There have been some startling examples recently of public meetings that have gone off the rails. City council and school board meetings convened to discuss vaccine and mask mandates have devolved into chaotic shouting matches, some even escalating to threats of violence, requiring police presence. The contentious environment has led some school board members to resign, citing fears of safety.
Regarding the increasingly tense situation, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, released a joint statement saying:
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact everyone, we are concerned with the increasing reports of our members—school superintendents and school board members—who are working to ensure a safe reopening of schools while addressing threats and violence, and being undermined by those who do not agree with their school guidelines for COVID-19 best practices. School leaders across the country are facing threats because they are simply trying to follow the health and scientific safety guidance issued by federal, state, and local health policy experts.”
Tense public meetings are not new to public officials nor are they entirely avoidable, but there are steps cities and school boards can take to create a more civil environment to allow for productive conversation on divisive issues. The Bridging Divides Initiative, the Crime and Justice Institute, and DC Peace Team recently collaborated to create a set of guides for members of the public, elected leaders, and law enforcement working to maintain the civility and productivity of public meetings.
Additionally, civic engagement experts suggest looking beyond large public meetings as the only engagement mechanism. Suggestions for engagement include listening sessions with underrepresented populations, hosting public meetings at de-politicized centers for civic life such as libraries or churches and setting up “fireside chat” types of events periodically with small groups. Another suggestion is to have periodic conversations and an open dialogue about what’s going on in the community (or school), without having a divisive topic on the agenda of a public meeting. This will provide more opportunities for engagement outside of big decisions and complaints.
The National Issues Forums—a nonpartisan, nationwide network of locally sponsored public forums for the consideration of public policy issues—has several issue guides that allow residents to have deliberative, informed discussions on historically divisive policy issues.
“What the organizers of these dialogues and meetings have discovered is that when citizens are given the chance to have a deliberative, informed discussions of the real world trade-offs associated with various policy alternatives, ordinary citizens are capable of surprising levels of nuance and flexibility, even on controversial issues such as social security and health care reform.” (National Civic Review)
Lastly, there are several organizations doing work in the dialogue and bridging space who have similar resources, as well as opportunities for individuals to practice civil discourse. You can find a non-exhaustive list in the Bridge Alliance’s membership directory.