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Inspired Democracy: The Debate Table

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When the full moon woke me up last night, I found myself starting to sing new lyrics to the old Paul Simon song: "There must be fifty ways to leave your lover."

The new lyrics, by Anne Button and Jason Salzman, were now spreading through my moon-baked brain like a virus. They kept looping over and over: "You just pick up the phone, Joan; Take back the flag, Mag; Just make a dent, Kent, And change the country.... "

I had been given the song sheet the night before, when I wandered into the Boulder Book Store to listen to two authors, Michael Huttner and Jason Salzman, try to tell me 50 Ways I could Help Obama Change America.

I had been ready to turn my back on politics, disgusted with the trivializing of any positive idea by the headline grabbing GOP fringe. But last night, I had the evening off, and time to kill.

Along with a song sheet, I was handed an index card by Salzman. It turns out, the authors were not talking about how to get involved in Obama's campaign, they were talking about how each of us could take on some of the key ideas Obama had proposed ... ourselves.

"What have you done in your own community since Obama was elected president?" they challenged the audience. About 10-minutes into the talk, a light bulb turned on in my head. I had done something last weekend that I had never done before. So I picked up the card and wrote down: "I hosted a Democracy Debate Table."

A few days earlier, I had bought a 69-cent American flag on a skinny stick pole. It's the kind you might wave in front of your face at a rally. I had never bought an American flag before. I also bought an art poster board and black marker. On Sunday, I took out a picnic table cloth, put a folding card table in the back of the car, picked up an empty dog food can and filled it with sand as a flag pole holder, then headed downtown to a public debate by city council candidates.

What is a democracy debate table? Well I read about it a week ago, when a friend forwarded an email to me from Russell Evans. Evans is a high school teacher who teaches his students how to debate. He wanted to show them that in America, a town hall should be a place where every voice is heard.

So, when an unruly crowd showed up at Obama's health care talk in Grand Junction, CO last month, Evans showed up with a card table and three chairs. He sat in one chair,and then invited a passer-by who supported the public option to sit down and hold onto the flag. Then he looked for someone who might hold an opposing view.

"I could usually tell what point of view they held by the clothing they wore," he said.

The debate rules were simple. The first person gets three minutes to speak. The second person gets 3-minutes to respond to what the first person said. Then each person gets a one-minute rebuttal; then one-minute to say anything they want. The flag changes hands each time, like a talking stick.

Evans hosted his Democracy Debate table for 90-minutes and of the 14 people who took part, everyone, except two people, walked away from the table talking together.

The topic I chose for my Democracy Debate was: Should the U.S. Withdraw Its Troops From Afghanistan? Yes! No! Like Evans, I had similar good results in a 40-minute period ... when I invited six passers-by to sit down.

Looking back, I think of the process as "Inspired Democracy." For that single moment, I was the change I wanted to see happening in America.

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