In an examination of how the principles of civility and freedom of speech could build a brighter future in communities, the executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center said Wednesday that she is reluctant to endorse traditional ideas about civility as a guiding principle for public discourse.
“The word ‘civility’ has a qualitative nature to it,” Andrea Douglas said. “… It’s a behavioral term. It is related to the politics of the body. It is about the things that people do and how they comport themselves. Consequently, it has implications for power and control when it is used.”
Douglas was the keynote speaker at the Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle’s annual luncheon and student expo at the Boar’s Head Resort. The foundation supports the city and county school systems in part by working “with the business community and educational institutions to create … learning experiences outside the classroom,” said Alden English, president of the foundation’s board.
The Jefferson School recently hosted the NewGen Peace Builders program, which introduced local high school students to conflict resolution techniques developed by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung.
According to Galtung, effective “peace building” requires changes in attitude to promote empathy, and changes in behavior to bring about greater equity. Peace is achieved when both parties embrace a new shared set of values.
“This is not an overnight fix where normative language — possibly like ‘civility’ — holds meaning,” Douglas said.
Douglas, who holds a doctorate in art history from the University of Virginia, said the visual arts have great power to inspire empathy. She cited the work of Sheila Pree Bright, an artist who photographed recent protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri; Atlanta; and Baltimore.
Douglas said Bright’s photographs present an “insider’s point of view” that contrasts starkly with national media coverage of these demonstrations.
“[Bright’s work] gives credence to the action, because the narrative comes from within,” Douglas said. “The viewer is offered the opportunity to participate in the action from the point of view of the subject.”
“To have a civil discourse, we must first be on the same page, and engage in a dialogue with shared facts and a shared sense of empathy,” Douglas said. “My experience over the last year [in Charlottesville] suggests we are not quite there.”
Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins echoed Douglas’ call to embrace empathy while defending the ability of individuals to persuade others.
“We don’t want to be a part of civility at the risk of giving up our voice,” Atkins said. “We want that civility to come out of our empathy for others.”
Before Douglas’ address, students from Albemarle County and Charlottesville middle schools and Charlottesville High School presented projects aimed at addressing various global issues at the local level.
Samara Rakoski and Heidi Hawkins, both middle-schoolers at Albemarle’s Community Public Charter School, created a filter device to help homeless people remove sediment from river water. They made a plastic funnel with a 3-D printer and tested different combinations of materials for their ability to filter water.
“Most people our age don’t have experience presenting and talking about an idea like we’ve done today,” Hawkins said.
Charlie Shea, a student at Henley Middle School, is organizing a benefit concert for the Suicide Prevention Awareness Resource Council at the Southern Cafe & Music Hall in downtown Charlottesville. The concert is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. March 18.
“Mental illness is an issue wherever you go,” Shea said. “People are getting overlooked when all they need is love and friends and support.”
Matt Haas, deputy superintendent of Albemarle’s school division, said he had seen students present many simple, low-cost solutions with potential for high impact.
“This is high-quality learning,” said Haas, who will succeed Pam Moran as superintendent on July 1. “Whenever you can bring our community together with students at the center, it really doesn’t get any better.”