Civil, Not War

From left: U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and UMKC Prof. Allan Katz. Photo by Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

The Village Square seeks politics on a higher plane

The United States Congress is well-known for many things, but civility is not one of them. Still, two members of Congress who have developed a reputation for their across-the-aisle cooperation came to the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City to help launch a new national effort to restore civil political discourse.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II is a black Democrat from Missouri. Rep. Kevin Yoder is a white Republican from Kansas. The two shared a stage, and an idea, with the organizers of a new Kansas City-based effort to restore civil discourse to our national politics.

The concept isThe Village Square, a model and a vehicle for civic engagement. The idea is to bring back the spirit of the American town hall and engage local citizens in civil dialogue. The concept was originally launched as a local project in Tallahassee, Fla. Now, one of the founders – UMKC faculty member Allan Katz – is taking it national, with Kansas City as its headquarters and model local chapter.

Wednesday’s luncheon event featuring Cleaver and Yoder was the introduction of The Village Square to Kansas City.

The Village Square holds comfortable, casual forums and offers programming that brings people together for face-to-face interactions about polarizing issues facing local communities and the nation. The goal is to engage in dialog, build connections, seek understanding, and solve real problems.

The Village Square was formed after a divisive local referendum in Tallahassee on whether to buy into a proposed coal plant. The debate quickly turned into an expensive PR campaign that obscured the facts more than it educated the citizens. Two residents on opposite sides of the issue – Katz (then, a Democratic City Commissioner) and his good friend Dr. Bill Law (then, the Republican Tallahassee Community College President) – regretted the lack of what they considered “real conversations” about the coal plant, complete with an effort to understand facts and higher level reasoning.

So they launched the Village Square there, “founded on relationships between people who disagree with each other, but still talk and may even occasionally like each other.” Since then, the concept has spread to three additional communities, including Kansas City, where Katz, a UMKC alumnus, recently joined the UMKC faculty after serving as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal.

Village Square events, Katz explained, take great pains to create a comfortable, hospitable and safe environment where everyone feels welcome. Fact checkers, a ban on group applause, and the use of a “civility bell” sounded when speakers cross the line are all part of the experience.

Each chapter is required to have co-chairs from opposite sides of the political aisle. In Kansas City, the two founding chairs are Mary Bloch, a Democrat; and Peggy Dunn, a Republican.

“This is such a simple idea it’s a shame there has to be an organization to promote it,” Bloch said. Dunn added, “This isn’t just about politics. It’s about issues that are polarizing.”  

The two congressmen sat in comfortable upholstered chairs on the stage and shared an unstructured conversation, along with some good-natured banter. Both, however, cited a real need for a different kind of political conversation.

“We can’t get a budget passed, we can’t get a highway bill passed and we can’t get an energy bill passed, and we don’t have the necessary mental health facilities in our country,” Cleaver said. “If we’re not able to work together, we’re not going to be able to solve the problems we face.”

Yoder said that politicians, and the public, need to move past finding fault and assigning blame. “The question is, can you point out something you can do to help?”

“I’ve found that people in both parties have similar goals. They just have different ideas about how to get there,” Yoder said.

UMKC Chancellor Leo E. Morton said the university is supporting Village Square as one more way to live up to its responsibility to its students. The paralysis caused by our current political chasm, Morton said, diminishes opportunity for graduating students.

“We need to have an impact on the environment they will enter into when they graduate,” Morton said. 

Katz insisted that the nation is not as polarized as voting patterns and media reports would seem to indicate.

“I believe that a lot of Americans have simply tuned out because there is no space in politics for them,” he said. The goal of Village Square is to create that space – and make it comfortable and fun so people will want to participate.

Katz said people who hear about the concept sometimes ask about the “end game” – what Village Square intends to produce as an outcome.

“What’s going to change is having a process in the community in which to have these conversations,” Katz said. “The process is the product.

“There’s a tipping point out there – a hunger in this land for rational conversation,” Katz said. “We’re going to create a place for that in Kansas City.”

| John Martellaro, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

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