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As February ends, our thoughts turn to Town Meeting Day, an annual event where citizens in towns across New England meet to discuss and vote on important civic matters. In our home state of Vermont, Town Meeting is experienced as a forum where people sit, stand, discuss, and vote completely in public, right next to the person disagreeing with your position. Many of the best town meetings involve sharing food together as part of this process. Some meetings involve an all-town discussion, followed by more private voting via an Australian ballot.
When we began thinking about a Town Meeting post for today, we first thought we might review a bunch of picture books that explore how to develop and use characteristics key for effective democracies (e.g., listening skills). Then, we shifted and thought that instead we might review books about topics that will be debated: climate change, immigration, education, health care. However both those ideas required being able to browse and linger in our local bookstore - the Norwich Bookstore. And, with covid, alas, that is not currently possible.
So we browsed our own home bookshelves, and came up with the idea of exploring the topic of speeches. Why speeches? Because as we enter town meeting season, and as we dream of the post covid pandemic world, we are seeking inspiration. To ensure we end up in a better place post pandemic, we will need to remember to act well and with intention. Now is a good time to reflect on how post pandemic behaviors could change. It is our hope that these speeches provide the needed inspiration. As the title of one of these collections reminds us, we are the change we seek. (Don't worry both these books are still in print and can be found by your favorite indie bookstore.)
Lend Me Your Ears: Great speeches in history edited by William Safire (1992, 1997, 2004). Former US Presidential speech writer turned columnist William Safire compiles great speeches from Demosthenes (we looked him up to confirm our assumption he was a famous Greek orator -- he was -- from the 4th century) to the era of George W. Bush. The preface describes what Mr. Safire believes makes a great speech. The many, many speeches he selected are then divided into sections, including, but not limited to a section on "memorial and patriotic speeches" which highlights Mark Twain's speech, delivered in London in 1899, celebrating the Fourth of July. The section on "inspirational speeches" includes William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech from 1950 during which he charged writers to help traits of compassion, honor, courage and sacrifice prevail in the world. In the speeches collected under "social responsibility", you will see Senator Margaret Chase Smith's "declaration of conscience" against McCarthyism that separates her form of Republicanism from Senator McCarthy's, as well as Malcolm X's call to African Americans to confront white oppression while speaking in Detroit on Valentine's Day 1965. The political speeches offer an international flair with words from Benjamin Disraeli of the UK, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, among others. As Booklist said in their review of this collection, "to teach and to please, some Greek once advised, is the function of great rhetoric, and Safire has put together [a] volume that embod[ies] those functions and their power." This would be a great gift for any upcoming graduates in your life.
We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by EJ Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid (2017). This collection begins where the previous collection ended - with the Candidacy and then Presidency of Barack Obama. In this volume, two American journalists examine the speeches of Barack Obama, describing them as the force that propelled him onto the national stage, and as the way he both spoke to the national mood and changed the course of public discourse in the United States. Mr. Dionne and Ms. Reid begin this book by framing Obama’s oratorical contributions in a historical context. They then introduce each of the 27 speeches they selected to highlight, providing important context for each. Their selections include President Obama's two inaugural addresses. They also chose more poignant speeches such as his 2015 eulogy for the honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, SC - which he concluded by singing Amazing Grace, and his concession speech "Yes We Can" after losing the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. The book is beautifully produced and makes a great gift for graduates and/or others interested in Presidents, US history, or great speeches. As for the rest of us, may we read it and discover our evolving role in the change we seek.