In a world full of politically divisive and polarizing issues, the level of public discourse can quickly become hostile and antagonistic. That is why Se-Hyoung Yi, assistant professor of political science at University of Houston-Clear Lake, teaches students the difference between debating and deliberative dialogue—so that they can facilitate politically themed forums in which people from opposing sides learn to accept each other’s differences and concentrate on finding common ground and shared direction among themselves. For his efforts, Yi has been awarded the Taylor L. Willingham Legacy Fund Award, administered by the National Issues Forums Institute in Dayton, Ohio.
The award, explained Yi, is established to help those who are working to develop an understanding of deliberative democracy and to promote deliberative dialogue forums in their communities as a way to help people talk productively about polarizing public issues.
“In order to win the award, I showed my desire to become involved in the democratic deliberation movement, demonstrated my commitment to implement and conduct democratic deliberation in a forum environment, and presented a detailed plan to moderate and host deliberative forums in my community,” Yi said. “This university is my community.”
Since 2017, Yi has partnered with Lone Star College-Kingwood Political Science Professor John Theis to train student moderators in deliberative dialogue. “The goal is to teach student moderators a different kind of political dialogue,” Yi said. “Unlike in a debate, where one side tries to ‘win’ an argument against the other, we teach students to help opposing sides find a shared ground. We do not try to change each other’s perspectives. When discussing daunting political issues that divide all of us, even compromise might not be possible. In the deliberative setting, participants explore the unbiased facts, weigh different options, and balance tradeoffs to find where their various interests overlap.”
Then, Yi said, they are shown how to move on for the sake of the community and to find the places where agreement can be achieved.
Yi said the award is accompanied by a $500 grant. “I plan to use this money to host at least five new deliberative dialogue forums on campus,” he said. “It’s important to be able to switch moderators with other campuses. In the past, we have invited student moderators from Lone Star College and from Sam Houston State University, and with these funds, I can invite more student facilitators from other universities here, and send our student moderators to other universities.”
He said that by April 2018, he and Theis had trained over 20 student moderators. With support from the College of Human Sciences and Humanities, Yi had hosted a campus-wide deliberative dialogue forum on immigration during the UHCL Student Conference in 2018.
“We are showing students how to become more engaged in the process of democracy,” Yi said. “Student moderators are learning that they must learn to frame the issue in a non-partisan way and to encourage participants to listen to each other, not just insisting upon their own perspectives.”