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SPA Pilots New Civil Discourse Program

SPA Pilots New Civil Discourse Program

In today's polarized society, universities have an opportunity to model what it means to engage in civil dialogue. The American University School of Public Affairs (SPA) is working with the Office of Campus Life to develop resources that will encourage students to have tough conversations, listen to other points of view, and learn from those experiences about being responsible.

The new Civil Discourse program that is scheduled to launch in the fall 2018 is being designed by Director Lara Schwartz, also an SPA professorial lecturer.

"There is a hunger on campuses to figure out free speech," said Schwartz. "SPA has a unique role to play because we are leaders in talking about hot-button issues. This is in our wheelhouse, and it's intertwined with our diversity efforts we are so committed to."

The innovative programming will include training, materials, and tools for students and the university community to use in promoting productive dialogues.

"The hope is to help students be kind in tough conversations and separate people from problems - to figure out where they are comfortable drawing the line," said Schwartz, who specializes in constitutional law, civil rights, politics, and communications. She has worked as a legislative lawyer, lobbyist, and communications strategist with leading civil rights organizations.

Schwartz said that it is particularly important to promote civil discourse on a college campus where the mission is focused on learning and ideas flow freely. 

"It's important that SPA students be exposed to a variety of perspectives so they can develop their own opinions," said SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins. "We are a community that exists to engage in discourse, expand what we know, and to do so around people who are different from us. This program is one way we can further strengthen our open-minded community."

AU students are politically aware and engaged, both inside and outside the classroom. They are developing the skill of listening to understand, not just respond. Recent incidents on campus have added to the call for an environment where everyone feels accepted. 

"There is a difference between robust debate and unkindness, between challenging ideas and unproductive attacks," said Schwartz. "The idea of civil discourse is to help students develop the will and the capacity to engage in conversations that are intellectually rigorous and enriching."

Last fall, Schwartz coordinated a project at AU that explored speech, community, and inclusion. Interest in two panel discussions on those topics, in addition to Wilkins' support, led to the development of the new Civil Discourse program. 

This semester Schwarz is working with two undergraduate SPA students, Meredith Mason (SPA/BA '20) and Isabella Dominique (SPA/BA '20), to research other programs to build on best practices and craft a proposal for AU. Once the programming is rolled out, Schwartz said it could be something other area universities might be interested in adopting.