By Katelyn Waltemyer and Kara Dillard, special contributors
When we began a project this spring to study if Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents could find common ground on contentious, politicized and polarized issues, we were nervous that we might find what we feared: the Valley is too politically divided to solve its more pressing problems.
Compelled by what we saw in happen in Waynesboro City Council meetings this January where over 400 people, mostly on the same side of the issue, demanded the city become a Second Amendment sanctuary without debate, we wanted to know if there was a better way to have a conversation on guns, rights, and security.
While many public discussions of policy taking place in town halls devolve into screaming matches or political standoffs between each side, we believe that deliberation — citizens thoughtfully weighing how we should act against possible consequences or tradeoffs to make sound choices together — promotes better decision making and more engaged citizens.
What we know about deliberation is this: when ordinary citizens participate in a deliberative forum, they are more likely to become aware of the values and ideas held by people on the “other side,” they begin to realize that what might seem like a simple issue is actually highly complex, and are more likely to change their opinions about the problem, or at least become more willing to reflect on why their own opinion looms so large in their minds. We also see improved trust in the institutions that are so important to our lives like newspapers, police departments, city councils and schools.
How is that possible?
Before a deliberative forum takes place, participants receive a nonpartisan issue guide. This is exactly what it sounds like: a nonpolitical guide for the topic. Crafted from a wide range of data and input from citizens across the political spectrum about their concerns, issue guides present three very different, mutually exclusive ways citizens can consider to solve the issue — the catch is that to accept these actions, we must consider the drawbacks to acting and ask each other “Would we, together, be willing to support these actions even if it means living with the drawbacks? Or, what would I be willing to give up to get what we want?”
For our forums on Second Amendment rights and gun violence in Virginia last spring, the issue guide focused on the range of values against actions and drawbacks, including:
- increasing ways to ward off threats;
- allowing for a more open gun society;
- and increasing regulations on gun ownership and sales.
We hoped our framework represented how a range of Virginians see the issue, and it did. In the small number of forums we convened, people seemed more willing to think and talk together about ways they could address this shared problem than in a typical town hall-type environment.
Not every online forum is deliberative, and often more online discussions are frustrating than productive. Instead, we use a platform that encourages citizens to weigh and make choices together called Common Ground for Action (CGA). In CGA forums, participants can visually identify where the group has consensus to act, where there’s still some questions or concerns that need further deliberation, or where there’s agreement to not act.
This kind of transparency can help groups that might initially think they’re too polarized to work together see that there are real issues they can act jointly on. In our spring deliberative forums, people initially told stories about themselves that indicated a wide range of views.
But when we visualized the group’s aggregate judgment and asked them to reflect, one participant noted: “I learned that people with different views than me can still agree with me on specific aspects of solutions.”
Even though people can’t physically be together in CGA online forums, there’s a synchronous chat option that allows people to send messages to the group. Sometimes, people might feel more comfortable voicing their opinions this way because they can be anonymous and not worry that their race or ethnicity, their class or education level, or even how their gender presentation will determine whether their views are taken seriously.
Every group has a real human moderator. This individual serves as the timekeeper, helps people engage with the issue guide, monitors the conversation to make sure discussions remain level-headed and not hostile, that drawbacks are considered seriously and that people’s views are voiced, listened to, and engaged. Without this guidance, forums have the potential to devolve into unproductive talk. Gladly, we did not see this with our deliberations on the Second Amendment.
Why is The Citizen involved?
In these politically divisive times, it’s uncommon to see a news organization host, partner and promote an event involving politics. After speaking with The Citizen, we became aware that it values civic engagement so much that it wants to encourage its readers of all political affiliations to discuss and engage with each other about how to address problems central to our community.
This is our attempt to partner with a media outlet that was created for the purpose of increasing civic engagement in Harrisonburg and to help the community work through tough conversations.
Comfortability is a privilege, not a right.
In order to navigate these tricky times, we have to get our hands dirty and do our part to be critical thinkers, engaged with each other’s views, values and needs. The Citizen believes in nonpartisan civic engagement and so do we, which is why we partnered together for these forums.
What to expect
The Citizen will host two online CGA deliberative forums on policing reform in October. The first forum will take place Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. and the second will be Oct. 17 at noon. We invite you to attend. Click here to sign up.
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.
Dr. Kara Dillard is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies at JMU and director of research with JMU’s Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue. She lives in Bridgewater, Va.