Unless it entails a day off from work or a big parade, historic anniversaries often slip under the radar. Yesterday, Sept. 17, marked the 226th anniversary of the U.S. Constitutional Convention – the signing ceremony that brought our Constitution and the Bill of Rights into being.
While not as visually dramatic as a Fourth of July fireworks display, Constitution Day was commemorated in San Antonio last night with an intellectually stimulating conversation with local political and educational leaders, as well as students, business owners, and – of course – history buffs masquerading as real estate brokers and entrepreneurs.
The dinner gathering, “A Conversation with the Constitution,” was held at the Central Library downtown. District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg contributed to the night’s discourse, as well as San Antonio Library Foundation board member Paul Martin, and San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar. Nirenberg’s excitement was palpable as the evening began.
“We tend to think of our founding documents as things that belong behind glass cases, but (the Constitution) is a living document that still speaks to us, nearly 230 years after it was written,” he said. “Tonight, I want people to get rejuvenated on democracy.”
About 150 guests sat at 20 round tables throughout the main auditorium, with eight people to a table — perfect for the evening’s discussion format. University of Pennsylvania professor, author, nonprofit director, and political theorist Christopher Phillips was the keynote speaker and moderator for the night.
“The idea is to create a new habit of discourse, and teach people to have passionately held views, while listening to and respecting others’ opinions,” Phillips said.
Phillips is best known nationally for his Constitution Café concept — discussion groups for citizens to meet, explore the Constitution and engage in an open dialogue about how the document is being used and interpreted today. The Constitution Café initiative operates under Phillips’ nonprofit group Democracy Café with the overarching goal “to expand the public debate around the globe about the possibilities for democratic governance and civic participation, and hold that genuine self-determination and enfranchisement hinges on continual participation and input of all citizens, including our children and youth.”
These “cafés” are based on the Jeffersonian idea of democratic freedom, and, Phillips said last night, Thomas Jefferson’s notion that “the best democracy is one with every citizen an acting member of government … We need to look at (the Constitution) in a forward-moving way. As American citizens, we should be able to ask, ‘Is this still what we want?’ It’s a living, relevant document that we can use as a framework to build on, from which we can create something new.”
The format for the evening was a question and answer session – essentially the model of a Constitution Café. During the one hour session, Phillips posed just two questions about the Constitution and how we, the people are utilizing it today. These politically and emotionally divisive questions were sure to invoke strong responses from the array of political and social backgrounds in the room.
The first question: “Does the Constitution grant citizens a right to privacy? If it does, to what degree? If not, should it?” The room immediately went into a buzz. The table discussions began, and what followed was a thirty-minute conversation — not a debate, not a deliberation — among the people at each table.
The second question followed: “According to the Constitution, is the President granted the authority to declare war? If not, who is?” The next 30-minute session ensued.
A quick survey of the auditorium indeed revealed a passionate display of opinion: attendees at each table gesticulating with their hands, eyebrows raised in avid expression – this was not typical dinner party conversation.
At the same time, everyone was listening. People were leaning forward, eyes intent, absorbing their dinner companion’s individual views on each question posed.
There are several Constitution Cafés in cities and communities across the nation, but the closest one happens to be right here in San Antonio — at East Central High School. That’s right, a high school. This Constitution Café is organized, run, and led by a passionate group of high school students, whose goal is to expand, grow, and bring the “Café” format to the entire community of San Antonio, engaging all in political development, on both a local and national level.
When Phillips visited San Antonio last February to deliver his Constitution Café message, these students were inspired to do something — to first affect change within their school, then within the city.
“What (these students) are doing with my Constitution Café initiative is absolutely amazing,” Phillips said. “They come to school once a month at 7 a.m. just to hold a Constitution Cafe – and apparently (more than) 100 students attend this voluntary gathering.”
According to the program’s advisor, Patricia Reyes of East Central Independent School District, the group’s desire is to see the entire community of San Antonio engage in helpful, amiable, constructive political and societal dialogue. She described the Cafe’s members as “driven” and “brilliant” students, “champions for the future of the city.”
The monthly Café meetings consist of homemade pastries baked by a designated student culinary team, French music (in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s stint as U.S. minister in France), and gourmet coffees.
These students had the opportunity to bring their particular model of a Constitution Café to the Skills USA statewide competition in Corpus Christi earlier this year. They presented their program to the panel of judges and brought home second place in every category.
“These students are changing their high school, and will change the city, whether they know it yet or not,” Reyes said. “We want to bring our Constitution Café to the rest of the city, to at least two other places before the end of the year, in order to make the conversation bigger. We want to bring this to others outside of ourselves. We’ve been doing this for 18 months now, and we’re ready to contribute to the community as a whole.”
These students, and others like them, are the future of San Antonio, and the hope of the city. We seem to be in good hands.
As Thomas Jefferson, Phillips’ personal hero, said:
“A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, and a third, etcetera. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and . . . some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed.”
As an observer, what was most striking about last night was the participants’ genuine enthusiasm to hear what others had to say.
People weren’t chomping at the bit, waiting to insert their political zingers or jumping at the chance to disagree with someone. There were no shut-downs, no belittling rebuttals – rather, respect for each other. Open ears and open hearts.
Talk about refreshing.
In light of the recent hostility, vitriol, and drama surrounding the non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) and its subsequent passing, “A Conversation with the Constitution” was refreshing and a reminder of what true democratic discourse looks like. Observing an entire auditorium full of San Antonians — especially our youth — passionately sharing opinions, listening to one another, having a genuine discussion about such an important topic was revitalizing and restorative.
Phillips’ final words of wisdom on Tuesday night left the room feeling empowered, encouraged, and motivated.
“This is important. At a time when people across the political spectrum think our government is woefully dysfunctional,” he said. “My hope is that this format would let you think for yourselves and help you listen to one another. Genuine dialogue means genuine listening.”
To get in touch with the East Central students about their Constitution Café, or to host their next gathering, contact Patricia Reyes for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow them on Twitter at @EastCentralAVID. Follow Christopher Phillips on Twitter at @ChristopherCafe.
To delve deeper in to Phillips’ work, click here to order a copy of his book, Constitution Cafe, available in paperback or Kindle edition.
Sarah Hedrick is a San Antonio native, Baylor grad, theatre fanatic, music lover, and freelance writer. This is her first story for the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahthelyd.