Making conversations great again

Scholars from S-CAR have partnered with public libraries to navigate difference through the development of an award-winning program on media literacy and dialogue.

ID: Seven women in professional attire post with a plaque.

S-CAR alum Samantha Borders-Shoemaker (PhD '19, second from right) and S-CAR associate dean Julie Shedd (third from right) partnered with the Fairfax County Public Library in Virginia on a dialogue program that won the 2019 Gordon M. Conable Award from the Public Library Association. (Photo courtesy of the Public Library Association)


By Oakley Hill

In January 2017, during Donald Trump’s first weeks in office, a coalition of peacebuilders from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) and librarians from Fairfax County, Virginia, met together to discuss the intensifying conflict present in everyday conversations. Attending this meeting was S-CAR associate dean Julie Shedd, then S-CAR PhD candidate Samantha Borders-Shoemaker, and librarians from the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL), including Jennifer Dickinson.

“We could see the lack of civility as a problem that was not going to go away anytime soon, much as we may have hoped,” said Dickinson. The political environment was heated, and this unique group sought out strategies to ameliorate the problem at the interpersonal level.

At first glance, one may wonder what peacebuilders and librarians have in common. Learning how the “fake news” phenomena affects people’s interaction with information may lend understanding.

As the U.S. political conflict has deepened, an air of mistrust of information has spread through all sides of the political divide. Some groups distrust political elites and popular news media, while others distrust the President and economic elites. Warranted or not, this mistrust poses a threat to the aims of peacebuilders who work to help society navigate its differences and disagreements constructively. Conflict creates distrust, and distrust is an obstacle on the road to resolving conflict.

Where conflict meets distrust is precisely where the interests of librarians and peacebuilders overlap. As a public institution, libraries represent a community’s commitment to knowledge, and the equal access to it. The mistrust of information is a threat to the work of librarians, whose role includes providing the public with knowledge, among other things.

“As a country we don’t have media literacy skills,” said Dickinson. “We think we do but we really don’t. There has been a big push in libraries and schools to address that.”

Through their meetings, this coalition has developed a program to help individuals resolve their interpersonal conflicts and think critically about the information they take in. This program is offered as a free class that teaches both media literacy and dialogue skills in public libraries across Virginia’s Fairfax County.

Over the last two years, volunteers have taught these classes, each of which includes the practice of a media literacy skill, such as evaluating new sources, and a dialogue skill, such as asking good questions. Participants practice these skills through dialogue on a number of social issues, from the legalization of marijuana to infrastructure development in the Washington, D.C., area.

Borders-Shoemaker teaches similar classes in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. While inspired by the Fairfax County curriculum, her classes omit the media literacy dimension and add lessons on power dynamics to help participants recognize when they are made to be more or less powerful in a dialogue. These lessons aim to help participants create more equitable conversations.

“The goal of these workshops is to help members of the public better communicate around difficult topics and successfully and wisely navigate the plethora of news,” she said. By creating an atmosphere of trust and curiosity, these workshops aim to “leave [participants] with more confidence about engaging topics they may otherwise avoid.”

After listening to participants speak of how political disagreements had damaged relationships with their loved ones, Borders-Shoemaker felt inspired to do something proactive and constructive. This experience led her to choose interpersonal dialogue and political tension as the topic of her dissertation research, which she successfully defended on August 30 of this year.

When discussing interpersonal conflict over email, Borders-Shoemaker said that “the three things that prevent interpersonal dialogue from being constructive are saliency of one identity over others (in this case, political identity), pursuing purity of identity over embracing multiplicity, and perceived threats to that specific identity.” These three phenomena can make the ingroup both a safe space and the center of validity.

However, they can also increase antagonism towards those outside of the ingroup. According to Borders-Shoemaker, “when the boundaries between identities are perceived to be threatened or compromised, members of the ingroup can be moved into offensive or defensive positions wherein outside ideas are seen as threats to the integrity of the group's identity.” Learning basic communication skills like those taught in the course can help to loosen the rigidity of identity and mitigate interpersonal conflict.

The group has been given three awards in recognition of their good work. From George Mason University, they received the 2018 Jack Wood Award for Town Gown Relations, and from Fairfax County Public Library, they received a Recognition of Excellence.

Then, in June 2019, during the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference in Washington, D.C., the program received the Gordon M. Conable Award from the Public Library Association, a subset of the ALA, the largest association of librarians in the world. The award recognizes recipients for their “commitment to intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights.”

The next steps for the program lie in questions of scalability and funding. The group is currently shifting the program from semester-long courses to four-week courses, and they are considering adding three-day training sessions for other librarians interested in teaching similar courses.

The link between libraries and peacebuilding

The work of Shedd, Borders-Shoemaker, Dickinson, and other FCPL librarians is connected not only to interpersonal conflict but macro peacebuilding efforts as well. As they scale the project up, they hope to increase the capacity of communities to prevent or resolve their own conflicts.

Media literacy and dialogue have long been intertwined where peacebuilding is concerned. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker argued that the “humanitarian revolution” spanning from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries best correlates with the spike in literacy after the invention of the printing press. This, according to Pinker, is the most likely event that led to the proletariat questioning, and eventually ending, many forms of institutionalized state violence. It isn't a leap to think that improving literacy and dialogue skills could further this process and aid American society today as we work to replace systems of conflict with systems of conflict resolution.

For Shedd, public libraries can serve as critical actors in linking media literacy, dialogue, and peacebuilding. “Libraries have always been crucial institutions allowing information to flow across the citizenry, with programs that provide intentional support across the socio-economic spectrum,” she said.

As the late Representative Elijah Cummings said on Twitter this past April, “Libraries do much more than lend books.” Libraries are the institutions that serve our society’s informational needs, no matter what one’s political leanings, race, or socio-economic status.

For example, during the McCarthy Era, when socialists in the U.S. were imprisoned for their beliefs, Dickinson noted that The Communist Manifesto remained on the shelf. “We don’t ban books,” she said seriously.

Because public libraries are explicitly against the boycott of information, they are uniquely positioned to teach media literacy skills and do it well. Librarians are part of the communities they work in, are already trained in important media literacy skills, are devoted to a free market of ideas, and as Shedd noted, libraries are among the last trusted institutions.

There is little question in terms of need, either. “The fact that adults don’t understand and don’t think critically about what they’re getting in terms of news,” Dickinson noted, “tells us there’s a need to keep doing this.”

 “Libraries are playing an increasingly crucial role in the Information Age where citizens’ skills at identifying accurate information is taxed by the sheer volume [of it],” said Shedd. In the Information Age, it seems that some of the most pressing needs are the abilities to identify a good source of information, think critically, and learn to interact peaceably with the source of all information: each other.