History of #CivilityVT:
Frenemies and Beyond

On the verge of the last Presidential election, the national dialogue in the fall of 2016 seemed to be particularly vitriolic. It was hard to imagine that it could get worse – boy were we wrong. Concerned about this quagmire and keen to promote civil discourse as an essential precursor for any group seeking to engage in deliberations around important policy matters, collaborative governance expert and VT faculty member Dr. Todd Schenk and collaborators started piloting means to promote civil discourse under the Frenemies Project banner.

In the wake of the election, Schenk and collaborators organized a Frenemies Day to encourage civil discourse among ‘frenemies’ (i.e., friends, family members and colleagues with strongly opposing views). It was meant to be a day to encourage healing in our civil discourse, and received significant media attention. 

In the Spring of 2017, a series of workshops providing basic training in civil discourse and opportunities to practice those skills around issues important to the community were organized at Virginia Tech under the #CivilityVT banner. The series was a partnership between Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs, the School of Public & International Affairs (SPIA), and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, initiated at the request of President Tim Sands. The program engaged a wide variety of students, faculty, staff, and other community members in civil conversations. Surveys and other forms of assessment conducted suggest that participants learned from the sessions and left with increased empathy and understanding of others with opinions different than their own. 

Largely distinct from this work, Lydia Gilmer, who was the president of the Mozaiko living-learning community in the 2018-19 academic year, organized an award-winning program for her residence hall called Controversial Conversations. These events brought residents together to discuss controversial yet important topics. There was some overlap between this series and #CivilityVT insofar as Schenk provided training to student leaders involved. While Gilmer has moved out of the community, the program continues, which is a testament to its success. Now in her second year of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Tech, Gilmer serves as a Graduate Research Assistant to Schenk and works alongside him to build upon and expand this work.

Schenk and Gilmer regularly lead trainings on civil discourse and active listening on the VT campus and beyond. With support from the Division of Student Affairs and the School of Public and Urban Affairs, an upcoming series will be offered to on-campus students, with hopes to provide a meaningful space for engagement, research, and civil discourse. More opportunities to participate and engage will occur in the coming weeks! Stay tuned for more information.