Erin Byrnes, Lead for Democratic Engagement, The University of Michigan
July 26, 2018
This is an incredible time to be alive. Our political system in the United States is in a state of tremendous change, impacting lives within and beyond our man made borders. We are inundated with news from sources both credible and questionable, social media posts that often reinforce our existing echo chambers or ruffle our feathers, and conversations with colleagues and friends about how to be engaged without feeling overwhelmed.
How can we express what we’re passionate about and where we’re coming from on college campuses? Is it possible to address hot-button issues in a way that is both authentic and considerate? These questions, among others, are weaving their way into the fabrics of our campus cultures as we look to create space for challenging conversations that actually move us forward in mutual understanding.
At the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, a student group called WeListen formed shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Students recognized the need for dialogue across the political spectrum, and WeListen now hosts bi-weekly conversations with an average of nearly 100 attendees. Inspired by the bold actions of our students, a group of University staff came together in the spring of 2018 to launch the WeListen Staff Series, to great interest across campus.
When we consider the need for political dialogue with diversity of thought, it can be tempting to water down the conversation and tiptoe around pressing topics. The need for real, and sometimes intense dialogue exists, and conversations around immigration, abortion, guns and healthcare have drawn hundreds of campus community members. Is it enough to ponder issues esoterically? No. If it ever was, that time has passed.
Policy decisions have real, immediate impacts on people’s lives. The impacts may be felt based on one’s nation of origin, religious identity, sexual orientation or gender identity to name only a handful. Higher education professionals are uniquely situated to help students analyze and take action around policy, particularly when it is identity-based. Campuses do not exist within a vacuum, and the best and the most challenging elements of our political climate and overall culture are evident to our students in their daily lives. Shying away from these key issues would be a disservice to our students and broader learning communities.
There are ways to convene campus community members to engage in meaningful dialogue. Assembling a planning team with members who span the political spectrum, reaching out to a wide range of groups on campus (some identity-based, some based on positionality), creating a content overview that presents various perspectives on an issue and recruiting experienced moderators for table discussions are important starting points. Honing in on sociopolitical issues that have a direct impact on students or staff is essential, and having the courage to face those issues head on, together.
The LARA method is an important part of the dialogic process. Listen with the intention of understanding, Affirm the underlying principles or issues, Respond to the issues raised and ask questions, and Add information to the conversation. As campus community members come together to share elements of their identities, backgrounds and beliefs, the LARA method acts as a straightforward tool that can guide the process of conversation even around tense topics.
Growing and learning together is not an easy process, nor should it be. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to challenge our assumptions and biases. That process takes commitment and a willingness to reckon with our own discomfort. As we navigate our ever-changing socio-political terrain, let’s do so with curiosity, grit and authenticity.
Tinker, B. (2004). LARA: Engaging Controversy with a Non-violent, Transformative Response
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