Hope Instead of Anger: Deliberation Elevates Discourse On Campus and Off
Last fall, Cadie McNaboe, a senior political science major, was back at her West Virginia home for Thanksgiving. It was great to get her extended family around the table, but the mood could curdle whenever the conversation leaned toward politics.
“My family is like a political nuclear bomb,” McNaboe said. “You've got me, who's very progressive. And then you have conservatives like my grandpa and all of the spaces in between.”
A successful high school debater, McNaboe loved the art of argument.
“I know my freshman and sophomore year at Davidson, I spent a lot of time arguing with people. Sometimes for no good reason,” she said. “My debate training led me to a place where I was always technically listening, but I was taking notes on the weak points of somebody else's arguments so that I could counterpoint them.”
This dinner, however, would be different. For the past year or so, McNaboe had served as a Deliberative Citizenship Initiative Fellow, where she had learned how to lead difficult conversations.
And sure enough, when the conversation got dicey, her training kicked in.
“I unintentionally stepped into my facilitator role and was like, ‘Okay guys, I think you both have really good points. Let's take a step back and then let's talk about the different facets of this issue, because I think we both make really good points.’
“And my mom just kind of looked at me like she couldn’t believe what just happened.
“All I could say was, ‘I guess there are more important things than winning.’”
McNaboe had not only defused the ticking bomb at the table, she had steered the conversation in a productive direction. There were no winners or losers after McNaboe’s intervention. Instead, there was hope for mutual understanding and respect.
In short, she had lived out the promise of the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative.
“The DCI training fundamentally changed the way that I looked at political conversation in my own life,” McNaboe said.
How Deliberation Works
For the last year and a half, the DCI team has been creating opportunities for Davidson students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the wider community to productively engage with one another on difficult and contentious issues facing our community and society.
“So many of us have deep concerns about what is going on in the world, but we feel that no one is listening,” said Graham Bullock, associate professor of political science and faculty director of the DCI. “We want to be heard and also to understand the concerns of others, and yet we are anxious about interacting with those with whom we disagree. Deliberation offers a path forward towards genuine engagement.”
Unlike the debate-me discourse that animates TV news and social media, deliberation doesn’t aim to change minds. It seeks to cultivate understanding. For deliberation to work, all parties have to agree to listen. Honestly. Humbly.
“We need deliberation so badly because it entails listening, really listening, across differences. Listening opens up understanding,” said Debra Hawhee, the McCourtney Professor of Civic Deliberation at Penn State University. The DCI invited Hawhee to give several public lectures on deliberation last year.
“I’m not even talking about compromise or consensus, or even civility,” she said. “Just ‘getting’ where people are coming from, and thinking about how we ourselves are heard would be a good start to improving the state of things.”
There’s a reason the DCI isn’t just the Deliberation Initiative. The hope is that the practice of deliberation can lead to improved and more active citizenship: As the DCI motto says, it’s building democracy one conversation at a time.
“Democratic citizenship is not just about what passport you hold,” said Bullock. “It is about the shared sense of identity and responsibility that come from working together to solve the problems facing our society. Well-designed deliberation promotes the dispositions and humane instincts—such as curiosity, humility, open mindedness, empathy, and grace—that enable us, as deliberative citizens, to do this hard but critically important work of democracy.”
The DCI does most of its work in small-group discussions. Interested participants join “D Teams,” cohorts of four to eight participants with a pair of facilitators. They meet monthly for discussions about topics that range from healthcare to transgender athletes. DCI Fellows—a cohort of students, staff and faculty—serve as facilitators for these groups and prepare deliberation guides and background information so D Teams have a shared baseline for their conversation.
The DCI also hosts larger events that are open to the broader public. In the spring of 2021, the DCI brought in expert panelists with diverse perspectives to cover topics like “Reforming the Supreme Court” and “Our Housing Future,” which examined housing issues in Davidson and Charlotte. But even these large events make room for intimate conversations: After the panel, small groups of attendees gathered to debrief under the guidance of DCI Fellows.
The D Teams and small groups are where the hard work—and great rewards—of deliberation are borne. It’s here where McNaboe learned how to navigate conflicting opinions. And it’s where a number of other participants discovered their ability to engage and understand their friends, family and neighbors. Conversations that would have ended in anger suddenly left participants feeling hopeful.
“Each session allowed me to work through not only my own feelings, but to hear different perspectives. And that was so important,” said Glennette Papovich, 74, a retired librarian who lives in Davidson and joined a D Team.
“When you understand another person's story, it doesn't become a one-issue thing,” she said. “If you understand how they came to their feelings and impressions, then we can begin to understand more where they're coming from.”
Papovich said her time in the DCI sparked a connection with the work of another Davidson grad. Papovich is reading Love Without Limits, a book by Jacqueline Bussie ‘91, with a church group.
“One of her quotes in the book is that an enemy is someone whose story we don't yet know,” Papovich said. “If you understand how they came to their feelings and impressions, then we can begin to understand more where they're coming from.
“The DCI has allowed me to have more confidence in terms of reaching out to people with whom I don't agree so that we can have those conversations,” she said. “Not that minds will be changed, but I will have a better understanding. And hopefully the other party will feel like they've been heard.”
How It Started
The idea for the DCI crystallized in 2019 when Bullock, Van Hillard, the director of the College Writing Program and professor of writing and rhetoric, and Mike Hogan, a visiting professor of rhetoric, discovered a shared interest in fostering deliberation on campus.
Bullock had been studying and practicing deliberation for much of his life. In his Washington, D.C., high school, he and some friends created an organization called the Political Forum to stage political conversations. Later, as he studied for his master’s in public policy at Harvard University, he worked with several classmates to create the Independent Caucus, which brought together democrats, republicans and independents to deliberate about the same issues that George W. Bush and John Kerry were debating on the campaign trail. Naturally, as a professor at Davidson, deliberation has featured heavily in his classes.
The DCI also built momentum from previous initiatives aimed at getting students talking. Bullock and Hillard were joined by co-conveners Stacey Riemer, the director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Byron McCrae, vice president of student life and dean of students—both of whom had deep experience in driving conversation on campus.
Together, with students John Crawford ’20 and Lizzie Kane ’22, they talked to more than 80 different faculty, staff, and students to listen and gather ideas. Those conversations shaped a proposal that would grow into the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative.
The Duke Endowment, a private foundation that has generously supported Davidson and three other institutions of higher education for nearly a century, immediately recognized the potential of the DCI.
“When James B. Duke established The Duke Endowment nearly 100 years ago, he believed that higher education could be an important ‘civilizing influence,’” said Bill Barnet, chair of the Endowment’s Trustee Committee on Educational Institutions. “That remains true in today’s polarized world, where colleges can play a role in helping students become engaged citizens and prepare them for lives of leadership and service. This project aligns with our goal of supporting institutional priorities at the four schools the Endowment supports, and we see its potential for impact on Davidson’s campus and beyond.”
With a $256,000 grant from The Duke Endowment, Bullock hired a full-time coordinator and built out the first corps of 13 staff, faculty and student fellows who would oversee the creation of the DCI through weekly meetings that stretched on for the better part of a year.
“We did our deliberation facilitator training in January and February of 2020,” Bullock said. “And in April of 2020, we are all set for our first big event, a moderated discussion on cancel culture.”
The DCI was ready for its grand opening. But just weeks before their first event, they found themselves at a sudden, unwelcome inflection point when the pandemic emptied campus.
Could a movement premised on the importance of face-to-face conversations possibly work over Zoom?
“We thought long and hard,” Bullock said. “Should we try to do this really hard thing in the midst of a really hard time? And we all decided that yeah, we needed to do it exactly because it was so difficult and it wasn’t getting done otherwise.
“So we dove in and just started going.”
The D Teams were designed for Zoom. Panel events became virtual.
But all was not lost. The pivot actually granted DCI a new, wider reach. They could invite alumni from across the country. Participants who might never have made it to campus could now join the deliberations.
Jerry Hopkins, a retired minister and insurance executive who graduated from Davidson in 1964, lives in Northern Virginia but Zoomed into his D Team, forging an intergenerational connection with the students at his alma mater.
“College is the ideal place for these kinds of discussions,” Hopkins, 78, said. “Because I know that there is a diversity of opinion at Davidson. And I found the students in my group to be open to listening. They particularly wanted to hear the other side because during the last couple of sessions, we'd try to bring up what the positions against the subject would sound like and there was true grappling with that.
“I felt the students were very intellectually honest,” he said. “Even though they had a particular viewpoint, they were inquisitive and interested in learning.”
The Next Phase
The lessons from the first year of the DCI have rippled across the campus and the greater community. One participant after another testified to the power of deliberation.
“The DCI gave me control over my emotions and my response to emotional topics. I think it helped me grow up,” said Heidi North, an administrative assistant at WDAV who is studying for her masters in industrial-organizational psychology at Harvard. North was part of the first class of DCI Fellows.
“Before starting the DCI, I would talk about diversity, equity and inclusion at work and with my family, and I would have a very hard time keeping my emotions out of the conversation,” she said. “I found myself getting so angry that I would shut down, or I would feel like I have to walk away and not listen to other people in the room.
“The DCI helped me learn how to participate in these discussions and kind of take myself out of it a little bit,” she said. “I have used this as a tool in literally every conversation and meeting I've had since then.”
In its second year, the DCI is expanding; adding more D Teams, staging more events, and preparing for the next phase when these critical conversations can happen in person. And through its Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Collaborative, it is supporting 10 Davidson professors who are working to incorporate deliberation into their courses.
The DCI is also expanding its reach to other colleges. A grant from the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) is funding a collaboration with professors from ACS schools like Southwestern, Morehouse and Furman. Bullock and 2021-22 DCI faculty co-convener Dan Layman kicked off the partnership with a day-long training session for both the Davidson and ACS faculty members in August, and they have continued to meet regularly throughout the semester.
“They’re excited to figure out how to integrate deliberation into their courses and into their classrooms,” Bullock said. “They are working right now to build it into a spring course and we will workshop it together as they go through the process.”
More than anything, the DCI is hoping to become part of the fabric of college life.
Cadie McNaboe, who is now thinking about life after graduation, will take the lessons she learned with her, and she hopes the DCI will continue to teach the skills that she now holds so dear.
“I hope that in five or 10 years, when I come back as an alum, I will see the DCI training students to do deliberation,” she said. “And I hope those students will take those lessons to their own student organizations, and that they go to their own friends and families, and use those tools as a methodology for how to engage with life.”
- November 4, 2021
- Political Science
- Academic Affairs
- Center for Civic Engagement
- News Headlines