Symposia bookstore awakens a fresh spirit of community in Hoboken

The Hoboken Reporter, July 21, 2003
By John Bredin

Dear Editor:

There are a lot of exciting things happening these days in a tiny used bookstore called Symposia, located on Willow Ave. off the corner of Fifth St. More of a project than a bookstore, Symposia was launched by a new progressive church that set up shop in town a year ago called Hoboken Faith Community Fellowship. It’s an innovative church without an authority hierarchy, grounded in a “let’s all get together” philosophy of inclusiveness. One of its key missions is to bring people together in such a way as to promote a deeper sense of community in Hoboken.

Every Wednesday evening at Symposia I help facilitate a conversation salon, where the main agenda is for people to connect in ways that enhance the meaning of their lives. Though talking is essentially what we do (I’m happy to report we’ve also had spontaneous outbreaks of singing and dancing), what I enjoy most is the joy I feel just being in the presence of the precious folks who have been showing up-and the pleasure of welcoming newcomers. Topics vary depending on who’s there and what we feel like talking about. Spontaneity is valued. So are listening, and a feeling of care for the viewpoints of others. Strangers are brought together in communion so they can learn each other’s names and share their stories. In such a humane and interconnected space, our common humanity is affirmed as we work together to overcome the alienation and numbness created by some of the inequalities and deficiencies of our market-driven, media-saturated, consumer culture. Lived lives, submerged by the dullness of routine, are rendered meaningful again through speech as the “eye meets the eye” and inner landscapes are revealed. Weaving a web of relations with others, our imaginations are released to ponder a better world.

John Dewey, America’s foremost philosopher of the 20th century, was interested in the creation of an “articulate public.” At the Symposia salon, we “hear people to speech” who might otherwise be ignored in particular families, schools, or work places that may be undemocratic or even tyrannical. The agency acquired when people are empowered to find their authentic voices may be extended beyond-to their personal, professional, and public worlds-creating openings that lead to transformation and repair.

The salon is of particular value to teachers, who have a rare opportunity to reflect on their practice and receive public feedback on their questions and concerns. Sadly, too few schools provide spaces for teachers to reflect together – despite the growing body of research linking teacher growth to collegial conversation. Another benefit to teachers is simply the experience of being part of an innovative community project that promotes sharing, storytelling, and connectedness. As a teacher myself, I’ve noticed my own classrooms have come alive more since I’ve begun my involvement with the salon. The experience of “living in community” I get from the salon gives me a felt sense of how to structure democratic classrooms that are alive with authentic conversation. By learning how to be with others in a more genuine way, teachers have a better chance of getting their students to do the same.

While Symposia continues to gather energy and strength, hope for community repair and a more vital public sphere grow with it. And let me dare be so bold as to articulate a feeling, (one, I believe, that is shared by other Symposia-ites), that we are breaking new ground in the re-invention of community in the 21st century-we are indeed “onto something.” The best part, of course, is that as more and more previously isolated Hobokenites get to know their neighbors- strangers coming together to become acquaintances or even friends-this square mile of ours is becoming a kinder, friendlier place to be.

John Bredin

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