuring Liz, our founder, and her BFF who is a conservative all the way from Salt Lake City (we're flying him in.) Liz and her friend Dr. Jacob Hess pretty much don't agree on anything, except they believe that liberals and conservatives are better together. They think that it's so important to have these types of relationships and they're even fun while saving our democracy at the same time."

The objective, said Rowse, is to expand the attractiveness of the square to all viewpoints.

"We feature conservatives and by featuring them, then they bring their circles in. We build out from the panels and the members and the board. If we have diversity there, then those people reach out and bring their crew."

The Village Square is also adding a new element to its interactive portfolio.

"We partner with Alex Workman to expand his '100 Coffees' project, matching up community members with one another to have one-on-one coffee and we match them up on some difference that they have, then send them off to have coffee together."

All of this is timely, said Rowse, noting that Thanksgiving Day is coming up fast.

"Research shows that Thanksgiving dinners in our country have become shorter and shorter. People are spending less time at Thanksgiving dinner and it's thought that's because of the political divides that are creeping into family, friendships and the workplace in ways that we haven't experienced in our lifetime."

Taken in total, the Village Square's new Executive Director said the idea is to return the organization to its first principles: promoting intelligent, civil discussion of important public issues.

"Our respect for our fellow Americans grows, our understanding grows, our assumptions that are often incorrect fall away as we learn more about why people think the way they think and do what they do."

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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