Think about the last political discussion you took part in, and answer one question: Would the founding fathers be proud?
If it was a rage-fueled spat over 52 Facebook comments, you probably know the answer.
The political divide appears to run deeper than ever, but perhaps more troubling is the decreasing association between people on either end of the spectrum. “We’re becoming a nation of people who go to work and go shopping,” says Michael Barsanti, the director of The Library Company of Philadelphia, “Instances where different races and classes would come into contact with one another are disappearing. How do we create a new civic commons?”
To gain a renewed perspective on civic engagement, some are looking back to a model almost 300 years old started by Benjamin Franklin himself. The Leather Apron Club — also called the Junto Club — was a group of 12 tradesmen that met weekly in Philadelphia starting in 1727. Franklin’s group discussed philosophy, self-improvement, business, and community involvement.
This January, Barsanti met with a group of 12 Philadelphians for the first meeting of their Ben Franklin Circle. The program originated from New York’s 92nd Street Y, and it has spread to cities and towns across the country. In a Ben Franklin Circle, a potentially diverse, yet small, group convenes each month to discuss one of the 13 virtues for self-improvement Franklin outlined in his autobiography — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, and so on — for 13 months.
“The Ben Franklin Circles aren’t really about Franklin,” Barsanti says, “It’s about taking these virtues he mapped out in his autobiography and trying to see how they resonate with us today.”
Is it difficult, though, to relate to the morality of the colonial period in current times? Barsanti says it can be. Franklin is a problematic figure in today’s world — he owned slaves and made disparaging remarks about Native Americans — but the program doesn’t aim to venerate Franklin or his ideas. Barsanti believes the founding father, and his inconsistency with the 13 virtues, can be a foil that people feel comfortable pushing back against in a discussion.
In the case of the virtue of silence, Barsanti says his circle took issue with the idea of holding one’s tongue, particularly in the face of injustice. The recent #MeToo movement has highlighted the systemic abuse that can occur when silence is observed. “If you feel you’re not heard or recognized widely in society, what use is silence to you?” Barsanti says.
Despite Franklin’s flaws, the simple premise of his Junto — bringing people together in a physical space — is the most valuable aspect of the modern Ben Franklin Circle. When members are asked about the discussion topic that surfaces most often in their circle, the answer isn’t Trump; it’s technology.
Jacob Greenstein facilitates a circle in Sacramento, and his members make pledges at each meeting to practice the virtue in question in their own lives. He says the discussion of temperance prompted several people to commit to breaks from social media or cell phone use in general. “I use my smartphone for work, but I find that creeps into recreational use as well,” Greenstein says. Although Franklin prescribed temperance as “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation,” Greenstein’s group found that more mindful use of technology was a goal more applicable to their own lives.
“I think it’s part of the intention of the Franklin Circle to push against the forces in contemporary society that isolate people into demographic cohorts,” says Barsanti. Segregation of races, classes, and ideologies might seem like an enormous issue for a discussion group to tackle, but Barsanti believes it can be a good start. After all, Franklin’s original Junto was responsible for the creation of the first lending library in the colonies. The members pooled their collections together and created the Library Company, a model for public institutions in the U.S. As the current director of the Library Company, Barsanti sought to revitalize that story and make the organization into the learning community that it had been: “Our work with scholars and academics doesn’t exactly reach out to the broader public.”
Building a diverse group can be a slow process, though. Barsanti says the demographics of their Ben Franklin Circle, admittedly, do not reflect the demographics of Philadelphia: “Unless you’re really making an attempt to diversify the group, you can tend to recreate the problem.”
The same is true of Seattle’s circle. Seattle member Thomas Moore says their Ben Franklin Circle started meeting in spring of 2016 with 11 or 12 “typical Seattle progressives.” On a Thursday evening each month, the group would meet to share — and vent — about the national outlook. “We were really struggling with what was happening politically,” Moore says, “A lot of the discussions were about how to maintain a level of calm and perspective, and generosity to the people in America that we didn’t agree with.”
Moore recalls a collective dumbfoundedness and despair in the group following the election: “It helped to have a virtue to focus in on, and it helped take the edge off to put the situation into a new context with the language of Franklin.” During each meeting, the group discussed ways its members could become involved in one another’s pursuits, from art events to public demonstrations. Moore says the circle functioned to foster connections between people, personally and professionally. “Staying connected to our neighbors, coming back to the things we did have control over,” he says, “There was so much wrong, in our minds, with the national issues we didn’t have control over.”
The prospect of mutual-improvement is at the heart of every Ben Franklin Circle: improving oneself to help improve the world. Greenstein, of Sacramento, became involved because he wanted to challenge his values and ideas and become more aware of his own beliefs and biases. For others, networking and grassroots community-building is a priority. While it may not be likely that group discussions of chastity and tranquility alone can reshape our national dynamic, Ben Franklin Circle attendees report the refreshing effects of meaningful face-to-face communication can combat technological isolation, and turning inward can cultivate a better understanding of others.
If you’re interested in joining a Ben Franklin Circle, there might be an existing group near you. If not, you can create one. While the central organization tracks the active groups around the country, you don’t need any special training to facilitate your own. With a diverse handful of eager people and pleasant meeting spot, you can take part in bringing back the Junto.