March 3, 2024

Making Civic Engagement … Civil?

The world’s great compromisers might be a few small local groups
By Ross Boissoneau | March 24, 2018

In this increasingly polarized time, where name-calling, ridiculing, and shouting without listening (a favorite of both public servants and anonymous online trolls) is increasingly the norm, is there any hope for civil engagement? Several local institutions think so, and they’re doing something about it.

From lofty ideals like the Framework for Our Future: A Regional Prosperity Plan for Northwest Michigan, developed by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, to the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center, to the local college radio station, individuals and organizations are trying to bring together those with a point of view they’d like to share. Whatever that perspective is, these institutions are trying to broker a détente among sometime contentious attitudes. Call them the Great Compromisers.

For Jack and Karen Puschel Segal (full disclosure: Jack Segal is a frequent Northern Express contributor), bringing civil debate to the area is a necessary outgrowth of the organization they co-chair. The mission statement of the International Affairs Forum is “to advance the understanding of the world and its critical issues through education and public dialogue.”

“We are a non-partisan organization. We realize we need to walk a fine line, encourage views on all sides,” Karen said. As retired diplomats, she and her husband are well-versed in examining all sides of an issue and trying to come to agreements where there is often conflict.

The IAF presents various topics, such as trade, ethics in journalism, cybersecurity, refugee crises, and invites experts in the various fields to address those topics in front of an audience. “We ask all speakers to be non-partisan and don’t take more than 30 minutes, to allow questions and answers,” said Karen. The end goal: “We hope people feel stimulated to think for themselves.”

Upcoming IAF events include “Ethics and Transparency in Today’s Media,” a conversation with NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen on April 5 at 7pm; “American and Iran: Confrontation or Coexistence?” with Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian-American Council, on April 19 at 6pm; and “India and Pakistan: On Stage Together, Ajmal Khan and Rajmohan Gahdhi,” May 17 at 6pm. All three take place at Milliken Auditorium.

Another upcoming event involving the IAF and other organizations is “That’s Debatable.” Based loosely on the National Public Radio program “Intelligence Squared,” the program is the brainchild of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center, with support from IAF and WNMC. Two teams of two members each will debate the pros and cons of a topic; this first entry is based around the proposition that “Two years of civic or military service should be required of every U.S. citizen on attaining voting age, without exemption.” It is set for April 26 at Milliken Auditorium. 

The teams are being drawn from different sections of the community. For this first topic, the pro side of the argument will be provided by two debate students from Traverse City West High School. The other team will consist of a local member of the libertarian party and a local pastor who’s an ethics professor at NMC.

According to Jeff Anderson, a member of the Neahtawanta board and one of the organizers of the event, the topic should make for an interesting and lively debate. He believes it could find those on different sides of many other topics on the same side of this one — whichever side it might be.

Other working on the project agree. “It will be very interesting and I think very fun,” said Dave Barrons, who is serving as the group’s spokesperson. He said they hope to learn from this first effort, as they plan to host several more such debates next year.

This attempt to bring civility back to civil debate fits right in with the mission of the NREC’s mission: “We collaborate to create a just world based on peace, resilience and respect for Earth’s systems.” Sally Van Vleck and her late husband, Bob Russell, founded the organization in 1987. Today Van Vleck serves as its director, with a 20-member board.

The organization works toward environmental sustainability and community resilience, upholding nonviolence and respect for all life. It collaborates with other local groups on activities and events such as, rallies and marches on environmental, peace and justice issues, raising awareness on human rights concerns, and defending minority rights, including the LGBTQ community. “We look at the whole ball of wax,” said Van Vleck.

For her, working for peace means working peaceably with others. “We can disagree, and we will. It’s a diverse world. But if we sit down with people who don’t share our beliefs and bring a level of tolerance for differences, we’ll have a more peaceful world. All people deserve to be heard and treated with respect,” she said.

In addition to “That’s Debatable,” the Neahtawanta Center is spearheading an effort dubbed the Beloved Community Network. Van Vleck said its goals are:

1.  To transform the greater Grand Traverse Region into a "Beloved Community," where diversity is welcomed, and there is justice, equal opportunity, and respect for all people.

2.  To encourage residents in the greater Grand Traverse Region to restore and protect our Beloved water, air, and land ecosystems, so that we and future generations may continue to enjoy them. 

3.  To create a useful network of the organizations working to create a local "Beloved Community," for the purpose of utilizing a community calendar, increasing collaboration among groups, and promoting each other's events and projects.

The network includes more than a dozen other local groups, from environmental organizations like the Crosshatch Center and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Committee to Disability Network Northern Michigan, the Groundwork Center, Oryana Natural Foods Market, even Earthwork Music.

Jack Segal said one cause of the nation becoming more polarized lies in the creation of term limits. “It takes away the continuity of the (governing) body,” he said. At the state level, representatives hardly have time to learn the ins and outs of governing before their time is up, leading to a lessening of familiarity with those on the other side of the aisle, and hence any ability to compromise.

He also cited the fractionalization of the media, where consumers pick and choose which sources to listen to and believe. “We’ve moved from common understanding to silo-based, pick and choose — you only get one version of reality, and constant affirmation,” he said.

That approach also further accentuates people’s lack of civility and open-mindedness. “Outrage seldom gets you truth,” said Eric Hines, the station manager at WNMC. “Rather than trade in anger we can talk about things. That’s the spirit in which we started the morning show.”

Rather than presenting debates on the air, Hines said the goal of the program – much like that of the International Affairs Forum — is to present questions around subjects that affect everyone. “The core topics are science, education and the environment. The one that ended up being most contentious until recently was science,” he said, with strident reactions to topics such as inoculation, water treatment and climate change. “The most angry phone calls were about science. Now it’s education.”

Public engagement was a critical element when the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments developed the Framework for Our Future. It was hoped it would serve as a guide for communities looking at various local and regional issues, such as transportation, housing, economic development, food, farming, community health, arts, and culture. To put it together, NWMCOG held a series of general information and input events to share with and learn from the general public. 

The resulting publication includes a wealth of information and tools that all members of the community can use, whether community leaders, businesses, nonprofits, public agencies, and statewide stakeholders. Its seen as a supplement to local deliberation, planning, and decision-making processes. The Framework is thus a starting point for community discussions and action around community development issues.

Van Vleck said she hopes the efforts of the Neahtawanta Center and all the other groups result in a more peaceable planet. “You’ve got to listen, reach out to different viewpoints. We want to help build a more civil community.”

And even though the daily headlines might give cause to think otherwise, she remains hopeful. “I believe there are more voices coming to the middle. Challenging the status quo is good, but we must treat each other with respect. I still have hope — I’m not giving up.” 

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