Conversation Corps: An Invitation from Julie Smith

Conversation Corps: An Invitation from Julie Smith

Julie Smith is a Leadership Programs Manager at Leadership Austin. She oversees the Emerge Program, the Engage Breakfast Series and several of our Equip Client Services programs, including Conversation Corps.

There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves. This is a quote from Lynden B. Johnson that I came across a couple of weeks ago when I was at the LBJ Presidential Library. I was there with our Essential class for their Diversity and Inclusion day and was touched by the sincerity and vulnerability that the day held, as the class was led through very difficult conversations – specifically about race, institutionalized discrimination, and white privilege. I was impressed by how well the class members listened to one another.

Listen before position. This is something we say regularly at Leadership Austin. Listen fully to those with whom you may disagree before you assert your position. Put the person you’re talking to before the position that may divide you. Let your differences add value to your conversation.
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The day ended with words from Luci Baines Johnson. She shared with the class about what it was like to stand next to her father as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It was powerful to hear her relive that moment – a moment that would never have been possible without many people coming together to share their voices. Very few of us will ever know what it feels like to change history in the way that Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ did on that historic day in 1964. However, I deeply believe that we all have the opportunity to play a significant role, especially in a place like Austin in a time like today.

Through many of the projects I’m working on at Leadership Austin, I can continue to hear this question: How do we create a community that is more inclusive and equitable for all who live here? I wonder how this can possibly still be an issue, but the more I listen, the more I understand how deep this problem still runs. And I’m brought back to this concept of Listen Before Position and these words of LBJ There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves. And I have hope that through listening to one another and working together, we too can play a significant role in creating and sustaining change.

On Sunday, January 25, Leadership Austin in partnership with the City of Austin, the Austin Independent School District (A.I.S.D.) and Capital Metro announced the initiation of a new program. It is my hope that the launch of this new program, Conversation Corps, will mark a significant moment in history.

Conversation Corps envisions an Austin in which all have opportunity to participate in facilitated conversations about Austin where we live, work and play. With the help of volunteer facilitators, also known as hosts, this program will enable community members to contribute their voice to the decisions that will affect them. Every month, groups will meet all around town, discussing the same “issue of the month,” chosen by one of the three partner agencies. Conversations will take place in a variety of venues including schools, houses of worship, community centers, coffee shops and restaurants. Hosts will be trained to lead the group through a structured dialogue, giving everyone a chance to share their thoughts and respond to what they’ve heard others say. Feedback will then be delivered back to the decision makers behind each issue. Participants will be given the resources needed to stay in the loop and hear how their input affected decisions.

As Leadership Austin works with community leaders to take a step back and consider what shapes their own perspectives, and to actively seek input from those with whom they disagree, this role of conversation host so perfectly aligns with our vision for the ways in which individuals can help create a more inclusive and collaborative community. The deep value we hold as on organization to respect the perspectives of everyone around us and to work toward common goals is the reason why we chose to play a significant role in bringing Conversation Corps to life. We will serve as a neutral community convener in this partnership, and our hope is that the life of this new program will be accompanied by a new era of public engagement in Austin. We know the value that open and respectful dialogue brings to both the individual and the community, and we look forward to seeing this initiative make a tremendous impact on our region.

CC_Mtg_CameraWe will be training our first round of conversation hosts this Friday, and conversations will begin around town in early March. For more information and for regular updates about applying to be a host, conversation locations, topics and participant input, please visit

There are in fact few problems we can solve on our own, and I’m honored to live in a city in which so many passionate people are eager to work together. It is my hope that we will continue to be inspired by great moments in history and at the same time embrace the power that small victories hold. As the manager of this program, I envision Conversation Corps as a series of small yet powerful victories, each conversation bringing together new voices and new vision, with new ears for listening. I hope that you’ll join us in this effort. We’ve already saved a seat for you.