Westmont Magazine Tackling Divisive Issues with Deliberation and Dialogue

The Westmont Center for Dialogue and Deliberation (WCDD) teaches students and local community members how to tackle tough conversations spanning a range of divisive and emotionally charged topics. Gathering people together with diverse opinions and beliefs, the center helps participants speak and listen well about challenges facing the Santa Barbara community.

RAND & WCDD logos

WCDD is also working with RAND Corporation, a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges facing communities. The project addresses the issue of belonging on a college campus. After training from RAND and Wabash College on effectively moderating and hosting conversations with people from varied backgrounds, Westmont students will engage in virtual conversations with their peers nationwide about belonging and will deliberate in person on campus as well. They’ll participate in a broader conversation about belonging with leaders, policy makers and researchers across the country — likely including lawmakers and government officials from Washington, D.C. Westmont professors will collaborate with RAND, the Wabash College Democracy and Public Discourse Initiative and Indiana University’s (Bloomington) Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program.

Since 2018, WCDD has navigated complex issues with the Santa Barbara community by discussing key tensions, shared values and common ground in deliberative dialogues and other conversations. These events offer a better way to solve problems through deep listening, creative thinking and collaborative decision-making. WCDD’s conversations have covered topics from immigration in the United States to trash disposal in Santa Barbara County. Student moderators have spoken with unhoused people in Santa Barbara about their experiences and discussed sexuality and faith with local church members and pastors.

“Learning to facilitate dialogue gives students transferable skills through robust and reciprocal engagement with the community, building bridges between Westmont and local neighborhoods,” says Deborah Dunn, co-director of WCDD and professor of communication studies. “Students gain experience dealing with complex and layered communities. In our current polarized political climate, it’s more important than ever to equip our young adults, civic leaders and community members with the skills and tools they need to elevate conversations beyond false binaries and shallow techniques.”

“I walked out of the deliberation today confident about what we’ve been learning this year and excited about future possibilities of facilitating more deliberations,” says student facilitator Madden Hundley ’23. “I honestly felt blessed that I was given an opportunity to apply what I’ve been learning in class to a real-life scenario. What I saw today was people eager to engage in a conversation that mattered to them.”

Recently, WCDD hosted a conversation about the church’s role in our divided society, “What Are Churches For?” They developed a discussion guide for the deliberation adapted from “The Church’s Role in a Divided Society,” a Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative. Student facilitators walked participants through some options to discuss how churches might help people in their congregation navigate political discourse.

  • Option 1: Churches connect us to one another. This model fosters a communion of saints characterized by mutual dependence, concern, and union. This accentuates both the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship with others.

  • Option 2: Churches make visible God’s work in the world. This option sees churches as associations of people who encounter and bear witness to the visible presence of Christ. In this approach, a church itself functions as a “sacrament,” or tangible evidence of God's grace.

  • Option 3: Churches proclaim the gospel. This option sees churches as dedicated to proclaiming the word of God through faith. Unlike the other models, these churches point away from themselves and direct their congregants to Christ and the coming Kingdom of God.

Attendees entered the conversation with a firm leaning toward one of these ideas, but those who held firm convictions in other directions surprised and challenged them. Some changed their minds, but they all reported a greater understanding and appreciation for those who held opposing views and greater sympathy for differences of opinion. They also said they incorporated more complexity and nuance in their thinking.

In the last two years, Dunn; Elizabeth Gardner, a fellow communication studies professor, and WCDD co-director Rachel Winslow participated in mentoring and conversations in a Kettering Foundation initiative. WCDD has joined with Kettering on the Undergraduate Connections (UC) community, which organizes college students to develop and discuss skills in the democratic practice of facilitating dialogue. It also organizes a network of centers that help professors working on similar projects across different regions and disciplines.

UC encourages students to develop deliberative practices at the intersection of majors and methods as they gain skills they can use beyond college. Student facilitators may feel isolated as conversations become more polarized and divisive, and UC supports them.

WCDD seeks to equip Westmont students with the skills to connect with people despite seemingly intractable interpersonal divisions. “The one word I chose to describe how I felt after this deliberation was empowered,” says an anonymous student facilitator. “I now feel empowered to facilitate more tough yet vitally important conversations such as this one. I now feel empowered to make a change regarding the opioid crisis and other similar crises in our cities and country. I now feel empowered to face other academic and social challenges like this deliberation project more confidently. Last but not least, I now feel empowered to speak up boldly when the time is right and listen attentively when the time is right.”