Kathy Cramer demonstrates LVN's digital "hearth" for Cap Times staffers. The device is used to record conversations led by community volunteers, some of which were shared at the Back to School Social on Monday.

After nine months of collecting stories from Dane County residents, the Local Voices Network brought another dozen people into its conversation Monday.

The “Back to School Social” at Madison's downtown Central Library offered an opportunity for those in attendance to react to some of the stories recorded by the network’s hosts since it began.

LVN is an effort to bring normally unheard perspectives into the public conversation on important topics. It’s a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cortico, a nonprofit that hopes to bring attention to a more diverse set of voices in a community.

“I love new things and new ways on engagement,” said Maria Hart, an LVN volunteer who helped lead a table discussion Monday. “It’s been very successful.”

Groups sat around tables Monday reacting to past comments that reflected on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Black Excellence initiative, police in schools and the challenges of social-emotional learning.

The network also connected its past conversations with local elected officials publicly for the first time, as Madison School Board member Ananda Mirilli attended the meeting and offered her thoughts along with Dane County Board Sup. Elizabeth Doyle.

Mirilli said she hoped LVN can help “mobilize for us to engage in to the courageous conversation we often avoid.”

“Madison has done a fantastic job at avoiding those conversations for far too long,” Mirilli said. “We tended to have those critical conversations in our echo chambers … with people that tend to think or look the same as us.”

The stories shared Monday included that of a local man who wasn’t sure every teacher would buy into the Black Excellence initiative in the Madison School District — and without that, he told an LVN host earlier this year, it couldn’t fully succeed.

Another man said he supported police in schools, and felt some of those opposed only dropped into schools once or twice a year and formed their opinions based on that short exposure.

Attendee Mike McCabe, whose son graduated from Madison East High School two years ago, said he had noticed a similar phenomenon, with some parents in his neighborhood commenting on schools despite sending their own children elsewhere through open enrollment or other means.

McCabe said he sees educational issues as representative of larger challenges in society.

“Whatever problems exist in the community will also exist in the schools,” he said.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Kathy Cramer, who is leading the LVN initiative in Madison, told the group to keep listening to voices outside of their normal comfort zone.

“I don’t think we can move forward on the issues in this community without really understanding each other,” Cramer said.

The schedule for upcoming LVN conversations can be found at, with one scheduled for Sept. 28, and another on Oct. 9.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.