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A Campus-Community Dialogue Series: Understanding Our Differences, Shaping Our Future, seeks constructive path to promote mutual understanding and solutions.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications

In this Q&A, Mark E. Button, chair of the Department of Political Science, explains the Campus-Community Dialogue Series: Understanding Our Differences, Shaping Our Future. Button says the initiative is aimed at reimagining the substance and direction of public policy and the quality of public spirit with which citizens and leaders will confront the challenges ahead of us as a nation.

The dialogue series is sponsored by the Department of Political Science, Hinckley Institute, College of Social and Behavioral Science and Undergraduate and Graduate Student Advisory Councils.

The first dialogue took place last Thursday and focused on health care in America. The next dialogue will focus on refugees and immigration policy and is set for March 2 from 12:30-2 p.m. in the Hinckley Caucus Room, Building 73. Panelists will consider the question “What public principles and national interests should guide U.S. immigration policy and why?”

Q: The Department of Political Science and several other entities on campus have joined forces to create a campus-community dialogue series called Understanding Our Differences, Shaping Our Future. What’s the motivation for doing this?

The 2016 Presidential election highlighted the deep divisions that exist within American society: by race, gender, and levels of educational attainment. The 2016 campaign season and the flurry of decisions and appointments that have been made since have also shown that for all of its diversity, American society has increasingly become a place where people don’t really talk, listen, and learn from “the other side,” whether this is someone from a different party, race, religion, or economic class.

The driving motivation behind this series is to create regular opportunities for civil and constructive dialogue among differing perspectives dedicated to the pursuit of mutual understanding and the consideration of practical solutions to national and global challenges.

Q: What issues will the series focus on?

According to the Pew Research Center, the top five issues that mattered the most to voters in the 2016 Presidential election were: health care, immigration, the economy, terrorism, and inequality and the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. This series will bring together scholars and community leaders from diverse philosophical backgrounds to help us think about these issues and the steps that all of us can take to help address these challenges in the years to come.

Q: Your hope is that the series yields consideration of practical solutions to these challenges.  What do you see as the risks for our society if we aren’t able to find answers?

The risks to our society include threats to equal justice and fair opportunities for all, the aggravation of multiple forms of inequality, increasing environmental degradation, as well as further declines in Americans’ basic sense of trust in their political institutions.  But the risks also extend to America’s moral and political standing throughout the rest of the world.

Q: Why are you reaching out to the broader community and asking the public to join the discussion?

We are reaching out to the broader community because we know that there are untapped sources of practical wisdom there and we need to harness these insights and the good will of the public to address the issues that continue to divide the country. This dialogue series will create an opportunity for reciprocal learning and mutual engagement on some of the key issues that matter the most to Americans today.

The future of our democracy depends on finding new and creative ways to bridge the multiple divides that hamper our ability to talk, listen, and learn from each other, and removing the barriers between academics, elected officials, and the wider public is crucial to the formation of wise public policy. We are also hopeful that this series will provide a model for what respectful and constructive dialogue across moral and ideological differences looks like — perhaps inspiring others to create similar spaces of democratic engagement in their communities as well.

Q: A lot of people are thinking about the divisions in American society and how they can be bridged. Reaching a consensus on many divisive issues may be challenging but are you optimistic that we really can embrace more understanding, respect and civility in our society right now?

Our primary aim is to create a space for respectful and informed dialogue among differing perspectives dedicated to the pursuit of mutual understanding and the thoughtful consideration of practical solutions to our nation’s domestic and international challenges. Unlike debates in which speakers try to “win” in partisan competitions, the purpose of a public dialogue is to facilitate mutual understanding and a deeper appreciation for the diverse values and perspectives that inform key policy debates. We believe that the possibilities for stimulating new ideas and increasing mutual trust are more likely to arise under conditions of respectful public dialogue.