Junto in the Inquirer

Almost 300 years ago, Benjamin Franklin formed a group called the “Junto,” pulling together, as he later wrote, his “ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement.” During weekly meetings at local pubs, the group discussed concepts that would eventually become reality, like the free library, and strove to better themselves and their city.

Philly’s modern-day Junto – pronounced with a j as in jelly – strives to follow that model.

For one, beer is served, something Franklin would have undoubtedly approved of since he famously said that beer’s very existence was a sign of a loving God. (Franklin’s opinions on tomato pie, another Junto 2009 staple, are unknown, as that’s one of the few topics he did not write about.) The group is less formal than in Franklin’s day, with an ever-changing bunch that might balk at the label “ingenious,” but the purpose remains the same: What can we do to improve our city and our society?

“We like the idea of people from different backgrounds coming together to talk about ideas,” said Geoff DiMasi, a principal at P’unk Avenue, the design firm that started hosting the monthly meetings more than a year ago. “We’ve tweaked the format over time but at the core is conversation and sharing.”

The current Junto usually involves a panel of three or four people sitting on P’unk Avenue’s couch and 40-plus more people sitting on the floor, chairs, desks or standing against the walls around them. A moderator helps guide the discussion, but anyone is able to interject an opinion at any time – “Panelists sometimes can’t get a word in,” DiMasi said. The door is open to all, bringing a mix of ages and backgrounds to each meeting.

“You have a core group of people who come to almost every Junto and they don’t care what the topic is,” DiMasi said. “And every Junto brings out people who care about the topic who may never come again. That’s what I like about changing the topic up.”

Recent topics have included health care, urban development and design, the modern music industry, the concept of sharing ideas via “open source.”

“This is in so many ways similar to what Ben Franklin was doing,” said Neil Kleinman, 70, dean of the College of Media and Communication at the University of the Arts. “People my age, people 25, all coming together to share a conversation.”

Kleinman has attended about five meetings and jokes that they’re like “intellectual and entrepreneurial dating.” People meet and talk and network and, from there, form partnerships, he said.

“It’s not what happens here but what it leads to next. The follow-through. The ripple,” Kleinman said. “I’m old enough to remember the ’60s. . . . That same energy is coming back again in places like this. This is my way of giving back to the folks who gave to me way back then.”

A recent Junto addressed the future of the public libraries – fitting as the libraries’ groundwork was laid in similar meetings centuries ago. More than 50 people braved icy temperatures to gather at P’unk Avenue’s East Passyunk Avenue workspace, a stone’s throw from Pat’s and Geno’s. Some, like Kara LaFleur, 25, had come to past Juntos and found the talk invigorating. After the official gathering, she’d joined a group that continued the conversation at a local bar until almost 3 a.m.

“It was just a very interesting community sharing,” said the Bella Vista resident, who first heard about the group last year via the social networking site Twitter. She then checked out the Junto Web site, read its write-ups, and saw photos. “I thought, ‘I want to be a part of that. I want to be part of that conversation. And who says no to tomato pie?”

Others, like Stacey Hendricks, were new to the scene. Hendricks, 43, was drawn by the topic: The West Philadelphia resident is involved in a different sort of library – the West Philly Tool Lending Library.

“I hope to have a better understanding of the topic tonight,” Hendricks said, sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale. “This is an important way to look at things.”

About an hour after P’unk Avenue had opened its doors for pre-panel eating, drinking, and mingling, the event began. The panel was made up of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s chief technology officer and three Brooklyn-based librarians. The engaged audience and the panel discussed the many roles libraries play in a community’s life, from knowledge provider to meeting place to safe haven for children. They pondered the best ways to keep libraries relevant, how to build and construct new facilities, and even which was a better model to follow: librarians shushing or patrons chattering.

After an hour of debate, the Junto was officially over – but no one left. People kept talking among themselves, discussing what they’d heard.

“I really enjoyed the balance of what was happening in the room,” DiMasi said later in the evening. “I liked the spirit.”

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