Justice Education

Good Work
April 2023

Davidson College Deliberative Citizenship Initiative

College campuses have become another battleground in the culture wars, but at Davidson College, the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative (DCI) has committed to forging a different path by bringing together students, faculty, and community members to cultivate active listening, humility, empathy, and curiosity as they practice talking about difficult issues across differences.

Even the name – Deliberative Citizenship Initiative – was chosen with care, to add nuance and depth to concepts that had become flattened in contemporary discourse. “Citizenship has become equated with what passport you hold, a kind of national identity, but this is not the only way to think about citizenship. We’ve tried to think about a broader sense of citizenship as the work that we do together to engage the problems we face in society,” said Graham Bullock, associate professor of political science and faculty director of the DCI. “‘Deliberation’ is sort of an antidote to the very harsh, toxic public discourse that we experience in the mainstream and social media contexts – talking past each other, not really engaging with one another’s reasons, sometimes not even providing reasons for why we hold the positions we do. We see deliberation as a form of discourse that is in good faith, trying to understand one another and then come up with new ideas that might often transcend where we started from.”

Several different people at Davidson College – the Director of the Writing Program, the Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, the Vice President for Student Life, as well as several students and faculty members – were independently working on promoting civic discourse and addressing political polarization for many years. In 2019, their independent efforts turned into a collaborative project, the DCI, which was funded by a grant from The Duke Endowment.

DCI recruited its first cohort of fellows, a mix of students, faculty, staff, and community members who were trained to be facilitators and host deliberations. The fellows are paid positions, which enables a wider range of students to participate. They held facilitator training sessions in early 2020, with the intention of hosting their first forum in April 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

“That summer we wondered if we should continue and forge ahead in the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of all the angst around the elections and racial tensions after the killing of George Floyd,” Bullock said. “And we decided that yes, we need to, and not despite those things, but actually because of them; that there is even more of a sense of urgency and hunger for these kinds of spaces and these kinds of conversations.”

DCI began hosting virtual forums in fall 2020, and immediately experienced high alumni interest since alumni were able to join virtually. Over the past 3 years, the forum format has evolved and now has both in person and virtual options and an hour of experts followed by an hour of small group deliberations.

“The panel of experts at the beginning of the forum demonstrates deliberation across different perspectives, and also gives the participants some background on a topic they may not know that much about, like housing policy,” Bullock said. “After listening to a panel talk, people often feel more confident to talk with other participants in their facilitator-led small groups. It’s worked well and the participants have been very engaged.”

Another core component of the DCI are “D Teams” – facilitated small groups of students, faculty, staff, community members, and alumni, who agree to meet together three times over the semester to discuss difficult topics. This past year the DCI had 20 teams – about 160 people total – meeting at least 3 times each semester.

“Since it is not just a one-time thing, like the forums, we find by the end people are really building trust and engaging deeply about difficult topics,” Bullock said.

Bullock hopes that the DCI will not only contribute to the flourishing of our democracy, but that students will carry these virtues and skills into their whole lives.

“I hope people understand that these skills of dialogue, deliberation, and productive debate are not just relevant to the classroom or the college liberal arts experience. They are also very relevant to vocations in almost any field – government, non-profit work, being a lawyer, being a doctor – whatever it is, you need to be able to talk with people about difficult topics and across differences. These are lifelong skills that are important in nearly every context.”