A white board shows notes from the state’s Civic Health Summit in October. (Project for Civic Health)

A white board shows notes from the state’s Civic Health Summit in October. (Project for Civic Health)

Editorial: Improving civic health starts by coming to table

Efforts locally and at the state level seek to counter the incivility that has mired public discourse.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Not to dismiss the unarguable importance of such inventions as the wheel, movable type, sliced bread and the long-handled back-scratcher, but the humble table — that flat surface with four legs where we work, gather family and friends for meals and hammer out agreements — may be what saves the world.

Denny Heck has long been convinced of that.

“I’ve not seen anything that’s more effective than people sitting around a table,” said the former state lawmaker and member of Congress and current Washington state lieutenant governor, in discussing a prime focus of his time in office: our civic health and the crisis in confidence and trust that our communities, state and nation are experiencing in public discourse and in governance.

“In fact, what’s allowing the crime of the current trajectory to continue is people are less willing to sit around a table together,” he said this week in a conversation with the editorial board, citing a recent poll that found 1 in 4 Washington residents have stopped talking all together with a friend or family member because of politics.

Heck isn’t alone in this concern and effort, of course. Examples of this call to gather around a table — or, at least, in a circle of chairs — locally include the campaign led by Snohomish County Council members Nate Nehring, a Republican, and Jared Mead, a Democrat. Good friends and partners in policy-making — despite holding differing views on issues — they have launched a program called Building Bridges. In partnership with the civic advocacy organization Braver Angels, Building Bridges has hosted workshops that invited community members to meet and hone their skills in listening more than debating to better find common ground and learn how to come to achievable solutions to shared goals.

Building Bridges holds its last forum of the year at 6 p.m. Monday at WSU Everett. A discussion of political polarization and its solutions includes Heck. a Democrat, and former Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler, a Republican, who represented the state’s 3rd Congressional District, and a panel that includes Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell, Tulalip Tribal Chair Teri Gobin and Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts, and moderated by Garry Clark, chief executive of Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

At the state level, Heck has launched the Project for Civic Health that brought together his office, the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, and the University of Washington’s Dan Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and the Ruckelshaus Center. The project has issued a report, Common Ground for the Common Good, and called 200 people from across the state for a summit on the subject in October at which eight focus groups — purposely assembled to include those with diverse points of views — discussed the report’s findings.

“It was amazing to me how well people got along when they sat across the table from one and other,” Heck said, “as opposed to snarking at each other on social media. Or trying to one up someone with a nastier quote in the newspaper than the other person.”

That face-to-face opportunity is the first step, but earlier Building Bridges forums have also stressed the importance of listening, not so much to formulate a rebuttal and win an argument, but to understand the perspective of the other speaker and recognize where values and goals are shared.

Toward that end, Mead and Nehring are extending their Building Bridges efforts with plans to launch a nonprofit that will focus much of its work on outreach to youths to build these skills among them and encourage their civic participation, especially presenting a perspective that counters the current us-vs.-them narrative, Mead said.

“The idea of it is to help the next generation launch into the world more prepared than maybe they would be otherwise,” he said.

The pair also are launching a website, TheBuildingBridgesProject.org, which will invite elected officials and the public to read and sign its Bridge-Building Pledge. The pledge asks signers to follow a code of conduct — table manners, if you will — intended to encourage civil discourse and treatment and prevent a slide into politics as usual.

“There’s all this work happening,” Nehring said. “But I think one of the things that can be really helpful, whether it’s for elected officials or for community members to commit to is a set of values and expectations.”

Among the pledge’s principles:

“I will be kind when disagreeing and refrain from turning a political disagreement into a personal disagreement.

“I will give others the benefit of the doubt and assume positive motives.

“I will challenge my beliefs and assumptions and be open to modifying my opinions in the face of new information.”

Admittedly, this is Golden Rule stuff; things we should have learned in kindergarten. But judging from some of the discourse and actions displayed on the national level in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail — with elbows and expletives freely thrown even among fellow party members — these are lessons that are often ignored out of political expediency. That drive to win arguments and votes — for partisan and personal benefit only — if not countered, risks its spread to the state and local level, within the state Legislature down to city councils and school boards.

The range of challenges and opportunities that we face at all levels of community interaction and government — from speed cameras to homelessness, education funding to tax fairness, Social Security to climate change — are daunting enough without personal and political hostility frustrating and preventing their resolution.

Heck, who presides over the state Senate, says Olympia, fortunately, has largely avoided the rancor now common in Congress. And it’s because, he said, the party leaders in the Senate and the House make a point of talking with each other. And it’s led to bipartisan agreement for many issues, including the state’s budgets earlier this year.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t have disagreements. It just means there is a no-surprises rule,” Heck said. “They treat one another respectfully. They try to work out the issues ahead of time.”

It’s a simple request we must ask of our leaders and ourselves: Come to the table.

Building Bridges

The Building Bridges discussion on political polarization is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, at WSU-Everett, 915 N. Broadway in Everett. Admission is free but registration is requested by emailing buildingbridges.connect@gmail.com.

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