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Community: The Structure of Belonging

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

It is the opposite of thinking that wherever I am, I would be better off somewhere else. Or that I am still forever wandering, looking for that place where I belong. The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends.

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Whatever the symptom-drugs, deteriorating houses, poor economy, displacement, violence-it is when citizens stop waiting for professionals or elected leadership to do something, and decide they can reclaim what they have delegated to others, that things really happen.

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Geography, history, great leadership, fine programs, economic advantage, and any other factors that we traditionally use to explain success made a marginal difference in the health of a community. Community well-being simply had to do with the quality of the relationships, the cohesion that exists among its citizens. He calls this social capital.

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These large group methods are too profound and too important to stay primarily in the hands of specialized experts. They need to be in the regular practice of community and institutional leaders. They are more than simply tools; they are the means of creating the experience of democracy and high engagement, which we say we believe in but rarely embody. As this thinking and practice grow, they have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of leadership, which would be a good thing.

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They have also codified the distinction between solving problems and creating a future.

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Her guiding question was “How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of our meeting today?”

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Kathie wanted the whole system in the room, and then she constantly broke it into small groups.

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The most organizing conversation starter is “What do we want to create together?”

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He claims the ability to herd cats, which many have said is impossible. He does this by tilting the floor, which changes the conditions under which the cats are operating. Emergent strategies focus on conditions more than on behaviors or predictable goals.

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A shift in the thinking and actions of citizens is more vital than a shift in the thinking and action of institutions and formal leaders. This is in sharp contrast to the traditional beliefs that better leadership, more programs, new funding, new regulations, and more oversight are the path to a better future. At times all of these are necessary, but they do not have the power to create a fundamental shift.

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All transformation is linguistic, which means that we can think of community as essentially a conversation. Then we act on the principle that if we want to change the community, all we have to do is change the conversation. The shift in conversation is from one of problems, fear, and retribution to one of possibility, generosity, and restoration. This is the new context that both creates strong social capital and is created by it.

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I am using the word conversation in a broad sense-namely, all the ways that we listen, speak, and communicate meaning to each other. So, in addition to speaking and listening, this meaning of conversation includes the architecture of our buildings and public spaces, the way we inhabit and arrange a room when we come together, and the space we give to the arts.

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Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create.

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We believe that defining, analyzing, and studying problems is the way to make a better world. It is the dominant mindset of western culture.

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As an aside, to return to in more depth later, some reasons for discounting the power of citizens are well founded, for most of the time when citizens come together it makes no difference. That’s because they operate under the retributive principles that I am trying to describe in this section. They want to define the problem, find fault, elaborate fear, demand control-oriented action, and point to leaders. Many citizens get engaged in community only when they are angry.

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Possibility also gets undermined by being confused with optimism.

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The communal possibility rotates on the question “What can we create together?”

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This question of what we can create together is at the intersection of possibility and accountability. Possibility without accountability results in a wishful thinking.

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Here is a part I especially like: One exercise was for individuals to complete a questionnaire about their strengths as part of a program on positive psychology. The members noted that this was the first time in their lives they had ever taken a test and gotten good news from the results.

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The future of a community then becomes a choice between a retributive conversation (a problem to be solved) and a restorative conversation (a possibility to be lived into).

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We displace or assign to others certain qualities that have more to do with us than with them. This is called projection, an idea most of us are quite familiar with.

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Communal transformation, taking back our collective projections, occurs when people get connected to those who were previously strangers, and when we invite people into conversations that ask them to act as creators or owners of community.

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We would stop doing surveys about how people feel about their bosses, the results of which no one knows what to do with anyway. The attention would turn from the boss to peers, which is the relationship that produces the work.

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We will never eliminate our need for great leaders and people on the stage; we just cannot afford to put all our experience and future in their hands.

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The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable.

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To see our conventional thinking about accountability at work, notice the conversations that dominate our meetings and gatherings. We spend time talking about people not in the room. If not that, our gatherings are designed to sell, change, persuade, and influence others, as if their change will help us reach our goals. These conversations do not produce power; they consume it.

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Accountability is the willingness to care for the well-being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return.

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Commitment is to choose a path for its own sake. This is the essence of power. Mother Teresa got this. When asked why she worked with people one at a time rather than caring more about having impact on a larger scale, she replied, “I was called by faith, not by results.” If you want to argue with Mother Teresa, be my guest.

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Our explorations to this point lead instead to the understanding that transformation occurs when we focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gatherings take place; when we work hard on getting the questions right; when we choose depth over speed and relatedness over scale. We also believe that problem solving can make things better but cannot change the nature of things.

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To be more specific, leaders are held to three tasks: to shift the context within which people gather name the debate through powerful questions, and listen rather than advocate, defend, or provide answers.

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The role of leaders is not to be better role models or to drive change; their role is to create the structures and experiences that bring citizens together to identify and solve their own issues.

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Every gathering, in its composition and in its structure, has to be an example of the future we want to create.

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But they are limited in the power to transform because they assume that a defined destination can be reached in a linear path from where we are today. This is the fundamental assumption of the problem-solving model.

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To state it more precisely, what gives power to communal possibility is the imagination and authorship of citizens led through a process of engagement. This is an organic and relational process. This is what creates a structure of belonging. This is more critical than the vision and the plan.

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In communal transformation, leadership is about intention, convening, valuing relatedness, and presenting choices. It is not a personality characteristic or a matter of style, and therefore it requires nothing more than what all of us already have.

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Leadership begins with understanding that every gathering is an opportunity to deepen accountability and commitment through engagement. It doesn’t matter what the stated purpose of the gathering is.

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The social outcomes of the Hoxseys’ and Sparoughs’ work would most likely not be valued by the assessment at all, nor would their leadership style show up as a positive factor. Conventional measures would miss the essence of the humanity and restraint that led to transformation in the form of a group of young African-Americans

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The small group also offers a self-correcting quality when things are not going well. There are always times in any gathering when we become stuck. Energy is low, perhaps there is anger or cynicism in the room, or simply confusion, and we are unsure what to do. The best path in nearly every situation is to put our faith in citizens to identify and name what is occurring. Simply request people to form small groups of three or four and ask them to discuss what is going on and report back in ten minutes. This request need not be sophisticated. Simply say, “Form small groups of four and talk about how this meeting is going and to what extent we are getting what we came for.”

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The point is that every large group meeting needs to use small groups to create connection and move the action forward. As obvious as this might seem, it amazes me how many events and gatherings do not do this. How many conferences, summits, and events have we attended where the small group discussion is relegated to the breaks and thereby left to chance?

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Having a standing microphone for citizens that they have to walk to and even line up behind does not count. Most public meetings have leaders with their own mikes and citizens traveling to a common mike. The geography of this disparity speaks volumes as to who is important (leader) and therefore who has the future in their hands. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs have written the profound insight that every moment is a combination of methodology and metaphor. What may seem like a small procedural or technological matter is actually much more important than we have imagined because of its metaphoric message. The amplification of a human voice is a good example of this.

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Another example: Ask people making a powerful statement to the whole community to say it again slowly. They speak for all others who are silent, and in that way they speak for the whole. These can be sacred moments and repetition honors this. One more detail along these lines: When people speak in a large group, they need to be acknowledged for the courage it took to speak out.

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The setup is as important as the question, for it provides the context. As a reminder, the context we are creating space for is relatedness, accountability, gifts, and generosity. Being precise about the setup is an essential task of leadership. Without a clear setup, each and every time, citizens will revert to the default conversation. The setup inoculates us against the power and habit of speaking into scarcity and dependency. It is so seductive to start talking about the need for more funding, the wish for better leadership, the power of the media, and how others need to change.

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There are four elements to the setup:

Name the distinctions.

Give permission for unpopular answers.

Avoid advice and replace it with curiosity.

Precisely name the question.

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When people are asked a question, they are conditioned to seek the right answer to feel good, or to fit in for the sake of belonging. Encourage them to answer honestly, by naming possible unpopular answers and supporting their expression.

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Advice also weakens relatedness, even if people ask for it. Urge citizens to ask one another instead, “Why does that mean so much to you?” When they answer, ask the same question again, “And why does that mean so much to you?” The goal is to replace advice with curiosity.

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Invitation counters the conventional belief that change requires mandate or persuasion. Invitation honors the importance of choice, the necessary condition for accountability.

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David Bornstein’s research describes how real transformation occurs only through choice. It cannot be sold or mandated. This is particularly true with transformation in community. Institutions and systems can mandate change or attendance from employees because they are under a legal contract. If you don’t show up, you violate the contract. This leads to a discussion of consequences, which are very popular in a patriarchal control world.

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“Who do we need in the room for something different to occur in the world?”

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This means that we constantly seek people in the room who are not used to being together. In most cases this would bring together people across sectors (business, education, social services, activists) and, more important (though it is rare) across economic and social classes. Hard work to make this happen, but perhaps more important than what occurs in the gathering.

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We need to tell people explicitly what is required of them should they choose to attend. There is a price to pay for their decision to attend. They will be asked to explore ways to deepen their learning and commitment. Some other common hurdles that should be part of the invitation are: plan to engage with “others,” put your interests aside for the moment, commit to the time, and be willing to postpone quick action.

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What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work or in the project around which we are assembled?

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Later, the more direct individual question for possibility will be

What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

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This sounds simple and true enough, but in a patriarchal world, dissent is considered disloyalty. Or negativism. Or not being a team player. Or not being a good citizen. America, love it or leave it. You are either with us or against us. This is a corruption of hospitality and friendship. Hospitality is the welcoming not only of strangers, but also of the strange ideas and beliefs they bring with them.

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is critical, and hard to live with, is that leaders do not have to respond to each person’s doubts. None of us do. Authentic dissent is complete simply in its expression. When we think we have to answer people’s doubts and defend ourselves, then the space for dissent closes down. When people have doubts, and we attempt to answer them, we are colluding with their reluctance to be accountable for their own future. All we have to do with the doubts of others is get interested in them. We do not have to take them on or let them resonate with our own doubts. We just get interested.

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It does mean that instead of answering every question, defending their actions, they can ask questions to find out more about the concerns, the doubts, and even the lives of citizens.

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It does mean that instead of answering every question, defending their actions, they can ask questions to find out more about the concerns, the doubts, and even the lives of citizens. No one understands this more than Mike Butler, police chief of Longmont, Colorado. One of Mike’s favorite statements is: “For 80 percent of the calls we receive, people do not need a uniformed officer, they need a neighbor.” Wise man.

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get interested in people’s dissent, their doubts, and find out why this matters so much to them. Dissent becomes commitment and accountability when we get interested in it without having to fix, explain, or answer it.

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“No” is the beginning of the conversation for commitment.

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The challenge is to frame the questions in a way that evokes dissent that is authentic. We do not want to encourage, through our selection of questions, any kind of denial, rebellion, or resignation. To circumvent denial, don’t ask people whether they think there is a problem. Or even ask them to define the problem. Do not ask people what they are going to do, or to list the ten characteristics of anything. The way to avoid rebellion is to stop trying to sell or control the world. When faced with rebellion, all we can do is recognize it, not argue.

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The convener’s task is to direct the eyes and words of citizens toward each other. That is why we have people sit in circles, facing one another.

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The only act that puts membership at risk is the unwillingness to honor our word.

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I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do-my gifts and capacities.

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Every time we gather, there needs to be space for a discussion of what gifts have been exchanged. This question needs to be asked of the community:

What gift have you received from another in this room? Tell the person in specific terms.

We focus on gifts because what we focus on, we strengthen. The gifts-of-this-gathering question can be asked this way:

What has someone in your small group done today that has touched you or moved you or been of value to you?

or

In what way did a particular person engage you in a way that had meaning?

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Here are the design elements for structuring hospitality into our gatherings.

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Greet people at the door; welcome them personally and help them get seated. People enter in isolation. Reduce the isolation they came with;

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Connection Before Content

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Restate the Invitation

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Connection occurs when we speak of what matters about this moment. This is done most easily through questions (surprise!).

Some examples of connection questions:

What led you to accept the invitation?

What would it take for you to be fully present in this room?

What is the price others paid for you to be here?

If you could invite someone you respect to sit beside you and support you in making this meeting successful, whom would that be?

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One structural sequence for creating community is to start with the individuals reflecting on the question, and then have them talk in trios, next in groups of six, and then to the whole community. Shorthand is 1-3-6-all.

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Late Arrivals

Have them announce to the group that they are leaving and where they are going. This will create some discomfort, but that is the nature of separation.

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Remove their chairs-if the chairs remain empty, it only reminds us of our loss.

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Breaking Bread Together

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There can be no transformation without art. Art in the form of theater, poetry, music, dance, literature, painting, and sculpture.

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Ken and John work hard to get a cross-section of people, especially those citizens that are typically disengaged. They actively recruit those on the margin and make sure they are welcome. They want two kinds of people in the room: those who have a direct stake in the design, whom they name the “internal community,” and some outsiders, whom they call the “external supportive community.” This recognizes that the wider community has a stake in the quality of design for each property or neighborhood. It takes a region to raise a village.

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When strong differences become obvious, they also handle conflict in a special way. They avoid the arbitrator role and instead use a fishbowl structure to resolve conflicts. They put those who disagree in the center of a group and have chairs for others to occupy so that their voices can be heard. This means other citizens participate in conflict resolution instead of the usual approach of handing the issue to a professional.

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When people get stuck in their differences, Ken intervenes. He tells them, and other citizens who are interested, that they have 20 minutes to resolve the conflict. At the end of the time, Ken comes over with a pink pearl or a silver dagger. One of the two is placed on the design, depending on whether the citizens have been able to reach agreement. If they can agree, they get the pink pearl. If not, a silver dagger is placed on the design and the group moves on. He reports that this structure often achieves agreement, even when people have been at odds with each other for years.

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Making sure that citizens can identify where their own ideas show up in the design is left to chance. The real difference between what Ken and John do and what is traditionally done is really a contrast between the contexts out of which designers operate. Ken and John bring a context of valuing the gifts of citizens, the importance of engagement, and the hospitality of physical space, all elements of restorative places.

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A final comment on space: The argument against great design is always cost and speed. The discussion about cost and speed is not really about cost and speed. It is an agenda that declares that human experience is a low priority.

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The possibility that is working on me is the reconciliation of community. Reconciliation is for me the possibility of the end of unnecessary suffering. This is the context within which I show up, even though, as with us all, I sometimes don’t know whether I am working for God or the devil.

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After all the social scientists, historians, economists, biologists, and experts from other disciplines have finished with their explanations, it seems that what I am calling political, avoidable, suffering occurs as a result of our disconnectedness and the imbalance of power and resources that is such a dominant feature of our culture. This in no way puts blame on anyone or any segment of society. I do not believe “those people” exist anywhere in the world. I have simply come to believe that when we are unrelated to those whose lives are so different from ours, suffering increases.

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If you notice that they are dealing drugs, you hold the thought that they have entrepreneurial skill; it is just aimed in the wrong direction. If you are concerned that they are not in school, well, they are learning something, just not what we had in mind.

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Human services also relate to citizens through diagnostic categories. We are only interested in their needs and deficiencies. If a family or person has no pressing needs and deficiencies, nothing that can be categorized, we have no interest in them. Perhaps we should develop diagnostic categories for people’s gifts. Right now we have only crude positive labels: high school graduate, economic status, size of family, job experience. Suppose we named people in categories, such as: a connector, knows everyone in the neighborhood, street-level entrepreneur, fashion plate, compassion for

those in need, lights up a room when they enter, creative speech, practical intelligence, risk taker.

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The Questions

What is the crossroads you are faced with at this point in time?

What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

How valuable an experience (or project, or community) do you plan for this to be?

How much risk are you willing to take?

How participative do you plan to be?

To what extent are you invested in the well-being of the whole?

The all-purpose ownership question:

What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?

What is the story about this community or organization that you hear yourself most often telling? The one you are wedded to and maybe even take your identity from?

What are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story?

What is your attachment to this story costing you?

What doubts and reservations do you have?

What is the no or refusal that you keep postponing?

What have you said yes to that you no longer really mean?

What is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about?

What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?

What forgiveness are you withholding?

The Questions

What promises am I willing to make?

What measures have meaning to me?

What price am I willing to pay?

What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments, or to fail in my commitments?

What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?

What is the promise I am postponing?

What is the promise or commitment I am unwilling to make?

What is the gift you still hold in exile?

What is something about you that no one knows?

What gratitude do you hold that has been gone unexpressed?

What have others in this room done, in this gathering, that has touched you?

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