As public discourse in society seems increasingly uncivil, it can be difficult to meaningfully discuss a hot-button issue in the classroom, at the dinner table — or anywhere else.
A group of U-M staff members recently participated in an event focused on cultivating an environment to engage in respectful conversations among people with opposing views on important social and political topics.
“Immigration: A WeListen Staff Discussion” was part of a series of events, inspired by the WeListen student group, which works to foster dialogue through small-group conversations between progressive and conservative students.
“Our aim is to bring liberals, conservatives, libertarians — everyone across the political spectrum — together for constructive conversation,” said Erin Byrnes, co-event organizer and democratic engagement lead at U-M’s Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning. “The goal of the discussions is not to debate or argue, but to understand the views and values of others and to learn from their perspectives.”
The subject of immigration is timely. Recent headlines surrounding the subject have highlighted policies that include restricting travel from several predominately Muslim countries, separating parents and children entering the United States, and limiting citizenship for legal immigrants.
Universities across the country have placed an emphasis on the topic of free speech. However, the event’s organizers said that without respectful discourse, free speech isn’t much more than a hostile shouting match.
“I think as a society we need to listen more,” said Kathryn Cardenas, a project coordinator from LSA. “I think too often we feel the need to share our own thoughts and opinions. Opportunities where we can stop and be reflective and listen to other people are important to take advantage of.”
Cardenas said the immigration discussion was the second WeListen event for staff that she attended. She also participated in the June event that focused on gun control.
While the discussions are primarily intended to help participants understand perspectives outside of their own, they’ve also been designed to build a sense of community among staff members, and to develop or reinforce soft skills they can use in their own workspaces.
“It’s practice in conversational skills that you can use in your work and in your interpersonal life,” said Cardenas. “I have a position where I work with students, but I think it makes me better able to work with them when I can have a dialogue with them that comes from a place of listening and not always a place of talking.”
In a well-lit meeting room in North Quad, staff members representing a number of different departments and units on campus were assigned to tables and ate lunch before delving into the potentially polarizing discussion.
The session began with introductions, an icebreaker and a high-level presentation that defined some standard terminology and laid out basic facts about immigration in the United States. The participants were encouraged to withhold their job titles during the introductions and spend the first few minutes talking about anything that was not related to politics.
“We want to set the stage for people to be comfortable and have real conversation,” said Byrnes. “Starting with an icebreaker helps people get more comfortable and then from there we make sure to lay out community guidelines so that people start from a place of respect, listening and understanding.”
Arranged in small groups of three to five people, the participants conversed with one another, breaking the immigration topic down into four segments: a general discussion, immigration regulations, immigration in the news and immigrant life in the United States. Each segment was timed and each small group was assigned a facilitator.
At the conclusion of the four segments, the broader group convened to discuss their insights all together.
“(Our group) talked about how this is such a complicated issue and there really is no right or a wrong, or good or bad,” said Cardenas.
“It’s easy when you listen to the news or when you read an article to decide what’s good and what’s bad. It’s more difficult when you sit and dialogue with people to put things in a right or wrong box.”