What the heck is the Civic Life Institute, and what can it do for me?

+ Sutton Stokes, Associate Director

We have a messaging problem, when it comes to convincing you to attend the Civic Life Institute, our annual workshop on community engagement practices.[1]

See, the very nature of community engagement work prevents us from making you any grand promises. Community engagement, and the process of building what we call “civic infrastructure”[2], takes time and work—often a lot of each. Success depends on too many factors to list here, but that list would include who is in your community, what issues your community faces, and the specific history and circumstances of your community.

So not only will the Civic Life Institute NOT whiten your teeth, keep leftovers fresher, or reduce your cholesterol as part of a low-fiber diet, I can’t even promise that your community will see a 30 percent increase in high-quality conversations by Q3 of the next fiscal year if you attend.

Here’s what I can promise (in addition to lunch).

I can promise you the thrill of experiencing conversations that are the opposite of the conversations we are all afraid of.

You know how horrible it is when your friends start arguing about politics on Facebook? Or when the Thanksgiving dinner conversation switches from cousins’ wedding plans to foreign policy and everyone cringes waiting for Uncle Jim to weigh in?

Those are the conversations I’m talking about when I say “the conversations we are all afraid of.”

And we’re afraid of them because they aren’t really conversations. They are battles or debates, in which opinions aren’t something to be offered, adjusted, and worked out together, but are instead weapons to be bashed over the head of anyone who disagrees. And of course anyone who disagrees is no longer a friend or a family member, but an opponent or maybe even an enemy…

By contrast, at the Civic Life Institute, you will experience and learn about conversations in which people talk to each other like, well, people.

Conversations in which people learn that every solution to every tough problem—including the solution they favor themselves—has tradeoffs and downsides.

Conversations in which people gain a better understanding not only of their own opinions but also the reasons why a fellow American, West Virginian, or just plain human being—as opposed to an enemy or opponent—might disagree.

And having experienced this kind of conversation, you will know it—and its opposite—when you see it.

You will have experienced practices that can guide conversations onto safer ground, such as by lowering the heat of emotional arguments with respectful, thought-provoking questions.

You will have seen how to show that you are really listening [3] to the ideas that matter so much to other people, and you will know how important it is that we really listen, because you will know that the usual way people talk about tough issues often masks values, fears, and longings that all human beings share.

On the day after the Institute, you—and your community—might only be at the beginning of a long journey.

But you will know—you’ll be certain—what an important journey it is, and you will know where the path begins.

Please join us in Charleston, July 19-20.

For more information, or to register, click here.


[1] What’s “community engagement”? Just a fancy name for helping people come together to talk about and take actions on tough issues.

[2] What’s “civic infrastructure”? Just a fancy name for strong habits of grassroots community conversations and problem solving.

[3] On the subject of listening, I love this quote from the poet and philosopher Mark Nepo: “To listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”


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