For July 4th: A Way To Help Our Communities

I belong to a local group in my community of Roanoke, Virginia – the Roanoke Civility Project. In response to the toxic divisiveness we see across the country, our mission is to advocate in Roanoke for proven processes required for effective collaboration to solve complex problems. We believe that a renewed expectation for civil discourse in the public square could break the current cycle of polarization and lead to better outcomes. RCP is an all-volunteer organization, 100% grass roots, 100% non-partisan, with no legal structure.

I want to encourage readers to consider taking steps in your communities to encourage constructive and civil discourse. Reach out to a diverse set of community leaders who have earned your respect. Show them what we’re doing to see if they would like to engage in efforts to overcome caustic divisiveness. As coaches, you have important skills to contribute to this effort.

Our group composed an op-ed that was published in last Sunday’s (June 26th) newspaper. The paper followed up this past Sunday (July 3) with its own editorial, reflecting on the seriousness of our message.

Here is the op-ed as it appeared in the June 26th Sunday edition of The Roanoke Times.

Civil discourse in the public square is under assault. The perpetrator? Toxic divisiveness.

 Without civil discourse our ability to collaborate with others to solve complex problems here in the Roanoke Valley and across the nation is severely compromised. Meanwhile, the destructive consequences of divisiveness and outrage continue to accelerate. 

The goal of this op-ed is a call to action for people who want to build momentum for addressing complex problems with mutual respect. The signers of this op-ed make up the Roanoke Collaboration Project (RCP). We are not seeking monetary contributions. We seek donations of courage and action. 

Psychologist Peter Coleman of Columbia University is an expert in both destructive and constructive conflict. His book, “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization,” shows how outrage lights up the same parts of the brain as heroin. Like heroin, outrage feels good. The pleasure center of our brain sends us out to find more. Outrage is addictive. 

Outrage creates “us” versus “them” thinking. It ignores the mutual interests we have in common with people who may see some things differently than we do. 

There are elements across the entire political spectrum that have discovered the power of exploiting divisiveness and outrage. They play on those feelings for personal, financial, or political gain without regard to the long-term negative consequences. The media joins in because outrage sells. As a result, all we hear are outraged voices that tend to drown out the civic leaders in the room committed to finding solutions. 

Civil discourse is needed for democracy to survive. “A country divided against itself cannot stand.” Toxic dissent alienates. Respectful dissent unifies. 

There is hope. Coleman’s research validates what common sense is already telling us; the vast majority of Americans are fed up with toxic divisiveness. But outrage over outrage leaves us in the same danger. We need a voice and a strategy. 

Let’s recommit to proven principles of our democracy, such as civil discourse, to break the cycle of divisiveness and outrage. Civil discourse is sometimes emotional and energetic but always respectful. People mutually air their views, often passionately. Participants listen to each other, though not necessarily to agree. Rather, participants listen to understand another human being, rather than to degrade that person because they see something differently or perhaps align with a different political party or belief system.

Who we are: RCP is an all-volunteer organization, 100% grass roots with no legal structure. RCP is 100% non-partisan. Our mission is to advocate for proven processes required for effective collaboration. We believe that a renewed expectation for civil discourse in the public square will break the current cycle of toxic divisiveness and lead to better outcomes. 

RCP members represent a wide diversity of faith, race, gender, and political views. The group has invested time listening to and learning from each other. Initial feelings of threat in the face of difference melted away. Members don’t agree on everything. The guiding assumption is that no one person has all the answers to the complex problems our communities face. 

RCP’s request of you: Take a step to turn the tide on outrage. RCP has launched what we call the Collaboration Pledge. Please go to our website CommunityCollaboration.us to support the cause. We need more people like you to help us promote effective collaboration and “expect better” from those in the public square. 

Your name (but no other information) will be displayed on Roanoke Collaboration website page to show our community the strength and breadth of reasonable and civil people. Here’s the Pledge: 

    • I believe a commitment to civil discourse will make us a better community. Therefore, I commit to the following:
    • I will treat others with respect in my public discourse both in person and online and will not hide behind anonymity.
    • I will recognize that people are more than their points of view and have feelings, just as I do.
    • I will seek to understand those with different points of view before asking to be understood.
    • I will not allow uncivil behavior from others to lead me to respond in kind. 

We look forward to a conversation with each of you. With your commitment, civil discourse will prevail!

This commentary is signed by the founding members of the Roanoke Collaboration Project: Dana C. Ackley, George Anderson, Katherin Elam, Jay Foster, William Fralin, Michael Friedlander, Cynthia Lawrence, Lee Learman, William Lee, Chris Morrill, Cynthia Morrow, Ginger Poole, Sam Rasoul, Wayne Strickland, John Williamson and Joyce Waugh.

On Sunday, July 3, in anticipation of the 4th of July, the following editorial appeared in The Roanoke Times in support of our group’s efforts: Editorial: Roanoke Collaboration Project promotes mutual respect over toxic division | Editorial | roanoke.com

I hope you will take a few minutes to read the editorial and think about whether your skills as a coach could contribute to an effort such as this in your own community. I plan to announce a free group consultation offer shortly for those of you who might be interested in starting an effort of your own. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have, at dana.ackley@eqleader.net .

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