Initiative designed to facilitate community dialogue
JMU students served as facilitators during a community forum on guns, security and public life in April.
The Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue at JMU, in collaboration with the Fairfield Center of Harrisonburg, has established the 4C Initiative, focused on campus-community civic collaboration.
Dr. Lori Britt, assistant professor of communication studies at JMU, and her colleague Dr. Pete Bsumek, associate professor of communication studies, are co-directors of ICAD and run the new initiative, which advocates for and creates a space to facilitate public conversations on difficult issues.
The Fairfield Center shares this mission of advancing dialogue and mutual understanding by offering training and services in conflict resolution, restorative justice, business services and civic engagement to businesses and individuals in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
According to Britt, good dialogue is more than just reacting to what others say; it involves thoughtful listening and the understanding that people hold multiple perspectives based on their experiences. “In our society we see so many examples of [people] reacting and talking about issues in binary terms. I think it is helpful when a facilitator focuses on how we are talking to one another to then guide us to new models and possibilities, which people can then reflect on and use in other parts of their lives and in future conversations.”
Britt teaches a special topics course within communication studies on facilitating public engagement, which she plans to continue in future semesters. The class consists of about 30 student facilitators who, throughout the semester, learn the skills necessary to facilitate meaningful conversation.
The student facilitators frame issues through background research and gaining first-hand insight on a broad range of perspectives. Prior to the 4C Initiative’s April 17 forum on guns, security and public life, the students researched national and local rhetoric and laws. They also spoke with community members who had a stake in the issue, including judges, law enforcement officials, cab drivers, school principals, a veterans group, PTA members and convenience store owners. “They were really animate about wanting to come [to the forum],” said Elizabeth Russell, a 4C facilitator. The event used a roundtable format, which gave the students a chance to facilitate outside of the classroom.
Together, ICAD and the Fairfield Center are developing an advisory board that will help identify emerging issues within the community and ultimately will help set up opportunities for public dialogue. The plan is to create an ongoing series of community forums, likely four a year in August, December, February and April.
According to Britt, “Each time we send 30 students out into the world knowing that there is a more productive way to engage in conversations, they tell two friends, who tell two friends. We are starting to spread the seeds of a better way to communicate.”
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By Katie Casey (’13), JMU Public Affairs
May 22, 2013