Talking Across Differences | LBCC

Talking Across Differences

“This work takes a tremendous amount of courage. Fortunately, we have that here.”
— Mark Urista

IN TODAY’S DIVIDED COUNTRY, is it really possible for people who identify as “red” and “blue” to talk across their differences and find common ground?

LBCC students think so, and recently the Heterodox Academy, a national organization that studies viewpoint diversity in higher education, agreed. Linn-Benton Community College is the first community college in the country to receive the “Open Inquiry Award” for its student-led Civil Discourse Club – a club that has shown outstanding leadership in facilitating pathways for people in our community to work together despite completely divergent ideological perspectives.

“This award recognizes what is possible when a campus community works together to create an environment that supports free expression, viewpoint diversity, and civil discourse. Our college and club’s student leaders are modeling what we need to see more of in the United States,” said Mark Urista, LBCC Civil Discourse Club advisor.

Students Brandon Calhoun and Anthony Lusardi accepted the award for the college at Heterodox’s annual convention on June 20 in New York City, where they also served as panel speakers. As a highly-respected non-partisan advocate of constructive disagreement, the Heterodox Academy conference also attracted media personalities, administrators and professors across the country, and other student leaders.

As a member of the Communication faculty, Urista watched the Civil Discourse Club emerge from a debate in his classroom over sexually explicit artwork on display in a busy hallway in North Santiam Hall, which also happens to be part of a campus art gallery. Some people found the art offensive and wanted it removed, while others found it expressive and were okay with it being uncensored and displayed.

The debate drew students, faculty and leadership from across the college campus, and students saw it as an opportunity to practice the Civil Discourse skills they were learning in class. The club was born as one team of students spoke in favor of the art, the other spoke against. Both teams were instructed on how to use constructive, informative and engaging dialogue that allowed people on both sides of the issue to be heard – a key component of the Heterodox Academy’s mission.

“At the time, our campus community was highly polarized with little to no engagement with those of differing perspectives on the artwork,” said Calhoun. “A small group of students decided to get together to hold a debate that did not aim on producing a winner or loser, but instead our goal was to accurately portray different perspectives from those that were being produced in echo chambers on our campus, for the purpose of learning.”

Since then, the Civil Discourse Club has made a concerted effort to create open and respectful environments that enhance understanding among individuals with diverse viewpoints; part of the club’s mission.

This past year, the club hosted two major speaking events that were free and open to the public: TED Talk speakers, Red Mom and Blue Mom; and John and Ciaran from the organization, Better Angels. Both events focused on how to share differing viewpoints in a meaningful and respectful way - without trying to change the other’s point of view.

As a testament to their work, the LBCC Civil Discourse Club was recently awarded full-chapter status as part of Bridge USA, the first (and so-far exclusive) community college branch of the organization. Similar to Heterodox, Bridge USA works with future leaders on college campuses to foster spaces where a diverse range of ideas can be heard. 

In addition, LBCC was the only community college featured in a recent Reason magazine article written by Jonathan Haidt and Debra Mashek. Titled “10 Colleges Where You Won’t Have to Walk on Eggshells,” the article highlights schools that are committed to civil and diverse debate, and included universities such as Arizona State, Chapman, University of Chicago, Kansas State, and Purdue, 

In its award letter to LBCC, Heterodox Academy noted: The levels of commitment, ambition, and innovation demonstrated by the Linn-Benton Community College Civil Discourse Club are truly extraordinary — and a model for students and faculty at other colleges and universities nationwide.

Heterodox has gathered data that reflects how community colleges are unique among universities and private colleges. That data shows that community colleges tend to have more diversity when it comes to socio-economic standing, political points of view, demographics, and life experiences.

“Because of our unique situation – that being a red county, blue county community college – we didn’t really have much choice but to figure out how to have these two worlds interact with one another and to provide space where everybody feels included,” said Urista. “I think the work the college has done around free expression is a testament to our college leadership. This work takes a tremendous amount of courage. Fortunately, we have that here.”