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To reverse the coarsening of public discourse, a new initiative in Wellesley is helping municipal leaders and residents bring more civility to community discussions.
Through the Wellesley Civil Discourse Initiative, town employees and residents have trained as community facilitators, and a team has organized structured dialogues to reset how the community addresses difficult topics. The initiative’s six-member team includes Amy Frigulietti, the town’s assistant executive director, and Select Board Member Lise Olney.
“I definitely have witnessed, in the past four years or so, things in public meetings that I have never seen before,” Olney said. “And I don’t know how common of an experience that is, but that was certainly part of what was motivating me to try to bring this thing to fruition.”
Initiative members are working with Essential Partners, a Cambridge-based organization that has helped Gloucester and other communities build dialogue programs. While the Select Board supports the effort, this initiative is community-based, Olney said.
“It will be organic within the community as opposed to something that’s kind of housed in town government,” she said.
Twenty people received facilitator training in March — 10 town employees and 10 community members. The civil discourse team chose employees from numerous departments, and picked community members reflecting the town’s diversity and local organizations. It also made sure to recruit from both the Republican and Democratic town committees.
The initiative uses Reflective Structured Dialogue, which focuses on “speaking in ways that are respectful, listening to understand and not to rebut, and asking questions that are genuine and not rhetorical.” Unlike mediation, this method doesn’t attempt to reach agreement, but to increase understanding. Going into discussions, participants understand the expectations for listening and speaking.
“[It’s] really about building community connections and building relationships with one another,” Frigulietti said, “so that when contentious topics come up, we’re able to look at our neighbors, or look at our peers, and look at them as a person that is sharing an experience rather than arguing or debating to win.
“It’s not about winning. It’s about understanding the other person’s perspective.”
Frigulietti said she hopes the community will use this approach proactively, before tensions build over difficult issues.
The team held its first community Zoom meeting, “Community Conversations: How Citizens Are Rebuilding the Public Square,” on March 23 to introduce residents to the initiative and to hear leaders from Gloucester, Groton and Watertown describe their experiences with facilitated dialogues.
On April 6, the team’s second Zoom session, “A Dialogue on Coping with COVID-19 in Wellesley,” will feature facilitated breakout discussions about the challenges residents have faced over the past year. The structured dialogue will allow the newly trained facilitators to practice their skills and residents to experience the process for themselves. Each person will get time to speak.
In the future, Olney said she hopes the trained facilitators will lead community discussions on complex issues such as race and affordable housing.
The initiative received a $9,750 grant from MIIA to design the program and pay for the employee training. Another $3,000 from the Community Fund for Wellesley covered training for the community members, Frigulietti said.
Olney and Frigulietti said they hope to train more facilitators and to run programs with the schools. While this initiative focuses on community-level discussions, they see possibilities in extending it to town government.
“I think that would be really useful for making the meetings go more smoothly and making people feel heard,” Olney said. “At rock bottom, that’s really what it’s about, making people feel heard, and building understanding.”