Encouraging city leaders to find common ground with each other

Last week, the Association of Washington Cities held its annual conference in Vancouver, Washington. Founded in 1933, the AWC is a nonpartisan advocacy organization that represents Washington’s cities and towns before the state legislature, the state executive branch, and with regulatory agencies. The nonprofit consistently maintained 100% participation from Washington’s 281 cities and towns, and has a Board of Director that oversees their activities.

The conference featured a panel discussion focused on Washington state’s civic health, which was designed to create a conversation around finding common ground and developing genuine relationships — between local and state governments, between governments and higher education, and within the institutions themselves. AWC believes that city leaders, as nonpartisan officials in the government closest to the people, are uniquely positioned to address our civic health crisis and to counteract the current political divide by improving dialogue across differences and building community solutions to shared challenges.

Panelists included some of the Project for Civic Health‘s partners — The Ruckelshaus Center Director Julia Carboni, Lt. Governor Denny Heck, and UW Evans School Dean Jodi Sandfort — as well as Senator John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) and Representative J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm).

The partners discussed the Common Ground for the Common Good report’s findings about some factors contributing to the decline of our state’s civic health, namely social media and its algorithms that create echo chambers, the decline of local journalism, the lack of civic education, and the absence of leadership training that emphasizes listening.

They also shared about their experience hosting the Civic Health Summit last October, where nearly 200 people from diverse social and political groups across the state gathered. The partners found that, when given the opportunity and space to do so, people showed a willingness to be open and engage in genuine dialogues with those who held different thoughts and opinions.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, who participated in last year’s Civic Health Summit, agreed on that finding. As a Republican from Eastern Washington, he understood the tendency to label or stereotype others from different backgrounds, and had experienced being labeled himself. He raised a concern that this tendency could drive us further apart and, with the election season nearing, could be very harmful to our society. “It is critical for us to figure out how we can diffuse the tension rather than fueling it,” said Rep. Wilcox.

Sen. John Lovick is one of the co-sponsors of a legislation which created the Joint Select Committee on Civic Health. Consisting of members of the state legislature. he stated that this new committee was a crucial step toward improving our civic health from the state legislative branch’s perspective. He also credited the bill’s passage to state legislators who can disagree on many issues while still respecting the individuals and the institutions, such as Sen. Nikki Torres (R-Pasco) who is the other co-sponsor of the bill. “Compromise is necessary to bridge the gaps between parties,” said Sen. Lovick.

Agreeing with Sen. Lovick’s points, Dean Jodi Sandfort noted that higher education institutions, such as UW, have a responsibility to promote democracy by encouraging debates and trust in both the community and civil society institutions. She also emphasized that compromising is necessary in a democratic society due to our diversity and pluralism of thoughts. “Challenging your own beliefs is an element for a functioning democracy,” said Dean Sandfort.

Lt. Governor Denny Heck contributed by highlighting the importance of finding common ground, disagreeing better with each other, and engaging in respectful public discourse. City leaders are responsible for achieving tangible outcomes and addressing complex policy issues for their communities. Without striving to reach principled compromises, it would be challenging to govern effectively. “Treat one another with respect and don’t be part of the outrage industrial complex,” said the Lt. Governor.

Partners of the Project for Civic Health with cohorts of the WA-CELI program

Lastly, the panel spoke about the inaugural WA-CELI program — a collaborative effort by the AWC, UW Evans School, and The Ruckelshaus Center. This training program was created to address one of the most pressing issues found in the Common Ground report, specifically “the absence of leadership training that emphasizes listening.”

The program aims to help reshape Washington state’s political culture into one that is more collaborative, responsive, and community-minded. It hopes to encourage local elected officials to engage with their constituents more authentically and work together across differences to tackle the problems their communities are facing.

Director Julia Carboni stated that leadership skills, including listening skills, are not intuitive; people need training through programs such as WA-CELI. She also strongly believes in the essence of building the relationships needed to develop good public policies. “To improve our relationships with other people, particularly with those who are different from us, we need to get to know each other better,” said Director Carboni. “We need to focus on the goods and take the time to talk and listen to one another.”

Sen. Lovick echoed her thoughts on the value of relationship building, and stated that we need to reward those good behaviors in order to teach other community members to do the same. “We need to share success stories of different people finding common ground and reaching principled compromises,” said the Senator, circling back to Lt. Governor Heck’s “outrage industrial complex” and how we can counteract its effects.

Despite the challenging nature of our divisions, the panelists held onto their hope and commitment to continue sharing this message across the state. They closed the discussion by reminding the audience to understand how their role and position in the government can be powerful and effective to improve civic health in our state. Since 66% of people still have trust in their local governments, this is an opportunity to be seized.

Is the Partisan Divide Too Big to Be Bridged? | The New York Times

The Project for Civic Health is one of many ongoing efforts in the nation to improve our public discourse and promote collaborative problem-solving. Recently, Jonathan Weisman, a reporter at The New York Times, published an article titled “Is the Partisan Divide Too Big to Be Bridged?” This article caught our eyes as it showcased the sentiment that drove our effort to build common ground in Washington state.

Weisman mentioned the “outrage industrial complex” — which includes politicians, cable news, and social media — as contributing to worsening our nation’s heightened divisions. It produces media content that specifically increases engagement by provoking anger or rage. The intent behind this ranges from generating more ad revenues to causing social disruption; meanwhile, the effects may negatively impact the actions or attitudes of those who view the content. It also exacerbates the political polarization that we have today, making it harder for anyone to reach principled compromises or find common ground when possible.

In his article, Weisman also highlighted a number of nationwide civic health-related organizations and movements that are working to counter the effects of the “outrage industrial complex.” Trust for Civic Life, for example, is providing financial awards to groups engaged in community-level democracy efforts, backed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the MacArthur Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and others.

Some other organizations that were mentioned as part of the bridge-building effort include Rural-Urban Exchange (Kentucky), NewGround (Los Angeles), The Lyceum Movement (Midwest), BridgeUSA, and Braver Angels — with whom the Project for Civic Health has worked closely in the past.

Weisman did note that these efforts to promote democratic pluralism seem small and beyond reach when big actors such as cable news and social media push the wave in the opposite direction. As many subjects today have become increasingly divisive, if you don’t engage in genuine conversations with people holding different thoughts and opinions, one participant said, “that lets them [the ‘other side’] drive the narrative” — which Weisman stated as a recurring issue in the movement.

However, many individuals involved in the organizations mentioned previously find the effort worthwhile, even with all the challenges. Quoting another participant in the article, “Relationships are the root and the flower. They are the point at which social infrastructure creates infrastructure for anything to happen.”

Read Jonathan Weisman’s article in The New York Times.

Enlisting local elected officials to strengthen civic health

The Common Ground for the Common Good report highlighted several solutions offered by the civic health roundtable discussion participants. One of those ideas involved creating training programs on respectful dialogues for candidates and elected leaders. The Summit participants explored this topic further and recommended ways to implement it.

Given this significant interest, the UW Evans School of Public Policy & Governance and The William D. Ruckelshaus Center, together with the Association of Washington Cities, gathered to consider possibilities. The group agreed that strong civic health reflects the ability of community members to address public challenges.

Yet, there are many indications that the public lacks the trust in government to do what is right. Specifically, Gallup Poll documents that trust in the U.S. government is as low as 39%. The same poll, however, noted that levels of trust in state government (57%) and local government (66%) are measurably higher. The partners believed this presented an opportunity in Washington state that must be seized, and created the Washington Collaborative Elected Leaders Institute (WA-CELI) — a four-month training program that invests in local elected officials’ capacity and courage to work collaboratively across differences to tackle pressing problems in their communities.

“47 elected officials from towns as small as Pateros and cities as large as Tacoma applied to participate in the inaugural cohort, because they want to be part of the solution to our civic health crisis,” said Deanna Dawson, CEO of AWC. “Through WA-CELI, they will develop the skills, knowledge, and connections needed to improve the civic health of Washington state.”

The primary goal of this program is to help reshape the political culture of Washington into one that is more collaborative, responsive, and community-minded through building a network of elected leaders and experiential learning.

“The Ruckelshaus Center is excited to partner on this program to build the civic health of our state. Participants will explore diverse strategies to navigate differing perspectives and foster collaboration to address complex policy issues within our cities and towns and achieve tangible outcomes for their constituents,” said Director Julia Carboni. “Beyond the invaluable training they will receive, participants will also gain insights into the unique challenges confronting communities across the state and forge meaningful connections with other elected leaders.”

Below are some key issues identified by the AWC Annual City Conditions Survey, which are the kinds of topics that will be discussed in the program:

  • Infrastructure conditions
  • Increased cost of city services
  • Housing affordability
  • Workforce affordability
  • Availability of behavioral health resources
  • Crime
  • Transportation

“Washington’s two premier public universities are partnering with the Association of Washington Cities to enable elected officials to practice a fundamental element in democratic decision-making: disagreeing without being disagreeable,” said Jodi Sandfort, Dean of UW Evans School. “The issues of the day require serious and civil debates and we are pleased that so many elected cities officials want to build their capacity in this important practice.”

To learn more about the program, please visit: Washington Collaborative Elected Leaders Institute (WA-CELI) application.

Mónica Guzmán: navigating a pluralistic society with hope by listening

The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound recently hosted its inaugural Community Conversation event. As an organization steadfast in its dedication to fostering collaboration, engagement, and inclusion, they envision a future where everyone in the region can thrive in communities that are sustainable, equitable, and resilient.

“In selecting the first Community Conversation theme, we were struck by the concerning trend of increased polarization across our communities,” said Mary Lam-Witcher, the Community Foundation’s Philanthropy and Communications Officer. “This is why we are thrilled to welcome Mónica Guzmán after hearing her speak at a philanthropy event last year.”

Mónica Guzmán is a journalist and Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels. She also authored The New York Times recommended book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

During a fireside chat with Renee Radcliff Sinclair, CEO of TVW, Mónica discussed her background as the daughter of parents who hold completely different political beliefs from her. Growing up, she learned to navigate the differences between her parents and herself – including how to approach sensitive subjects when it was challenging for them to even agree on their most core values.

Mónica found the most helpful technique in this situation was to listen. Listen closely to what the other person is saying. Because when you listen, you will be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand where their reasoning comes from, which allows you to see and respect them as fellow human beings.

One of the most sensitive topics that would spark a heated argument between her mother and her was reproductive rights. To this day, they do not agree about almost anything related to this issue. However, what they do agree on is that even though their values contradict one another, it doesn’t mean that one matters less than the other.

“Listening is one of the keys to building relationships and trust between one another,” Mónica said.

One of the most important aspects of listening, she believes, is to understand the concerns that underlie someone’s reaction or the arguments one presents on an issue. Topics can often be complex and require deep knowledge – but, as Mónica eloquently put it, “Concerns don’t wait for education.” Even when people lack expertise on certain issues, their concerns still need to be heard; listening helps ease the tension and division among people with different positions.

Mónica believes this is critical because disagreements are inevitable. We live in a pluralistic country, filled with diverse people who hold varied opinions and beliefs. Diversity is essential to our society because the friction between us may help reveal blind spots or weaknesses. Without people challenging our thoughts, we may remain in a bubble of ignorance. And although it can be uncomfortable, “Diversity isn’t just about the differences we like,” she said.

She cautioned the audience not to shame people who hold different opinions, beliefs, or thoughts from their own. Shaming may push people toward others who will listen to them, deepening the divide of our country instead of building coalition to address issues.

Mónica also encouraged people to not only appreciate but to engage with those with different perspectives, though as a young woman of color, she understands the fear in approaching those engagements. They can be detrimental to our safety, both physical and emotional. And it may be difficult to anticipate whether an engagement will be harmful or welcoming. To overcome that, she advised the audience to start with something small – ideally with people with whom they feel comfortable.

“Awareness is deafening now.”

Mónica Guzmán – on what gives her hope

As the evening came to a close, Mónica shared her formula of hope; it’s the combination of goals, roadmap, and willpower. In other words, she believes people should act on practical, achievable goals by envisioning a path and finding reasons to stay committed to it, and it is best done with members of their community.

Through the hard work of the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, over 300 people were able to come together to engage with Mónica and her discussion of political polarization based on her personal perspective and experience.

“We believe that inclusive civic engagement and productive dialogue are vital for a functioning community and democracy,” said Mindie Rule, President and CEO of the Community Foundation. “Always expecting unity in a community like ours is not practical, but we must strive to avoid turning people we disagree with into our enemies. Many of us share a common interest in the well-being of our community, and that gives me hope.”

How to Disagree Better

Many organizations across the nation are promoting civic health and respectful public discourse despite our differences – including Braver Angels. They are a leading cross-partisan, volunteer-led movement in bridging partisan division in the U.S. through community gatherings, real debates, and grassroots leaders working together.

They have a chapter here in Washington state that is working in our local communities, holding workshops and public presentations designed to bridge the rising political polarization in our country.

In October 2023, the Project for Civic Health hosted a day-long summit which was opened by keynote speaker Mónica Guzmán, Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, journalist, and the author of The New York Times recommended book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

Our summit also held a panel which included writer, rancher, and columnist Sue Lani Madsen – one of the Braver Angels coordinators in Washington state.

Braver Angels regularly hosts workshops with the goal of understanding the values, perspectives, and concerns of those who differ from us. One of these workshops is called “Listen, Acknowledge, Pivot, Perspective (LAPP)” that emphasizes those four skills:

  • Listen carefully:
    • Turn off your inner debater and don’t prepare your response yet.
    • Be ready to to summarize what the other person is saying.
    • Focus both on the other person’s point of view and their underlying values and concerns.
    • Look for something to agree with if possible.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s view before you share your own perspective:
    Most political conversations go this way: “You say up, I say down; you say hot, I say cold; you say my candidate is terrible and I say yours is worse.” The principle behind the Acknowledge skill is to connect first before you disagree.

    Acknowledging means letting the other person know that you heard their viewpoint and the strength of the feelings, values, and concerns about it. You are feeding back what you heard without just parroting back their words.
  • Pivot
    A pivot signals that you are about to offer your own point of view. Think of a pivot as signaling that you are going to make a turn in your car, though the actual turn comes later. Examples: “Can I offer my thoughts on this?” or “This is something I’ve thought a lot about.”

    If the other person seems open to listening to what you have to say, then continue. If not, if they just repeat their point, ignore your pivot, or show wariness about taking your turn (verbally or nonverbally), then consider backing up.
  • Perspective
    Elements to consider:
    • I-statements rather than Truth-statements (e.g., “This is how I see it” as opposed to “This is how it is.”)
    • Name your sources
    • Share a life experience or personal story behind your point of view
    • Try to mention something you agree with
    • Avoid negative labels
    • Avoid “You Democrats/Republicans” language; instead, focus on the people in the conversation rather than lumping anyone into a larger group.

We commend groups like Braver Angels that are working in our community to strengthen the skills needed to disagree better.

Does your group help improve our state’s civic health? Let us know!