After contentious town hall meetings in 2009, Chico’s then-Assistant City Manager, John Rucker, turned for help to the communications faculty at Chico State University. It turns out many folks do not know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
“He came to us because he was concerned about the tone at many of the city council meetings and asked how we could train the next generation to do better,” says Zach Justus, an assistant professor of communication who coordinates the university’s public speaking courses.
After consultation with city officials, Justus and his colleagues created the Great Debate & Civic Expo, a day-long event held each semester to engage students and community members on hot-button topics. “We want to demonstrate to students that they can have a discussion without shouting,” says Justus. “There’s a real emphasis on civility. We really hope this serves as a model of civil and civic discourse.”
The event represents the culmination of semester-length student research and presentations on the chosen theme. Faculty members tie into community and campus events and bring speakers into the classroom to build on existing resources and excite and motivate students about the topic and events.
Topic selection is collaborative, and each semester, faculty members, students and representatives from local government meet to discuss and decide the next semester’s theme, which for Fall 2013 is mental health and policies that affect California. “The community is also heavily involved in choosing,” says Justus. “It’s really produced the best results for us.”
The Great Debate & Civic Expo has grown from 300 student participants at its first event in 2010 to more than 2,000 students and several hundred community members each semester. Butte and Shasta Colleges joined as partners in Fall 2010 and Spring 2013, respectively.
“These events provide students with the confidence that they can participate in meaningful discussions about important issues that affect our communities,” says Shelly Presnell, Communication Studies faculty coordinator at Shasta College. “They leave the event feeling empowered by the knowledge that they can make a difference.”
Although the event is non-partisan, Justus says it draws attendance from the Republican and Democratic parties as well as other community groups, offering tremendous value to those who sit across the table from others who hold a different point of view.
“There are lots of places to see hot-button issues talked about, but not many places to see those things talked about well,” says Justus. “If people want to see something that is a real departure from what they would find on cable news, this is the place to come.” •
All events open to the public.
THEME: Mental Health & Policies Affecting California
The Great Debate – Chico State University (and Butte College)
Friday, Nov. 1
9 am (all day): Student debates, presentations and facilitated discussion groups.
6:30 pm: Evening debate - Chico State University speech and debate team paired with politicians, local activists, lobbyists and other community members.
Location: City Council Chambers, City Plaza, Chico.
The Great Debate & Civic Expo – Shasta College, Redding
Thursday, Nov. 7 – Great Debate
6-7:30 pm: Shasta College Speech and Debate team. Participants can use electronic polling clickers (anonymously) and/or engage in a question-and-answer period at the conclusion of the debate.
Location: Redding Public Library, Community Rooms A & B
Friday, Nov. 8 – Civic Expo
9 am – 1 pm: Student-produced interactive booths with activities and opportunity to dialogue.
Location: Shasta College Cafeteria