Five students from Pine Bluff High School met with school district administrators Jan. 23 to discuss their experiences with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Beyond Civility program in October.
“The Institute is hosting a program for high school students representing districts in four Arkansas communities around the meaning and importance of civil conversations and how to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue in order to foster collaboration, promote mutual understanding and resolve conflict,” according to a news release from the Institute. “The program will employ facilitated exercises and curriculum to empower students to model civil behavior and respectful dialogue in their communities.”
During the recent meeting, the PBHS students talked about how the program’s lessons found a home in each of their personal lives and how they want to extend those lessons to the district at large.
“What most stuck with me was just the topic of ‘arguing’ in general and how everybody viewed it,” said Ahmad Pace, a junior at PBHS. “But when we actually learned about it, it was like, ‘Wow, I never knew something like an argument could be so peaceful. Not getting into a confrontation and how we could just agree to disagree, just let something be instead of someone having to be right and the other wrong.’”
More and more people are finding it difficult to engage in civil discourse, especially in conversations about uncomfortable social or political topics, according to the release.
When PBHS Senior Makaila Eckermann arrived at the Institute, she noticed there were two predominantly white school and two predominantly black schools, so she knew it was safe to consider that race would come up in conversation, according to the release.
“I didn’t think the conversations were going to go the way they went,” Eckermann said. “We were very open-minded of each other’s racial experiences and I felt like I had common ground with both sides because I’m bi-racial.”
The health of the democracy depends on the ability of citizens to have meaningful public conversations about challenging issues and to participate in the search for solutions together, according to the release.
PBHS senior Taylor Johnson had struggled with believing she was always right, regardless of the disagreement, according to the release.
“But going through the process at Beyond Civility, it helped me understand other people’s point of view,” Johnson said. “For instance, I’m a cheerleader. Say me and my friends have a disagreement about the game or uniforms, and now I listen to them and make myself stop thinking about what I want.”
Whether these conversations are held during cheerleading practice or a public forum, civility must include a commitment to meaningful dialogue in order to produce thoughtful and effective change, according to the release.
After the presentation, several administrators thanked the students for sharing their experiences, even offering to help them schedule a future time when they could share their stories with younger students across the district.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities to move the district forward and I want these students to focus on working with their classmates, explaining their experience with the program,” said PBHS Principal Michael Nellums. “And it’s not just young people today. Even I tend to be a tad bit uncivil simply because there are so many avenues to express yourself, and we take them and utilize these avenues to self-express often without any consideration for the feelings of others because it’s such an instant, snapshot world. And people respond as such.”
Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jeremy Owoh was also very supportive of sharing the message with underclassmen, according to the release.
“It’s important to utilize our student leaders, like we saw today,” Owoh said. “They know exactly what the need is, and students from other grades really look up to them. So it’s important to support them in carrying the message of being civil and what civility actually looks like in the process of coming to the table even though we have opposing views.”