New collaboration puts NAU in national spotlight to promote democracy

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While the nation plows through another acrimonious election season where “civil discourse” is often contentious at best, Northern Arizona University finds itself among an elite group of institutions across the country striving to bring civility and reasoning back into the democratic process.

NAU’s newly created Consortium for Public Life and Learning—a collaboration between the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Arts and Letters—recently was invited to participate in an affiliation process with the non-partisan Kettering Foundation, whose mission focuses on how democracy works and on promoting public engagement and deliberation.

“Americans are losing the ability to have civil disagreements,” said Lori Poloni-Staudinger, associate professor of politics and international affairs. Further, she added, today’s college students say they don’t think being involved makes a difference. “They don’t necessarily care about politics and their knowledge of political issues has decreased. All of this is very unhealthy for democracy.”

A more effective scenario, she said, would involve an engaged citizenry that takes time to understand all sides of an issue, that listens to divergent opinions and that uses reasoned deliberation before responding.

“These steps need to come sequentially before deciding on an issue,” she said.

Which is where the Kettering Foundation’s affiliation with NAU comes in.

Poloni and Andrea Houchard, director for NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest, will co-lead the new initiative to foster community and student engagement.

Over the course of the next year, the pair will join with individuals tapped from select institutions across the country to receive training from Kettering on facilitation and deliberation methods for public dialogue. They will then convene several discussion forums on topics of local, national and global concern.

At the end of the process, NAU’s Consortium for Public Life and Learning will be affiliated as a Kettering Center for Public Life, the second such center in the state.

“It’s not about consensus-building or trying to change another’s point of view,” Poloni-Staudinger said. “It’s about maintaining relationships and being better citizens.”

The effort brings together a range of individuals from disciplines across campus who share an interest in issues of compassion, civility, deliberative engagement and reason.

Other projects with ties to the consortium include the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Compassion Project and its upcoming Living Compassion conference. The consortium also works with Project Civil Discourse and is planning student curricular and co-curricular activities with The W.A. Franke College of Business.

The Kettering invitation comes at an opportune time as Gov. Jan Brewer has declared October “Civil Discourse Month.”