Recently, I took a vacation at my parent's house in Northern Virginia. I had spent most of my life growing up in the area and had only moved away about four years prior. One day, towards the end of my trip, I set out on a route I had traveled hundreds if not thousands of times before. I didn't think I needed GPS because I knew not only the roads but also the landmarks that would guide me from my parent's suburb, past my last house at the notorious intersection of routes 66 and 28, south into the "country" of central Virginia. I was incorrect. Fifteen minutes into my route, it appeared that in the less than four years I had been gone, an alien had come in, cut out a circle in the map, and replaced it with something completely different—a very apt metaphor for the year 2020.
We began Stepping Forward Book Circles in November of 2019. Our aspiration was that through discussion of Stepping Forward, a book by Rich Harwood, community members would develop deeper relationships with each other, discover shared aspirations, and be encouraged to Turn Outward in everyday activities. More than 400 people engaged in discussion, despite the interruption to "normal" life by COVID-19.
We discovered that across circles, composed of close friends, loosely affiliated community members, and daily co-workers, creating time and space for intentional conversation matters. Each meeting, members were asked to respond to one poll question. The responses were aggregated into word clouds. The bigger the word, the more people submitted it. The most demonstrative word cloud is below, "What are you for?"
Some people completed their book circles before COVID-19 disrupted 2020. Those groups were already thinking of ways to be more connected before social distancing became part of our everyday vocabulary. Some groups transitioned to virtual, proving that connecting can take all kinds of forms. Whether the circles were already complete or still figuring out how to meet, all of the feedback we received was that taking the time to connect, ask questions and think about how we can turn outward led to a deeper feeling of community. While Rich's message is powerful, it wasn't so much about the book as it was about the gathering.
2020 has been a challenging year. Now, more than ever, I look to the words that more than 400 community members shared with us. Love, equality, kindness, respect, community, happiness. We have more in common than we assume, and what we have in common is more important than ever.