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Civil Discourse Lab aims to give students outlet for discussion

After Cinco de Mayo in 2017, a forum was held among students and administration to discuss the controversy surrounding cultural appropriation and racial tension on the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) campus.

However, many students left feeling unsatisfied with the discussion, and felt like their voices were unheard. A new organization on campus may be the solution to making important conversations such like this more productive.

Renee Heath is a communication professor who co-founded UNH’s first Civil Discourse Lab, an organization based on facilitating healthy and productive conversations about difficult topics, among people from different backgrounds and viewpoints.

This isn’t a model for a debate or persuasion, rather a philosophy that prioritizes telling and listening to different stories, rather than prioritizing debate, Heath said.

Jocelyn Vierzen, UNH senior and assistant director of the Civil Discourse Lab (CDL), said it is an organization focused in educating and training students to facilitate conversations with the principles of civil discourse. This entails students designing questions and formats of discussion that enables the sharing of stories.

In the communication department, the curriculum is very focused on teaching dialogue, especially within diverse contexts, Heath said.

“We think language matters, and that it shapes the world around us. Our students were learning these things in the classroom, but we wanted to build an experiential learning arm of our curriculum that allows students to take the practice out of the classroom,” Heath said.

The CDL has three main components. The first is teaching students how to become a facilitator, the second is the research aspect which entails looking into how to have the most productive conversations, and the last is the experiential aspect, which is where student facilitators work inside and outside of the university to design and facilitate dialogue events, as well as dialogue decision making in the community, Heath said.

The CDL was introduced for the first time in the spring of last year, yet its students have already facilitated a variety of discussions/events at UNH.

Examples of these are a discussion among local scientists about the repercussions of the arctic ice sheet melting, as well as contributing to a Portsmouth-based film and discussion series called “Becoming American,” which discusses issues on immigration in the U.S., Vierzen said. 

“We were approached by students who wanted to have a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and given how controversial and deeply personal the subject matter is, wanted to have trained facilitators making the discussion flow in a respectful and productive manner,” Vierzen said.

In these sorts of discussions, facilitators ask participants to sit away from friends, who may have similar opinions, and create icebreakers unrelated to discussion topic, to enable ease and connection among participation before the discussion starts.

From there, facilitators lay out discussion guidelines, explaining civil discourse philosophy that promotes respect and understanding.

“One of the things we take on as a philosophy is, we ask people to not use the word ‘politically correct’ because usually that word shuts conversation down, and it’s not sincere. When we are talking about things being political, we aren’t talking about sincerely engaging one another- it’s not about offending people, it’s about understanding people, and why something might hurt them or not,” Heath said.

Eva Ford, a UNH senior and fellow of the lab said another way to open up the conversations is to make everyone’s perspectives heard, when they oftentimes may not be.

“This can be as little as asking someone in the conversation that has been quiet what their thoughts are,” Ford said.

In the lab, students also help to build programs providing non-bias, non-partisan information reviewed by experts that is provided at the discussions.

These programs are strategically made to give context that moves the conversation forward, and to deter conversations based on misinformation, Heath said.

In these discussions the goal isn’t to reach common ground, as that would be unrealistic, but to learn about different perspectives, and that in turn may enable those to make decisions or come up with solutions based on the understanding of everyone’s experience, Heath said.

“In our feedback, the people who have the most positive experiences, are always the people sitting at the tables with the most diverse realm of opinions, experiences, backgrounds, and stories,” Vierzen said.

“If everyone has the same viewpoint, the conversation won’t be very rich,” said Vierzen.

The lab has over 80 affiliated students, 45 of them who have attended or facilitated events just this semester. Although the lab is currently comprised of mostly communications students, it is available to students of all majors, Heath said.

Students are getting trained in and practicing skills that they can go into the workplace with, Heath said.

“College students now are about to enter one of the most diverse workforces ever. They are getting trained to plan, design, and run discussions in the workplace, that are completely applicable in all work contexts, whether it be workplace conflict or conversations on diversity,” Heath said.

“This lab has already given my students internship opportunities and employers said they were intrigued by CDL and valued these sorts of skills,” Heath said.

The lab’s next project will be facilitating a free and open forum on New Hampshire’s issues and stigmas around opioid addiction, a follow-up to informational lectures about the issue being held on campus prior.

The lectures will inform the civil discourse forum, and will be geared towards asking how the different community members feel about how to combat the issue, Heath said.

The forum will be open to students as well as the general public.

It will be held by not only CDL members, but the communication department’s Public Dialogue class, which is a course highly correlated with the principals of civil discourse.

Future goals for the lab include working on grants and initiatives to bring this model across the department’s curriculum. They plan to build the research side of it, so they can do bigger projects in the community, where they hope to capture more data on the effects of the civil discourse model when they facilitate, Heath said. 

“The lab has very quickly exceeded our goals, we blew up with attendance, and we’ve been able to bring in outside speakers every semester that are experts in this area that are doing this sort of work outside of a university context,” Heath said.

“This model has been tested in other universities in other states around the country, so we know students are building skills they can take outside the walls of the university. Families, marriages, partnerships, roommates: civil discourse is so applicable,” Heath said.

“We’ve even had our own facilitators feel completely vulnerable because they encountered a difficult conversation, but this is life. Most everyone that participates in these conversations have a feeling of fulfillment,” Heath said. 

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