63 citizens of Orono gathered the evening of April 9 in the City Council chambers for an intergenerational conversation.
“The intent was to bring people together to discuss issues and opportunities for the city of Orono,” described the dialogue’s facilitator, James Gambone. A resident of Orono himself, Gambone has been leading discussions like this for 27 years, across the country and around the world.
Attendees were organized into six generations. Participants born before 1931 comprised the eldest group, in what Gambone refers to as the Civic Generation. The youngest group, born during or after 2002, made up the Digital Generation, and four other generations filled the gap between 1931 and 2002.
“It starts out with everyone eating dinner, across generations,” began Gambone. Box dinners were provided by Country Cupboard, located just down Wayzata Boulevard from City Hall.
Even the unstructured dinner portion of the program contributed to the discussion. Gambone said that participants were intentionally seated in mixed-generation groups.
After that, the evening was divided into two segments. First, participants were divided by generation, and asked to reflect on questions surrounding the city.
Said Gambone, “the major purpose of this exercise was to have each generation listen respectfully to each other.” Questions centered around what each generation perceived to be Orono’s strengths and weaknesses, the city’s sense of vitality, as well as questions on topics like the city’s schools and levels of civic engagement.
Generation to generation, and even citizen to citizen, answers to these questions did vary, but Gambone also identified commonalities.
“There was an incredible expression of wanting to be more in community with other people,” said the facilitator. He pointed out that with three zip codes, residents in two school district, and even larger lot sizes than some other communities, sometimes finding a sense of community can be difficult.
With this and other sentiments in mind, the participants entered the second segment of the evening by entering into mixed-generation groups.
The focus of this second half was not reflection, but problem-solving. Each group was given two challenges and was tasked with coming to a consensus on a set of recommendations that would address the challenges.
The first challenge asked the groups to generate “two concrete ideas on how the city can better attract younger families, and how it can help older residents stay in their own homes.”
The result was two dozen recommendations, from promoting the creation of “more affordable and higher density middle income housing,” to a “public boat” that would allow resident without boats to better enjoy the lake. Others suggested assisting small businesses, keeping the schools strong, and including more younger people in city government.
The second challenge asked the intergenerational groups to come up with specific words or phrases that should be included in a proactive environmental policy or mission statement. Another 18 recommendations flowed from the groups, from strong land use restrictions and responsible and accountable use of existing natural resources, to eradicating buckthorn and milfoil and reducing chemical use.
All in all, Gambone reported that the evening was a success.
“There was a tremendous amount of energy,” Gambone said.
Unfortunately, just a few members of the two youngest generations and eldest Civic Generation were present. Gambone suggested that he hoped any future conversations might include more participants from these generations. He went on to say that one of the reasons he agreed to volunteer his time to facilitate the meeting was “to show the city another model” for civic engagement.
Several members of city staff, including four out of five city council members, participated in the evening.
“I though it was a great starting dialogue for the community,” remarked Mayor Lili McMillan. “Hopefully we can find ways to continue this.”
“I really just listened, and heard a lot of viewpoints,” added McMillan.
Though no concrete plans for additional such conversations have surfaced, citizens and staff alike were agreeable to the idea.
“I think the main value for people is being able to know their voices are listened to, respectfully,” said Gambone.
He identified a “longing to connect” in the community, and the first step in such a connection is starting up a conversation.