Ned Barnett

Listen in, speak out at a new N&O forum on issues

Participants listen to a speaker during the Women's March on Raleigh rally in downtown Raleigh on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.
Participants listen to a speaker during the Women's March on Raleigh rally in downtown Raleigh on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. newsobserver.com

Journalism begins with questions. Here’s one we’re asking now: The Women’s March: It was big, but is it over?

On March 29, you’ll get a chance to share your answer. That’s when The News & Observer, with support from ABC 11, will launch the first of a continuing series of forums on topical issues known as Community Voices. The idea is to take the concerns that fill The N&O’s opinion pages directly to our community for comment and debate. Many readers want to hear more about certain issues and many want to be heard on them.

Topics will range from those in the news to broader subjects. Proposed topics include how House Bill 2 has shaped national perceptions of North Carolina, a look at the surge in micro-brewing, the Triangle’s changing demographics and the rising tensions as more cyclists share the road with motorists. Readers also are encouraged to propose topics for future talks.

These community talks are new for The News & Observer, but increasingly common around the country. In a world where people increasingly are isolated behind screens and cocooned with like thinkers, there’s a growing interest in face-to-face discussion and a robust exchange of perspectives and ideas. TED talks are a favorite for a deep dive into an issue or an individual’s compelling story whether seen in person or watched online. Now newspapers and TV stations are sponsoring forums both to inform their audiences and to learn from them.

The Triangle is especially fertile ground for these kind of discussions. It is a region defined by a concentration of colleges and universities and shaped by research. And the thoughtful people here want to learn more and share what they think. Even as newspapers are moving to digital platforms, The N&O still receives more than 800 letters to the editor each month. There are more op-ed offerings than we can publish. And so much of what we receive is important and insightful.

The collective wisdom of the Triangle audience is a resource that merits a broader stage. These forums won’t be limited to those who show up. They will be live-streamed on Facebook and archived on The N&O website. News reporters will cover the events. There will be an opportunity to comment afterward online.

So here we go. The format will be a brief video or photographic introduction to the issue followed by a panel discussion of the issue. Then the floor will be opened to questions. The events will be in the early evening and run no longer than 90 minutes.

These are expected to be more than community talks. Comments of the panelists and questions and statements from the audience likely will generate news. The idea isn’t simply to discuss the issue, but to reveal new aspects and determine where it’s going.

With that in mind, the Women’s March is an especially worthy subject. The march in Washington, D.C., the day after President Trump’s inauguration drew an epic crowd, but there were also impressive turnouts around the nation and internationally. In Raleigh, organizers saw their expectations swamped by thousands of women, and some men, who poured into downtown on a Saturday. The crowd was conservatively estimated at 17,000.

But after the crowds departed Raleigh, Washington and elsewhere, questions remain. The main one, perhaps, is: “What did it mean?” Was it simply an anti-Trump showing, or was it part of a deeper, lasting movement by women? Then there are more questions, “What did this diverse group want? What goals and demands unite them? Can they turn a march into a movement?”

Thus the question of our first Community Voices: “It was big, but is it over?

Organizers of the Raleigh march say it was more than a collective shout of frustration not only with Trump’s positions and behavior, but with the slowness of progress on equal pay, parental leave, affordable health care and child care and other issues affecting the lives of women. They say the energy of the day is still surging and seeking direction. At this forum, what’s next may come into clearer focus.

Consider this your invitation to the first talk in what we hope will become an ongoing conversation about what worries, stirs or intrigues us. The first Community Voices will be held at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus from 7 - 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29. Admission and parking are free. For more information and to sign up, go to: nando. com/communityvoices

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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