By: David J. Smith, January 20, 2017
This past week I visited St. Petersburg College (SPC) in Clearwater, Florida. SPC is one of the oldest community colleges in the U.S. founded in 1927. The objective of my visit was providing ideas and strategies for bridging differences in our communities. The visit was timed to coincide with this week: the end of the Obama presidency and beginning of the Trump presidency.
The emotional level of Americans this week is high: some are in deep despair and others are exhilarated. But after today, emotions will need to subside and getting to work will be necessary. We are more divided as a nation today than at any time in recent history. As such, those falling on both sides of the divide will need to find means and strategies for working together to serve all Americans, advance constructive policies, and foster communities that are tolerate and compassionate.
I met with nearly 400 students throughout the day. As with any community college, they represented a range of ethnicities, ages, and aspirations. Before each session I would chat with students to get a sense of their backgrounds: I met immigrants, retirees, and veterans, all seeking the advantages of a community college experience. I often remind my colleagues: community colleges are truly the commons of America.
A goal of my visit overall was to provide students, faculty, and community members with some perspective on where we are today, some thoughts as to why, and most importantly, some strategies that can be used on a daily basis. As such, I focused on simple dialogic approaches that be used. Part of this process requires realistically adjusting our expectations.
I talked about peace, and the need for us to think about peace in terms of means, not ends. Peace approaches to engagement are not political and not aligned with one side or another. Dialogue, negotiation, education, volunteerism, and activism are all means to promoting change in ways that need not be confrontational or lead to violence. They are also means that raise civic engagement, both nationally and locally. Conflict need not be seen in a negative way. The means by which it is managed is most critical, and it is always the pathway to positive change in our society.
After exploring the notion of dialogue, I had students examine a situation where they needed to engage their father in a discussion over immigration. What would be the strategy they might use? Students worked in pairs to come up with ideas. Many suggested reminding him that his family immigrated to the U.S. in an earlier time. Others wanted to remind him of the benefits that immigrants provided the U.S. economy.
My last session was with community members from the Clearwater area. It included the local chief of police, college provost, a number of clergy, and community leaders. We talked about the increasing levels of hate crimes in the area and what could be done to respond. Education would be an important strategy. We talked about how diverse our country is getting and need for all of us to work to better understand each other. The need to improve civic education was also talked about. In my final activity, I asked those in attendance to reach out to another person to dialogue.
And throughout the day, I asked students to engage one person who they suspected was different from them – by ethnicity, experiences, or political views – in a conversation or dialogue. The objective was not to change their minds, but just to get to know them. We can all do that.
Here is a short video showing one exercise.