[Book Review] Turning to One Another

Among books on community engagement, Margaret Wheatley’s Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future is incredibly unique. It is not a book on facilitation, or pedagogy, or community building — and yet dives to the heart of all three: dialogue with others. With all of the incredible tools and methods at our fingertips for engaging communities, working with young people, and creating spaces for learning, Wheatley asks us to go back to the basics, and have a conversation around the issues and questions that matter most to us and the people around us.

The book is not something I expect that every community builder, educator, or teaching artist will immediately think to read. This is partly why the book intrigued me. Wheatley is deeply influenced by Paulo Freire, and quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness throughout the book, saying that conversations are the staring point for empowerment, engagement, and education. Sharing her commitment to education through dialogue and sharing of personal stories, early in the book I thought, “Okay, so how can I deepen the conversations that guide my practice?”

This question led me to love portions of the book, and have mixed feelings about other parts. On the one hand, since Wheatley is someone who can recommend practical and actionable tools for dialogue, and clearly knows the world of organizational development and leadership, I was left wanting a bit more of the how-to. On the other hand, Wheatley clearly doesn’t intend this to be a book on how to have those dialogues. She even says that, “once something becomes a technique, it gets too complicated.” She wants something simple and straightforward — having genuine conversations around the issues that matter in our communities. I found that keeping this goal in mind was especially helpful.

We live in a world where too often issues are delegated to “leaders” to solve because of their “expertise.” Wheatley's book is a humble reminder that expertise is an outgrowth of experience, something that everyone has in a community. Therefore, genuine conversations around the issues that inspire or anger us are what really brings a community together for change. In Part 1, Wheatley makes a case for why this should be done, and the healing potential it has for communities. In Part 2, she asks us to pause and reflect, offering artwork and key phrases from the book. I saw this part as inviting us away from our notions of expertise and finding outside solutions to intervene, and toward a more asset-based approach — the primary asset here being a community's innate gifts of being with one another in dialogue.

The conversation starters in the book help with this, daunting as it can be to not have “methods.”. Part 3 is a collection of essays and poems organized around twelve different thoughtful questions that can start conversations anywhere, with anyone. This is also where the most powerful feature of the book is found — the quality and depth of the questions. Conversations are guided by questions like, “What do I believe to be true about others?” “What is my role in creating change?” “When have I experienced deep listening?” ”Can I be fearless?” In other words, they are questions that indeed invite us to turn to one another and have a conversation — no methods, no goals, no outside expertise. Just genuine sharing for the health and wholesomeness of our lives, and how we affect each other in community.

All in all I found the book to be very nourishing, and a rewarding read. It affirmed what many of us who engage communities through the arts and civic dialogue are trying to do, but left it up to the reader as to how to proceed in ways that felt the most authentic and giving.

Since reading the book, I've used several of the poems and portions of the essays as prompts for my students, as they create poetry and theatre around the issues important in their lives. What I found is that the book does not call us to simple answers, or quick chats. It asks that we take time to think about the crucial conversations in our communities, and then, with the essays and poems as possible starting points, we begin that journey. It is not something that can get packaged up as a neat “teachable moment.” Those conversations form an ongoing process, one that each of us as citizens and artists concerned with the life and well-being of our communities, would do well to partake in.