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National Institute for Civil Discourse Brings Opposing Ideas Together

by Glenn Davis, published
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) is an organization committed to promoting a greater understanding of the views of others.

Chaired by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the NICD’s board members include representatives from major news media, former secretaries of state, past and present members of Congress, governors, academic scholars, and public policy researchers.

The NICD’s mission is to foster “an open exchange of ideas and expression of values that will lead to better problem-solving and more effective government." The group expresses the following hopes for America:

"Imagine an electorate that holds our political leaders to a higher standard of engagement... media leaders who broadcast stories of constructive conflict in which civil discourse forges the path to innovative solutions... elected officials who conduct enthusiastic and respectful campaigns. Imagine Americans with a renewed sense of being part of a national conversation."

“Small ambitions we’re holding,” the executive director of the NICD, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, joked.

Despite its connection with the University of Arizona, the NICD is not purely an academic research organization. According to Lukensmeyer, it was created right after Gabby Giffords was shot and the university was committed to have something good come out of that event. She said NICD is a hybrid “at the intersection of how scholarly research moves into the field of practice.”

And practice they do. Along with sponsoring research projects, they are working on a wide range of concurrent programs in multiple areas. Lukensmeyer admitted they have a lot of things going on, perhaps too many things, but by partnering with other organizations they are able to leverage resources and accomplish much.

“These partnerships are essential to all of our work,” she explained.

The NICD’s efforts focus primarily on three target audiences: elected officials, the media, and the public.

One of its initiatives with current legislators includes the formation of what it calls, Working Group for a Working Congress. In the House of Representatives, this group is co-chaired by Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and Kay Granger (R-TX). Support for these efforts was carefully sought from congressional leaders.

Emerging from the working group, Lukensmeyer explained, was the idea to have members visit each other’s districts together. Cleaver and Granger plan to do this in the next few months.

Lukensmeyer suggests that the experience of seeing two members together like this will be dramatically different from what people are used to. Voters will "stop and think that maybe there really are members of Congress who are doing things differently than what we see every night on the news."

Another effort of the NICD is on the state level. Most national officials, Lukensmeyer explained, “cut their eye teeth” in state legislatures.

“Our theory was is if we could get them to work together at the state level, this would translate into working together when they come to the national level,” she said.

The NICD partnered with the Council of State Governments to design a workshop for state legislators, titled Building Trust Through Civil Discourse, to promote civility, bipartisanship, and increased effectiveness.

“We’re really excited about this program,” Lukensmeyer said. It is easier to revitalize democracy at the local level than on large national policy issues.

She added:

“The ability to link local and national in a meaningful way to truly change a policy and resource framework is the core of our work right now.”

The second institution on which the NICD is focusing is the media. In the 2013 nationwide survey, Civility in America, 70 percent of respondents said they believe incivility has reached crisis levels. Media outlets were among those held most responsible for the problem.

In December 2013, NICD partnered with the Poynter Institute and the Newseum to host an event to address incivility in the media and what journalists as a group could do about it.

The 3-day session, called

Incivility in the Media: Engaging Journalists, brought together 32 journalists representing diverse outlets, geography, and cultures. One of the participants, Rem Rieder of USA today, reported that the core values statement created during the gathering was “an inspirational reminder of why journalism matters.”

“We were thrilled with the result,” Lukensmeyer added.

The NICD is planning to convene a similar group in the spring with news editors and executives to build on the conversation. Lukensmeyer added that they are also considering bringing together a larger mix of journalists, elected officials, and the public to have a conversation about “where our democracy is today and what they need from each other.”

Lukensmeyer described their strategy with the media as building a community of people willing to step up and take accountability; to say, “You know what? We are part of this problem and this is what we should do about it.”

Lukensmeyer hopes their efforts will change the existing national narrative about dysfunction, and replace it with a narrative about what is happening to change this environment: existing community efforts, the many groups working inside and outside of Congress for change, and the millions of people across the country engaged in finding solutions. Lukensmeyer says changing the narrative requires finding the right communication mechanism.

The final target group is the general public.

As the

Civility in America survey found, incivility extends to every aspect of American society. However, though the public desires greater civility, they place the burden for change on others. The NICD hopes to bring people the ability to see how they can make a difference. The group is working on ways to channel public demand for civil discourse through messaging campaigns and raising awareness -- to stress the importance of civil discourse to democracy and effective government.

One of the NICD’s efforts to reach the public include an initiative called Your Words Count, which provides opportunities to participate directly in constructive dialogue, both in person and online. Another partnership, between the NICD and Creating Community Solutions, was formed in response to President Obama’s call for a national dialogue on mental health in June 2013. An initiative called “talk-text-act” was created to foster education and engage young people in dialogue on mental health issues.

It is hard to summarize the broad scope of the NICD's efforts in a single article. I barely mentioned their research efforts, which currently include a multi-disciplinary network of 24 scholars in political science, journalism, philosophy, and religion, who will come together in October 2014 to coordinate their research agenda. This integrated approach to research is likely to open up many other areas for the NICD and other groups to focus.

Like the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s book – pure good destroyed by evil – our democracy is tainted by a culture of incivility. Restoration of civil discourse may seem a lofty ambition in today’s political environment. Groups like the NICD are working hard to see that it is not destroyed.

This is the third in a series of articles about relatively small, lesser-known, grassroots movements hoping to reverse the trend of congressional stalemate, political divisiveness, and the lack of civility in public discourse in America.

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