At the end of April, before graduating from Creighton University, I along with three other students put together an event called Continuing the Conversation. This was in response to the problem of a lack of healthy discourse that we saw at Creighton, although it happens everywhere. I will outline some of the problems that come with the current method of opening up discourse (aka speaker events) and then discuss our event which tackled the problem differently.
All throughout the United States, people are seemingly unable to have a civil conversation with their neighbors who may have radically different views than them. As with many other institutions, Creighton attempted to tackle this problem by bringing in speakers with different views in order to have an open political discourse. One event that had high expectations was a dialogue between Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, and Tom Kelly, a theology professor of Catholic Social Teaching from Creighton. While there were good intentions behind the dialogue, our key observation was that two speakers immediately divided the crowd into tribal like camps where points from the other side weren’t truly heard. I think the most telling moment from that event was a point where Charlie Kirk said that the U.S. is becoming a much less racist place because we elected a black president. There was an outbreak of outraged laughter from some of the students which Kirk immediately pounced on and the members of the audience were shut down when they tried to respond. Now that is a very complex statement to unpack and while it may seem that the U.S. is becoming less racially divided on the surface there is plenty of data to back up the idea that it isn’t and good arguments can indeed be made for both sides. Unfortunately, those kinds of discussions do not happen in a speaker to audience environment and because of that I think there are two negative outcomes. The first and obvious one is that the person in the crowd speaking up doesn’t feel like they were actually heard by anyone. This lack of a true conversation and attempt to consider the views they are putting forward just leads to more animosity between the contributor and speaker and in turn it cranks up the tension in the room. The second outcome is that an outraged audience member simply reinforces the views that the two different sides come with. In the scenario about racism in the U.S. there were a number of people who looked outraged that someone could remotely even compare where we are today with where we were in the Jim Crow era. Without any explanation from the other person this resolve hardened into an immediate dismissal of the other side as, “crazy liberals who can’t even use their eyes to see what’s around them.” I could see this entire transition happen in about five seconds in the body language of the guy sitting next to me. After leaving the dialogue I didn’t feel at all like I empathize with the other side and I didn’t want to have a real conversation with anyone who thought differently because of all the negative energy I had built up.
It was this lack of real conversation that became the foundation for how we approached the Continuing the Conversations event. We set up spots for 100 people grouped into tables of 10 and when a person walked into the room they were randomly assigned into one of these tables. The random assignment was meant to keep friends away from each other and give each table a diversity of opinion. At each table, there was a moderator whom we pulled from the faculty at Creighton University as well as from the graduate program in conflict resolution. The moderator’s job was to move the conversation along and ask questions when needed at the tables. They went into the event knowing that they would not be putting forward any of their own opinions as a moderator. After students were seated we gave a small introduction and then ran through a short stand and be counted exercise. The stand and be counted activity was meant to be a short icebreaker to gauge what believes that everyone was coming into the room with. We asked a mixture of easy questions such as, “Are you stressed for examinations?” and harder questions like, “Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing your views?” The goal was to show that despite differences in views everyone shares things in common with others in the room.
We then proceed to the main portion of the event, the questions. The design for the questions was to provoke people into talking about their own experiences and how they viewed the world because of those experiences. Before the discussions, we did a quick straw poll through a text in service called Poll Everywhere. This poll was meant to gauge the room at large and we displayed the results to everyone. We then dived into the discussion question and spent 15 minutes on each topic. The questions we used were:
- How do you see and feel privilege in your life? Are there systems set up to help you or hinder you as you see privilege?
- We defined privilege as a concept used for certain rights or advantages that are available only to a particular person or group of people
- What are rights that everyone should have? What is the most important right that you feel you have? Have you ever felt any of your rights violated?
- How do you see the government in your life? What ways are you concerned about the government and what ways are you hopeful?
In almost every way this event was a major success! The discussions at the tables were diverse and being in small groups allowed for each participant to feel that their voice was heard as well as actually listen to what others had to say. Our moderators did a great job of moving the conversation along and the polls at the beginning of the question were a good way to begin/transition into each new topic. 32 students attended, which was many more than I had hoped for given that we put the event together in 15 days and held it on the Wednesday before finals week. There were a number of students who also came forward at the end to express interest in coordinating more events for next year and my hope is for them to be run on a monthly or bimonthly basis.
No event is perfect and while I couldn’t be happier with how this turned out there are definite ways to improve which I am sharing in case any readers are interested in running their own event like this.
- When reaching out to moderators I would attempt to get moderators from both sides of the political spectrum. While moderators were meant to be impartial I think having more conservative moderators in the room would have allowed conservative students to feel more comfortable sharing their views.
- Set aside some time for the groups to introduce themselves to each other within their small group table. I think giving the moderator some icebreaker questions to ask everyone as they were entering and sitting down would have sped this process up.
- Make sure you know if it is easy to text in the room where the event is held. There wasn’t great cellular service in the ballroom we occupied which didn’t allow some to text their answers into the polls.
- Advertise the event as being for individuals to come to share their experiences. We reached out to the political organizations on campus to advertise and some people thought they would be representing their organizations if they came which made them uneasy. This wasn’t our intention but we didn’t communicate this clearly enough at first.
I would love to hear about more events like continuing the conversation happening everywhere. This could be done at other universities, in the workplace, or even in the neighborhood you live in! This event was a wonderful way to promote understanding between others and humanize the voices that we so often vilify. I encourage you to take action and look for ways you can do something like this. To help with the legwork attached to the bottom of this post are all the materials we used for out event including our proposal to the administration of Creighton, the moderator and participant materials, and the script including ground rules.
This could not have been put on so quickly and successfully without the wonderful Nina, Ed, and Caroline. Creighton’s administration also moved mountains for us particularly Katie, Molly, and Patrick. Finally, Dr. Guidero and the conflict resolution program were rock stars with getting us materials and recruiting people. I am so humbled to have been able to work with such incredible people!