Through collaborations with the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy and the Beach Museum at Kansas State University, Barton County 4-H and other leaders across the state are being trained to facilitate discussions on difficult topics in their communities.
The goal of the project, a first of its kind, is to develop leadership skills revolving around engagement in civil conversation and communications, said Michelle Beran, 4-H and Youth Development Agent for the Cottonwood Extension District-Barton County.
“While the mechanics of this project evolve, the 4-H objective remains to encourage and help our young people to grow in their communications skills,” Beran said. She added that an important part of those skills involves participating in civil conversations over controversial material. “This is something we all need to practice but to learn to communicate in a civil manner at a young age is so important because it creates opportunities to bring many different viewpoints to the table.”
Listening to understand is a thematic thread woven throughout the curriculum. “There is no better way to find some common ground than with an open ear,” said Beran. “For example, we want Barton County to have the best leadership and the strongest economic environment as possible for the benefit of our community.”
She said the specifics of reaching common ground may look very different for each person. “That’s the challenge. At the end of the day, how can we take that common goal and find things that matter to all of us that help enhance our area.”
Beran noted that good listening skills, which involve listening with respect, are useful at any age. “Whether you’re 12 or 112, good listening is something where we can all improve.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beran said training has been delayed until the first quarter of 2021.
“Face-to-face trainings have been shut down for several months,” said Beran. “When training on engaging in civil discourse, it’s important to be able to sit face-to-face with someone that you may disagree with. You miss an important aspect of conversing with people when training of this type is done virtually.”
She said training will begin with the 4-H Junior Leader Group which is comprised of youth from ages 13-18 who are enrolled in the leadership project.
“This is for young people who really want to improve and enhance their leadership and communication skills and become future leaders of our communities,” said Beran.
Participants can begin their civil discourse training with an online program known as Conversation Boot Camp (CBC). CBC is an interactive experience that teaches participants skills and concepts that enable community conversations.
These short lessons are designed to be paired with a two-hour live session that can be implemented in person or on Zoom.
“Again, ideally this is something that is optimal in face-to-face sessions with 20 to 30 kids from two or three counties working together,” Beran said. “But the Zoom sessions will at least provide some coaching and training with statewide 4-H leaders to really help participants think through their own listening and communications skills while developing understanding of other cultures.”
In addition to CBC, other highlights of the training curriculum include Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which are researched techniques currently used at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State. VTS provides facilitated discussion where participants are asked a series of questions that guide them through viewing samples of art.
Topics covered in the Community Conversation series include:
• How do we prevent mass shootings in our community?
• Mental Illness in America: How do we address a growing problem?
• Land Use Conflict: When City and Country Meet
• Bullying: How do we prevent it?
Potential future topics include:
• Safety & Justice: How should communities reduce violence?
• Too Many Children Left Behind: How do we close the achievement gap?
• Making Ends Meet: How Do We Spread Prosperity and Improve Opportunity?
• Voting: How should we safeguard and improve our elections?
Beran said that a big advantage of receiving the civil discourse training is how it will benefit young people entering the job market.
“Imagine how good this training will look on a resume,” she said. “This can really serve as an impactful piece they can take into the next stage of their life.”