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Most Americans agree that civility (more precisely, the lack of it) in American politics is a problem. Many would say our apparent inability to engage in respectful and nuanced conversations has hit a crisis level.
One hundred organizations are sponsoring the National Week of Conversation (NWOC). Events will be held in cities across the country. It is a week "for mending America one conversation at a time," according to the NWOC website.
And while our elected officials are often at the heart of the ongoing partisan bickering, several are joining the Bridge Alliance and its partners to offer a better alternative than the toxic, hyper-partisan status quo.
From the Halls of Congress to Your Community: The Growing Demands for Civility
The national community organizer for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, Cheryl Graeve, explained in an interview for IVN that some of the events policymakers will be a part of will be open to the public, while others will be more personal and private.
"For example, Ohio members of Congress Steve Stivers (R) and Joyce Beatty (D) have established a Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, and will be having conversations with their caucus members," she says. They will also host workshops over the next few months for members of Congress to address the need for greater civility and respect in Washington.
Most people probably don't know there is such a thing as a Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus in Congress. It was created in January by Stivers and Beatty to encourage civility and respect in political discourse on Capitol Hill and in every congressional district.
"Joyce and I don’t always agree on how to solve the issues facing our nation, but we find common ground where we can. More importantly, when we do disagree, we don’t vilify one another," said Stivers upon announcing the new caucus.
Video Source: NBC4 WCMH-TV Columbus
Graeve notes that members have to join the caucus in bipartisan pairs. In other words, if a Republican wanted to join the caucus, he or she would have to join with a Democratic colleague.
"It's a beautiful model of coming together across the aisle to be part of rebuilding and reweaving a more civil fabric in our country," she says.
Then there are more private and personal conversations that will happen between state and local policy leaders, faith leaders, and candidates that will seek to foster productive conversations on the biggest issues in each participant's respective community.
"Sometimes, those conversations which we hope will both foster relationships and help us explore what we may do together as citizens and policymakers and the media to improve the tone of our conversations and public discourse -- especially as we look at 2018 now -- sometimes those conversations can happen in a more authentic and personal and deep way when they are outside the glare of the public spotlight," Graeve explains.
The media might not like it. There might even be some skeptics among voters, but I can personally attest to the substantive and honest conversations that can happen in this environment.
I have covered an annual conference put on by the Independent Voter Project (a co-publisher of IVN.us) with exactly this intent in mind -- get policymakers and industry leaders together, away from the media's glare and partisan political environment -- to discuss real problems and real solutions.
There is no talk of legislation. There are no backroom deals behind closed doors. There are no talking heads in the media or partisan pundits who can cherry pick soundbites to fit a particular narrative and distract from the big picture. Just real talk and real solutions.
Relationships are formed. Issues are flushed out. Conversations that are deep and raw set the stage for future collaboration and problem solving, and are free from partisan barriers that might otherwise get in the way in a more public setting.
The exact number of policy leaders that will be involved in the National Week of Conversation is not known and could continue to grow, as thousands of invitations were sent out to elected officials, faith leaders, community organizers, schools, and more.
Overcoming Our Biggest Hurdles
The general perception is that our nation has never been more divided. It's constant political warfare between conservatives and liberals in this country over every issue, and we can't even agree that the sky is blue.
Yet, that is not entirely true.
Public opinion polls show that Americans are more aligned than ever before on many issues. On guns, on immigration, on jobs, Americans can find common ground on several topics.
But when we watch cable news, when we spend just five minutes on social media, it almost feels like our country is on the brink of another civil war -- because the media and the most polarizing voices online capitalize on division and reactionary politics.
And now, the biggest political divide in the US has less to do with individual issues and more to do with a team sport mentality. Republican versus Democrat. Conservative versus liberal. Rich versus poor. Urban America versus rural America.
"When candidates or elected leaders lead with a civil framework, they often get pushback. They don't get covered in the media. It's the drama that tends to rise to the attention level, unfortunately, in the media as opposed to all the work that is being done in concert with each other ," explains Cheryl Graeve.
The impact this has on the body politic is devastating. Politicians become entrenched in the ideological corners of their respective parties. Nothing gets accomplished. And as a result, people lose trust in their elected officials and the process.
There is a hunger, however, to rebuild what Graeve calls the "civic, civil, respect muscle" in America. Voters want it, but they don't necessarily know how to achieve it.
That is where organizations like the National Institute for Civil Discourse and the Bridge Alliance and its partners come in.
"We are looking at this year and asking Americans -- we're asking voters, we're asking candidates, communicating with the media, too -- about what we can do together to improve the tone of our 2018 elections," says Graeve.
"We have had some experience with conversations where we bring together the public, candidates, and journalists around a visioning question for our country about how we want to operate together, how we expect to be in a relationship with each other, how we understand each other, and what our commitment is to our democratic republic."
Graeve adds that the NCID and other collaborative organizations in the space are having conversations with diverse stakeholders at the community level, and have the tools and resources to help build a skillset around listening across divides for differences and understanding.
"I think what's important is showcasing these stories where people relate to each other across their differences. They come out in a stronger, more civil relationship with each other, and come out of those conversations with a profoundly different understanding. We are not partisan labels; we are human beings that are grounded in shared concerns and shared hopes," says Graeve.
And Graeve says she and others at NCID hope that the National Week of Conversation will result in more of these stories being highlighted.
The National Week of Conversation
Events will be held in cities across the country through April 20-28, encouraging more civil, respectful, and nuanced conversations on the biggest issues facing the US today -- including guns, immigration, health care, jobs and the economy, and more.
A project of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, 100 organizations are sponsoring the National Week of Conversation, including the National Institute for Civil Discourse, AllSides, the L1sten First Project, Living Room Conversations, Big Tent Nation, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.
People can get involved by finding a local or online conversation or hosting their own. To get more information, visit www.nationalweekofconversation.org, and follow IVN.us for exclusive coverage.