The SDCP has been active in moderating and facilitating deliberative community forums in Montevallo, such as those for the Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO). Pictured above is the town hall meeting where the NDO was passed. Photo by Waid Jones

In today’s cultural climate it’s not uncommon for discussions about community issues to become polarized. Quite often, people get trapped in a negative, accusatory discourse that, at this point, is almost overly familiar. For this reason, nonprofits like the Kettering Foundation and the David Mathews Center for Civic Life have created communication models that teach people how to come together and talk productively.  

By channeling these organizations, as well as their own research, education and experience, two UM Communication Studies professors, Dr. Sherry Ford and Dr. Sally Bennett Hardig, developed their own nonpartisan initiative for community engagement: The Southern Dialogue and Collaboration Project (SDCP).  

Together, they are taking this moment not only to provide communities with tools to cultivate deliberative, solution-oriented styles of communicating, but to help people manage conflict and overcome the barriers that stifle the voice democracy is meant to allow.  

 Their commitment to collaboration is prevalent, particularly in the name of their organization. 

 “Each word is purposeful,” Hardig said as she began to explain the first part of their title. “We work with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, and they are limited to servicing the state of Alabama. By saying ‘Southern,’ we felt it would broaden our context and availability.”   

Next, the order of the following words, “dialogue” and “collaboration,” was critical.  

“You cannot have collaboration if you are not engaged in dialogue. The idea that dialogue proceeds collaboration was very important for us to make clear,” Ford claimed. To her, collaboration also encapsulates the value they have for a “democratic approach to decision-making.” 

Both words allowed them to go beyond the focus on deliberative communication and into other approaches, like teaching people to problem-solve through humane conversations that center the search for common ground.  

They’re able to accomplish such goals with a simultaneous mobility and flexibility, as implied by the final word, “project.” They knew the SDCP was going to evolve as they evolved and as the community evolved.  

Fundamentally, people need all those features—availability, togetherness and dialogue—to be able to generate solutions that benefit everyone, but most of all, they need time to develop what Ford calls a “well-educated, well-reasoned, useful voice.” These concepts and processes can all be taught from a Communication Studies vantage point.  

“It’s important to take the skills that we learn in our discipline to people to help them find their voice,” Hardig said. “We want to teach people how to think about and talk about very deep and very complex issues.”  

Altogether, the SDCP functions as a form of “preventative medicine.” In other words, encouraging people to talk to each other helps build relationships, and those relationships help people navigate intracommunity challenges. 

“You don’t have to get to crisis-mode to have a dialogue. If we are having dialogues along the way about topics that are important to our community, then we can avoid a blow-up,” Hardig said. “You know each other, you’re talking to each other, and you see each other as partners in a community. That doesn’t mean you have to be best friends, but you share a common goal and that’s the betterment of the community.” 

“Having those elements in place, like a level of trust or at least some appearance of knowledge of each other, can help when those crises occur. It becomes more difficult to ‘other’ people,” Ford added. 

The SDCP has already been active in moderating and facilitating deliberative community forums in Montevallo, such as those for the Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO) that passed earlier this year. Currently, the organization is working on another series of forums in collaboration with the David Mathews Center titled “From Cradle to Career,” where they will consider how the community can enhance its educational experiences.  

“There’s just a lot of potential, and it’s exciting for the University, and for our students, and for us as professionals,” Hardig commented. “I’m excited about the future and working with Dr. Ford because we recognize our strengths and our weaknesses, and we can carry, amplify and complement each other in this process so that it’s better for everyone.”   

Be on the lookout for a brand-new deliberative communication class in Spring 2019, soon to be followed by a peace communication minor in Fall 2020.