Political polarization, legislative stalemates, non-constructive cross talk, divisive rhetoric – the list of motivators behind public discourse and civic engagement initiatives across the country goes on and on. While many contemporary initiatives were inspired by the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the fault lines it intensified across our nation, universities, nonprofits, and foundations have long been invested in the work of bridging political and civic divides through discourse and deliberation.
One such organization is the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship in Lexington, Kentucky, a nonprofit where I spent the past three and a half years as Director of Academic Programs and Executive Director. Founded in 2007, the Center’s approach to providing constructive opportunities for engagement focuses on equipping high school and college students with leadership and interpersonal skills inspired by a political ideal of statesmanship – civil discourse, deliberation, collaboration, and compromise.
These ideas often elicit questions that reveal individuals’ discomfort with or distrust of this kind of initiative – “How can I be civil to someone whose views I find abhorrent or hateful? Doesn’t working with ‘the other side’ or attempting to compromise undermine my values and convictions? What’s the point in talking to someone with whom I disagree about an issue when we’ll never see eye-to-eye and action is required now?” Through its national Student Congresses and public programming, the Center seeks to offer an alternative to the either-or nature of these questions and suggest a different path of political engagement.
The College Student Congress brings together fifty motivated, diverse college juniors representing each state in the U.S. for a two-week program in Kentucky and Washington, D.C. The goal? Work in groups to develop bipartisan public policy memos for four national issues in a week’s time and present those memos to stakeholders in the nation’s capital. While this may sound like a daunting and seemingly impossible exercise, innovative, well-researched, and practical policy solutions emerge every single year.
The crucible of the College Student Congress creates an environment where participants are required to quickly build trust-based relationships, verbalize and evaluate their opinions, and come together to identify areas of mutual agreement and values overlap. This process forges deep friendships and respect among students who are often intentionally socially interacting with “the other side” for the first time. Students learn to separate someone’s innate humanity and personality from their preferred political policies – seeing one another as roommates with the same taste in music, teammates who value the concept of fairness, and leaders who share a desire to impact their communities.
Similarly, the High School Student Congress unites fifty high school students from across the region and country to evaluate national issues from a local and state perspective. Rather than developing public policy, the goal of the high school program is to inspire civic and political engagement at the local level by highlighting the relevance and relationships of national headlines to community issues.
Many of these high school students have spent the majority of their lives in one community or region and thus view national issues through the specific lenses of their parents’ perspectives or surrounding community culture. Through introduction to peers from other parts of the country with completely different lenses and lived experiences, students are better able to understand the multitude of perspectives and factors that contribute to our divisions on national issues. Often, they leave with new ideas for advocating change in their communities by learning what’s happening in the communities of their peers.
The Center’s model and the Student Congresses are not perfect, nor are the conversations and policy development that occur always easy. In fact, they are more often difficult and contentious. But year after year, students affirm the value of interacting with and deliberating with others. The hard work of listening with humility and respect, advocating for and respecting others’ advocacy for strongly-held values, and collaborating across differences towards an actionable goal is deeply rewarding at a personal and professional level. Students emerge equipped with a new set of skills, a network of diverse peers, and a blueprint for how politics and public policy formation can occur if individuals are willing to step forward and work together.
I’m looking forward to working with the DCI’s co-conveners, fellows, and participants to developing Davidson’s own distinctive approach to deliberative discourse that builds and expands on the experiences of organizations like the Henry Clay Center.