Creating civil discourse in communities

By Matthew Dembicki

In general, communities tend to lean politically left or right, which reflects the views of most of their residents. Oregon’s Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) pulls from both sides.

Residents of Linn County lean right and support Donald Trump; the county hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, residents in Benton County — which is home to Oregon State Unversity (OSU), one of the area’s largest employers — are more on the left and back Joe Biden.

A recent college poll found the political breakdown at LBCC — which like most community colleges has a larger proportion of older adult students than at a typical four-year institution — was 27% independent, 27% Democrat and 24% Republican.

The mix of political opinions at LBCC creates an ideal place for civil discourse, says Cheyanne Rider, a dual-enrolled junior at OSU and LBCC. She is a student leader in the two-year college’s Civil Discourse Program, which promotes dialogue to enhance understanding among individuals with diverse viewpoints in an open and respectful environment.

Rider, who plans to attend law school to pursue a career as a public defender, was one of three college students who spoke about the importance of civics education and free speech on college campuses at a September 15 event held by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

LBCC’s Civic Discourse Program was started by four students in response to a controversial art piece in one of the buildings at the college, Rider said. An open discussion about the piece turned into a co-curricular program that engages students in discourse. For example, through the program, students write point/counter-point op-eds for the student newspaper. Some of those articles have drawn public comments, such as an op-ed about safe-use centers that offer clean needles to drug users.

On the state stage

In Wisconsin, Megan Bahr, who in May graduated from Gateway Technical College with a professional communications degree, helps to voice the viewpoints of two-year college students. At Gateway, she was a student leader active on campus as a peer advocate, a 2020 Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) ambassador, and Gateway’s first Newman Civic Fellow as a part of Campus Compact. Bahr also currently serves on the WTCS state board as a student representative.

Bahr brings two-year students’ opinions to state leaders. A survey of two-year college students her colleagues conduct annually shows what’s on their minds. Last year, open educational resources and offering baccalaureates at two-year colleges were top of mind. This year, broadband access for rural students made the list.

The ambassadors invite local and state leaders to their district meeting discussions.

“That’s where we get our practice. That’s where we start having conversations,” Bahr said. “Representatives are really engaged and interested in this.”

The group annually goes to the state capital for a two-day legislative seminar where students meet colleagues from across the state and test their advocacy skills on lawmakers.

“We encourage students to be their authentic selves when speaking to these representatives and to share your own personal story, and connect it to those policies and those positions that you really care about,” she said.

Students in the Civics Discourse Program at LBCC also reach into the local community, Rider said. For example, they visited a local boys and girls organization to hold mock debates. The youths argued about the benefits and drawbacks of school uniforms. The kids liked it so much that they held debates on two other topics.

“I hope we can keep doing it,” Rider said.

Advice to college leaders

When asked what college leaders can do to foster civility on campus, the students agreed that modeling the behavior is important. Rider recalled an instructor who at the start of the term said the topics the class would discuss would draw strong opinions. But the message was clear that being disrespectful would get you the boot, she said.

Bahr added that colleges can do a better job of promoting their civics programs and activities, especially in reaching populations who may have been out of higher education for a while, such as single mothers. Giving them the chance to speak their minds may allow them to tap an interest or skill they didn’t know they had, she said.

A word from ED

The talk, which promoted Constitution Day, also included Nasser Paydar, who was recently appointed assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Education Department (ED). He previously served as chancellor of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis before retiring this spring.

Paydar noted the important role that colleges and universities play in civics education, which strengthens communities through listening and debating various ideas and views. He added that such discussions also encourage residents to vote. (ED in April released a Dear Colleague Letter outlining the federal requirement for certain institutions in most states to make a good faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to their students.)

“The role of higher education is not just teaching in a classroom or working in a laboratory; it’s developing individual human beings–whole human beings–to prepare them to be civic leaders,” he said.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Matthew Dembicki

edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.