Participants at the Red Wing Community Assembly

The Need for Civil Discourse: A Participant Review of the Minnesota Community Assembly Project

This blog is part of an ongoing series where we interview community members, experts, and partners that have participated in our projects. Dave Hill, a resident of Red Wing, Minnesota, reflects on his experiences at the Community Assembly.

I chose to participate in the Minnesota Community Assembly because I believed in the objectives of the Citizens Assembly and I was interested  witnessing how the “dynamics” of such an event could evolve. I believe social discourse is a lost art, and this sounded like a unique experience, even a little bit like a social experiment. I was also curious to see the benefits of hosting an assembly, especially after reading Hamline Professor David Schultz’s interview in the Pioneer Press about the event.

Over my many years in business I have learned, and grown to deeply appreciate, the value of effective communication in many areas, such as interpersonal relationships, marketing, team building, inter-company businesses activities, and most importantly, leadership. I’ve worked in a variety of positions during my life, and worked for two of what I believe to be the finest, remarkable companies in America- S.B. Foot Tanning and Red Wing Shoe Company. My positions included industrial engineer, sales rep, regional sales manager, and marketing director.

I retired in 2014, but I have been fortunate enough to become involved with the Red Wing High School Speech team as a volunteer coach. Since my retirement I have had the “luxury” of following our political landscape, the current leadership crisis in many areas of our society and both domestic and international affairs. My goal is to stay “cognitively competent” and reasonably informed about my community, our country, and our world.

At the Assembly

Looking back on the assembly, knowing what the objectives were, and who the audience was, I really believe this event was a success because of the Jefferson Center. Any time you try to get a large group of people together, look out. There definitely needs to be clear expectations, rules, and agendas to ensure the event isn’t doomed to failure. But, we were successful: we covered a lot of ground, had an appropriate level of feedback and commentary, and we were part of a diverse audience.

I was looking forward to the entire agenda for the assembly, as we were learning about many facets of local government. I especially enjoyed the topics that centered on improving community engagement,  and potentially used to  focus on younger demographics. These included better public meetings, youth councils, and improved digital public engagement.

When I think back on other public meetings that weren’t orchestrated or coordinated, I can confidently say they can become  very un-productive and sometimes, downright hostile.  One of the meeting videos we saw on town halls proved that these can often turn into a free for all. While I love being extemporaneous, having a great facilitative group made all the difference in the world by providing organization. We arrived at a lot of solid recommendations.  Someone who studied the Community Assembly likely couldn’t walk away without seeing we did something great.

Democracy is not without difficulties

With such a diverse group of citizens, there may have been some people that tended to be a bit more negative or confrontational. Of course, somebody usually has an agenda, and there are definitely people you can’t make happy all the time. While there were a few times when the situation got a little uncomfortable, it was diffused and handled appropriately. The key message I’m taking away is healthy debate is good, but it’s key to remember civility. It’s okay to have tension in civil discourse, but we need to respect everyone at the same time.

The potential of facilitated dialogue

While there hasn’t been much news coverage publicizing the event, I think it’s important for our community to learn from it because it was so unique, and in the final analysis, proved that people working/communicating together can be productive. This is exactly what I think America needs: getting people together and having a reasonable conversation. Citizens can have guided conversations, and arrive at recommendations sensibly, which we don’t do enough of anymore.

I think there’s the potential for this model to be used for companies. Business development usually focuses on a range of other factors, but should include facilitation. Companies can help lead people to have productive meetings by setting clear expectations and including multiple perspectives.

What’s next?

If given the chance, I would probably participate in another assembly. I think most of the other participants would agree. Since the assembly, I’ve run into other participants and no one has said “I hated that!”. However, I would push for a younger demographic to be included. After all, younger demographics are the future. It’s important to think about how we entice younger people to participate, and perhaps hosting a mini assembly at the school during the school year would work.

I think Red Wing would benefit from considering a few other topics as well:

  • I’d like to see a community assembly on improving public education, as a community and as a nation. What are viable initiatives to raise the level of learning in K-12 education?
  • For a broader topic, we could explore a return to civil discourse. What exactly is it? We need to learn to have healthy conversations without vitriol, histrionics, extreme partisanship, and hatred.
  • Discuss with our fellow citizens about what free speech means–how we can re-establish it in our society?

Dave Hill is currently a volunteer speech coach with Red Wing High School. Over his career, he’s worked for S.B. Foot Tanning and Red Wing Shoe Company. During his tenure as marketing director at S.B. Foot, he helped re-establish their presence and business activities in Europe and North America. As Director of Product Development at Red Wing Shoe, helped build and establish the Heritage division as a premium footwear brand. While he’s now retired, Dave keeps busy working with high schoolers on the speech team, mentoring at the Twin Bluff middle school and helping on various projects at Awesome Burnside elementary school.  He and Sheryl (his wife and closest friend) love to travel, staying in touch with daughter Kate and son Jordan, and of course, playing golf.  

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