Beneath a large painting of the Founding Fathers signing the U.S. Constitution, dozens of Philadelphians engaged in a discussion geared toward promoting a democratic republic.
As part of its “Can We Talk?” programming, the Pennsylvania Project for Civic Engagement brought Philadelphia residents from various age groups, careers, and political beliefs together Saturday to discuss how to have civil dialogue with people they might disagree with.
The Penn Project has been hosting structured civic-dialogue workshops since 1995. It has recently become affiliated with the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocacy organization focused on Philadelphia politics.
The event, held at the National Liberty Museum in Old City, had two parts: a morning conversation about the polarizing issues that face the United States today, and an afternoon session focusing on tips and tricks for working with people — whether within someone’s family or in the workplace — in a way that isn’t divisive.
“When I get engaged in a conversation with somebody and they are pushing against me, rather than push back, I try to think what circle I can draw that brings us both together? Where might we find some commonality?” said Harris Sokoloff, Penn Project’s co-founder.
“Can We Talk?” programming began following the 2016 presidential election, after a professor at the University of Pennsylvania told Sokoloff that he had conservative students who felt uncomfortable speaking about their political beliefs because of the university’s liberal leaning.
That prompted discussion of how to create a conversation in which students could talk about politics from different viewpoints in a way that was constructive and productive.
Since then, the program has expanded to other colleges. Saturday’s event was the first workshop for the general public.
“The people that come are obviously a self-selected audience, and they are hungry for constructive political conversation,” said Sokoloff, who is also a Penn professor. “They’re tired of political conversation that decays into name-calling or into position-grandstanding. They want something that is constructive and helpful.”
A big part of facilitating dialogue in the workshop — and constructive dialogue with people who have differing opinions in general — was laying ground rules. These included such ideas as listening is as important as talking,…