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Editorial: Honing our skills on discourse and democracy

The second meeting of the Building Bridges Tour, Tuesday in Arlington, is a workshop in dialogue.

By The Herald Editorial Board

With the pandemic finally fading, we’re overdue for a return to face-to-face exchanges, whether that’s small talk or weightier exchanges meant to foster better understanding and ways of addressing the issues that need resolution.

The second of four community forums this year — dubbed the Building Bridges Tour — invites community members to assemble — this time from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in Arlington — and work past the polarization and harshness that seems increasingly common in the news, social media and in government settings, leading to divisiveness and stalemate on necessary action.

Led by Snohomish County Council members Nate Nehring and Jared Mead, the series of workshops invites community members not so much to listen to a lecture about getting along and making democracy work, but in putting people into small groups to hone their skills in listening, understanding and discourse and putting those skills into practice.

Nehring, a Republican, and Mead, a Democrat, have a reputation for their work together on the council but also for joint appearances before community groups, coffee chats, schools and other venues, discussing how to find common ground on issues while maintaining their own political beliefs.

A partner in the tour, Braver Angels, seeks to depolarize American politics by working at a grass-roots level, including workshops and events such as the Building Bridges Tour.

“We bring polarized people together and help them understand each other,” Elizabeth Doll told the editorial board before the first meeting in February in Mill Creek.

Doll sees a growing realization among citizens that politicization and tribal partisanship has driven people away from civic participation. But that may be starting to change. There’s growing frustration with the rancor people find around them, Doll said.

To head that off, there are ground rules for the Building Bridges forums, she said, including listening to understand others and speaking to explain one’s own views, not speaking for anyone else or any group.

“We’re allowing space for an exchange, not trying to get people to change their minds. We want to show you can hear multiple perspectives and find a point of commonality on values and concerns, and move toward pluralism not necessarily toward centrism,” she said.

Nehring and Mead said this week that they were pleased with the turnout and the discussion that occurred at the Mill Creek YMCA, packing an upstairs meeting room with about 60 to 70 participants who were separated into groups or four to five to share their thoughts on issues on beliefs, on polarization and on how best to find common ground.

Among those at the Mill Creek meeting was Andy Stevens, 39, of Bothell. Stevens said he went as a citizen, voter and taxpayer who “dabbles in politics” and considers himself a moderate Republican, but has voted for “reasonable” Democrats, including his county council member, Mead. Stevens also counts Nehring as a friend.

“When I showed up I thought it was just going to be Nehring and Mead talking to the group, but I was happy to see the small-group breakout sessions,” he said. “I got more than I expected out of that meeting.”

For Stevens, the discussion topics weren’t as meaningful for him as what he got out of the small group exchanges.

“And that was putting us with people we might not agree with to come up with kind of a common solution.”

There were probably two people in his group who probably vote very differently than he does, but all were able to have an adult conversation.

“And, hey, it turns out we were about 80 percent in agreement,” he said.

That and similar feedback was good to hear, Mead and Nehring said.

“You can’t really get anything done in any of the policies we care about — climate change, law enforcement, drug addiction, housing — unless we’re willing to work together and we can talk and find common ground,” Mead said.

“We really want to get at that community engagement and listen to what was being said” in the small groups, Nehring said, regarding the root causes of polarization and what we can do to overcome that.

“I think that informs the future events but also some of the work we do in county government as well,” he said.

Building on the Mill Creek forum, Nehring said they plan to take the Arlington event a step beyond the February meeting and its general discussions of polarization and improving public discourse to begin putting some of that understanding to work by discussing some specific and potentially controversial issues. The hope is that even in discussing an issue with the potential for disagreement, the groups can find some common values and goals that are shared regarding a particular issue.

“We’re going to try to home in a little more, specifically on things that might be relevant to community members and see where we go with that,” Nehring said.

It’s not that much of a stretch for people in face-to-face settings to find that common ground.

“People are generally good, I truly believe that,” Mead said. “We want to agree with each other. We want to be kind to each other. We want to see each other succeed. We don’t want to tear each other down. I don’t think that’s inherent in human nature. We are a tribal species. But we are a species that wants to work together.”

Stevens agrees, and he saw the Mill Creek event as a good refresher for how to put the skills of public discourse to work in guiding how he presents his opinions and how he talks with others.

Stevens said he is an avid Twitter user, and realizes that isn’t a forum with the best track record of civil discourse, which can tend toward snark, animosity and point-scoring.

“What surprised me when we were in the same room was there was none of that animosity and how natural that came,” he said. “I think it helps to be face to face in the same room, whereas using social media seems to encourage people not to treat each other as human beings. It’s always a competition; it’s always a contest.”

Since the Mill Creek meeting, Stevens said he’s more conscious of how he interacts with people, in person and on social media.

“I am trying to make an effort, using by photo and my name (on Twitter) and making an effort to talk with people I don’t agree with on subjects,” he said. “Attending these Braver Angels session is helping with that.”

Building Bridges Tour

The Building Bridges Tour forums are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 16 in Arlington, Sept. 12 in Lynnwood and Dec. 5 in Everett. For more information and to register for a forum, go to Tickets are free, but registration is required. Location information will be emailed to participants.

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