Politically motivated shootings. People being viciously attacked—verbally and physically—just because they are a certain race or ethnicity. Vitriol flying back and forth across social media. Friends, neighbors, and even family members that no longer speak to each other as a result of how they voted in the last presidential election. There is no question that we live in divided times. The question is: what can we do to heal our nation’s rifts?
Nationally recognized speakers and almost 100 participants from around the region and across the country came together at the S.J. Quinney College of Law earlier this month to address this question, specifically how to foster productive dialogue and restore civility amid our current social and political challenges.
The event, titled “Fostering Productive Dialogue in Divided Times”, was the third Dialogue on Collaboration held by the University of Utah’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program, which is based in the law school’s Wallace Stegner Center. The event was co-hosted with The Langdon Group, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Intermountain Chapter, and the Utah Council on Conflict Resolution (UCCR).
“Dialogue and civility are core to a functioning democracy,” said Danya Rumore, Ph.D., the associate director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program. “Our ability to talk with and listen to each other with dignity and respect regardless of our political beliefs, ideologies, or other differences— to treat each other as fellow humans—is critical to our ability to thrive as individuals, neighborhoods, communities, and a nation. This event clearly drove that point home and gave us all tools to engage in and cultivate productive dialogue in our personal, professional, and public lives.”
Rumore emphasized that being civil and engaging in productive dialogue does not mean being “nice.” She used a quote from the League of Women Voters of Washington to illustrate her point: “Being civil does not mean being silent. It does not mean avoiding contentious issues. On the contrary, healthy disagreement is central to a robust, flourishing democracy. Civil dialogue strengthens policy. Only by considering all sides it is possible for us to make progress, while keeping everyone’s dignity and rights intact.”
The Dialogue on Collaboration event included powerful speeches by three nationally recognized experts on dialogue, civility, and collaboration: Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Larry Schooler, and Donna Silverberg. A video of the speakers and panel discussion is available online.
Lukensmeyer, the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse and a widely recognized expert in civility and productive dialogue, teared up as she reflected on the recent shootings in Alexandria, Virginia, that injured Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, a lobbyist and a member of the Capitol police force.
Lukensmeyer encouraged participants to hold their elected officials accountable for paying attention to how vitriol is leading to increased hate crimes and loss of trust in public institutions, and for taking the lead in promoting civil discourse, such as by pledging to commit to civility, as did 46 bipartisan freshman members of Congress in January 2017.
Schooler, principal consultant at Public Participation Partners and a senior fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, has helped create Conversation Corps in the City of Austin, Texas, to engage local citizens in meaningful dialogue focused on public issues. During the event, he emphasized the importance of shifting people from a “consumer of government” to a “citizen” mindset, and the importance of creating spaces for effective dialogue in fostering this shift.
Silverberg, a mediation and consensus building expert and the owner of DS Consulting, noted that engaging in meaningful dialogue and working across difference requires curiosity, consciousness, and courage. She encouraged participants to “speak as though you are right and to listen as though you are wrong.”
During the event, participants engaged in dialogue with one another to identify ways they can all foster productive dialogue and civility in their families, communities, and professional lives. Ideas shared by participants ranged from organizing an event that will bring people together to write postcards to members of Congress encouraging them to commit to civility, to personal commitments to practice the skills learned during the event in their everyday lives.
The EDR Program and The Langdon Group co-host Dialogues on Collaboration twice a year as part of the Utah Program on Collaboration. Prior Dialogues have focused on “Working with Elected Officials on Water Issues: What Can Collaboration Bring to the Table?” and “Working with Tribes: What Can Collaboration Bring to the Table?” The next Dialogue on Collaboration will be on Dec. 13 and will focus on funding for collaborative efforts.
“We focus our semi-annual Dialogues on Collaboration on how collaboration and productive dialogue can help address emerging and ongoing public policy challenges,” said Michele Straube, director of the EDR Program. “There is clearly a very urgent need for meaningful dialogue and civility more broadly throughout our society, with many individuals searching for tools to foster civil dialogue. The Environmental Dispute Resolution Program is committed to working with local and regional partners to advance civility, productive dialogue, and collaborative problem-solving around environmental and broader public policy issues—here in Utah and throughout the Mountain West.”
Launched in 2015, the Utah Program on Collaboration focuses on building a culture of collaborative problem solving throughout the State of Utah. In addition to the bi-annual Dialogues on Collaboration, the program includes a Forum on Collaboration for high-level state and federal agency personnel, which is hosted by the EDR Program and The Langdon Group every other year. The Utah Program on Collaboration also includes an annual Short Course on Effective Natural Resources Collaboration professional training, which is taught by EDR Program staff and guest speakers.
The EDR Program was created in 2012, with funding from a five-year seed grant from the Alternative Visions Fund. The mission of the program is to promote collaborative problem solving and alternative dispute resolution around environmental and natural resources issues throughout Utah and the Mountain West. Michele Straube, the founding director of the program, will be retiring this summer. She will be succeeded by Danya Rumore. Theresa Jensen, who has been practicing mediation and facilitation for over 30 years in Oregon and the western United States, will join the program in July as a Senior Mediator and Associate Director.
For more information about the EDR Program, visit the program’s website. The EDR Program also hosts the EDR Blog, which publishes guest-authored articles on dispute resolution and collaboration-related topics every other week (EDRblog.org).