AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was updated to reflect a time and date has been selected for the first Community Connections forum for 2017-18. It will be 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23 in Lakeside at the Moseley Center at Elon University. That’s a new site for the forum but the same building.
“Can it really be five years?” Tom Arcaro asked, a look of incredulity on his face as he turned in my direction.
We were sitting Monday at The Oak House, a coffee house and bar in downtown Elon, across the street from the buildings that make up part of the more traditional section of campus for Elon University. The School of Communications and one of its recently added additions was within sight. The new plaza, Citrone Plaza, really stands out. The entire street is a reminder of how things change — and so quickly.
I first met Tom, a professor of Sociology at Elon, not long after I arrived in Burlington in 2007 because he submitted the occasional guest column for publication and I was just starting as executive editor of the newspaper. But I really got to know him through our partnership in developing Community Connections five years ago. Who could have predicted back then that I would be working at Elon University by January of 2017?
Tom and I were there at the start of what was then an unprecedented partnership between Elon and the Burlington Times-News that we hoped would foster issue-oriented discussions for those on campus and people in Alamance County. The idea was to help unite the two communities and also help open a gateway for those not associated with Elon to visit the campus and participate in activities there. Tom was not only a professor but head of Elon’s Periclean Scholars program. We would all work together in a group headed by then Associate Provost Connie Book. It included a collection of professors, administrators and students.
Today we can say it has succeeded, but not without alterations, departures and a few false starts. We are still learning as our community continues to learn. Monday we held our first planning meeting for the 2017-18 school year. Tom and I are the only original members still with the program.
“Can it really be five years?” Tom asked again.
Indeed, quite a bit has changed between now and then. Book left for an administrative post with The Citadel. Other faculty and staff drifted in and out of the program. Students were taken out of the planning and staging process, but still strongly encouraged to participate in the forums. Associate Provost Brooke Barnett joined us three years ago and provides the leadership we need. Naeemah Clark, associate professor of communications came on board last year as our moderator and co-planner. She replaced political science professor Jason Husser who is now running the Elon Poll. And Jon Dooley took part in our group last year and is an adviser this year. Jon just replaced Smith Jackson as vice president of student life, which is going to take quite a bit of his time this year and in the years ahead. Jon is going to stay with us but probably will have less of a hands-on role.
Brooke and Naeemah were there Monday, Brooke assuring Tom that it had indeed been five years since Community Connections started. The one newcomer on Monday was my replacement at the Times-News, executive editor Rich Jackson. Rich arrived in Burlington in time to attend our final forum last spring but this was his first opportunity to sit at the planning table. He’s going to be a welcomed addition.
Monday our discussion was very general. How many forums would we schedule this school year and an overview of the topics that might be of interest. We talked about several potential subjects, including Trust (or a lack of it) in cultural or foundational institutions, a subject that led to ideas about government, science, philanthropy, politics, higher education and — of course — journalism. We tossed around thoughts for a while about “Why Journalism Matters.” We ultimately decided that trust could be one theme on its own with lots of tangents for analysis and interest. This one will be a featured forum in the second semester. It will look at the erosion of trust in once revered institutions and what the consequences of this are and will be.
A couple of possible topics for the first semester were put in the mix. One got our interest in particular. Tom is fascinated by artificial intelligence and technology and how it will impact the economy going forward, particularly as more companies automate. I mentioned the mechatronics and robotics programs that are now central features of STEM studies in schools or programs at Alamance Community College. I also mentioned how many functions are automated at testing facilities operated by LabCorp. I saw many of those on a tour of the York Court site in Burlington several years ago. While all of this tech-driven stuff is interesting on its own, what is the impact on a labor force that has already faced a tectonic shift in the job market over the past two decades.
After some debate — homelessness and housing standards were also discussed — we decided to put artificial intelligence and the economy on the docket for our forum in the fall semester.
We didn’t set the panels for either session as yet but the first forum this year will be 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Moseley Center at Elon. We’re looking at late October for the first forum. The second would be in February or early March. We also left some room for flexibility in case we want to add a third forum. The issue of why journalism still matters might be something we take up in more detail. It actually dovetails nicely with our Community Connections discussion last year on the First Amendment.
Over the previous four years of Community Connections forums we’ve had experts come in and take part in discussion and debate about issues ranging from racism, education spending, health care and poverty to what our community might look like in 50 years. Our format usually includes a panel of four people knowledgeable in whatever field is being discussed. Our moderators keep the talk moving and questions from the audience are encouraged throughout the sessions. It’s built to be engaging, interesting, informative and free of rancor.
I’ll post more information as our plans for 2017-18 gain some purchase. We do plan to create a Facebook page this year and be move visible on social media in general. Frankly, we should have produced one already.
So we’re still learning, even as we head into year five.