Group of people in conversation

“Speaking together differently so that we might learn to live together differently” is what The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project (CCP) seeks to model during this time of deep polarization in public life. We recently caught up with CCP executive director, Lucas Johnson, for a conversation about the CCP and a preview of one community’s “A Year of Courageous Conversations.” 

The Civil Conversations Project was born in the wake of the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords. It was a response that sought to model not only “what it would look like to have conversations across our political divide, but in a way that held our common humanity at the center and provided space for the moral wrestling that communities needed to have,” explained Lucas Johnson. Krista Tippett, founder and CEO of The On Being Project, initiated what has become an “evolving adventure in audio, events, resources, and initiatives for planting relationship and conversation around the subjects we fight about intensely—and those we’ve barely begun to discuss.”

Early on people began asking how they could practice civil conversations in their own lives and communities. One of the initial responses was the creation of the Better Conversations Guide. Fetzer partnered with On Being on the production of the guide, which includes the Grounding Virtues that guide every facet of The On Being Project’s work. “The guide went like wildfire,” said Johnson. A grassroots passion for experimenting with ways to customize and implement civil conversations within the context of workplaces, neighborhoods, communities, and beyond has driven the growth and evolution of the project ever since.

“Since I’ve joined our team, we’ve stayed in this responsive mode, responding to all the opportunities that have come our way where people have said, ‘hey, we’re excited to do this, what can we do?’” noted Johnson. “A Year of Courageous Conversations” (AYCC), a series of community conversations developed by the Urban Consulate and Barrington’s White House in Barrington, Illinois, is a good example of one of those projects. On November 13, at Upswell 2019 in Chicago, Johnson will be joined by Krista Tippett; Eddie Gonzalez, associate director of the Civil Conversations Project; and co-hosts of AYCC, Reverend Dr. Zina Jacque, Claire Nelson, and Jessica Swoyer-Green for “Adventurous Civility: Courage in a Time of Division.”

“What makes Barrington distinct, from their perspective, is that they’re a relatively affluent suburb of Chicago. It’s not the kind of environment where people are used to having conversations around identity and how it affects their public life,” noted Johnson. While they are proud of their civic engagement and sense of community, “does that sometimes contribute to conversations getting swept under the rug—[conversations] that may need to happen to help the community flourish and grow together?”

Barrington organizers realized that conversations, while they may be polite, aren’t always courageous. “They may preserve a kind of civility, but do they create a space for an adventurous civility? What courageous conversations do is say how do we go beyond the polite conversations to have the conversations that really build trust and community and relationship so we can tackle the tough issues together,” said Johnson.

The series, which uses CCP’s Grounding Virtues, kicked off in May with a sold out event featuring Tippett speaking on “The Adventure of Civility.” Focused on the guiding question, “How do we foster greater inclusion and belonging in our community?” the series is comprised of ten monthly conversations featuring guest experts on topics that include “Defining Courage,” “Practicing Mindfulness,” “Cultivating Curiosity,” and the “Art of Listening,” all designed to help participants “better hear, share, and understand different lived experiences.” Events, held from September 2019 through June 2020, are taped and made available on the initiative’s blog, along with highlights from each conversation and other valuable tools and information.

“A Year of Courageous Conversations” is a model that the Civil Conversations Project plans to continue to engage. “We want to be additive to the landscape of social healing,” said Johnson. “What we’re able to do is equip, and to some extent, amplify the stories, and model, and provide accompaniment of those organizations” that are supporting this work.

In addition to CCP’s work with AYCC, Johnson provided a glimpse into developing Civil Conversations efforts and topics, including a CCP initiative to be launched in North and South Carolina, that will model conversations around topics like race, class, and the future of work.

Another area of work includes “Remembering Across Generations: Connecting People Together and Healing Intergenerational Divides.” Healthcare issues and concerns and the way that choices in health care impact families, communities, and public health professionals are emerging as a place for CCP to engage. Another area is technology and meaning. “Silicon Valley is in the middle of this point of moral reckoning around the implications of what they’ve created and how it impacts our lives,” said Johnson. As a trusted place for people to engage in a way that is healing, CCP is often invited into these types of conversations. We’re “trying to figure out a way that we can support people in those industries to have conversations about the implications of technology for the future of our species.”

If you are planning to attend Upswell, don’t miss the “Adventurous Civility: Courage in a Time of Division” workshop where you’ll hear more details about “A Year of Courageous Conversations” and The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project. Whether you are able to attend or not, visit “A Year of Courageous Conversations,” and The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project to mine lots of rich material and resources.

We also invite you to download and share The On Being Project’s Grounding Virtues, “spiritual technologies and tools for the art of living” that we all can use to help guide us through the rough waters of this time.