New academy at the Carter School helps future leaders navigate political conflicts

As division and partisanship are increasingly emphasized in American politics, it is easy for conflicts to escalate. George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution believes disagreements can be beneficial, when they’re approached the right way. That’s why they created the Political Leadership Academy (PLA) in partnership with the Bipartisan Leadership Project.

“The space for bi-partisan or nonpartisan political decision-making is increasingly constrained,” said Carter School Dean Alpaslan Özerdem. “At the Carter School, we wanted to address this challenge by focusing on the interface between political decision making and conflict resolution.”

The academy will be one of the school’s primary means of outreach to policy-making circles and a direct contribution toward bi-partisan decision making in our country, Özerdem said.

Charles Davidson, research faculty and a 2019 PhD alumnus of the Carter School, is director of the academy.

“We understand that conflict will always be present in our political system,” Davidson said, adding that differing opinions support a healthy democracy. “It’s not our goal to eliminate conflict, but rather to help people be effective through conflict.”

The inaugural cohort included 39 students who met for three weeks this semester over Zoom. The academy will also be held in future semesters.

“We’ve had everybody from college freshmen all the way up to elected officials and everybody in between,” Davidson said.

The cohort, which Davidson said comprised both conservatives and liberals, heard from a range of distinguished speakers, including Virginia State Senator Barbara Favola, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, former candidate for Virginia’s 1st District Qasim Rashid, former mayor of Alexandria Allison Silberberg, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Paul Ray, and Carter School faculty.

“The professors and practitioners we heard from were absolutely incredible and very well versed in their field,” said academy student Aidan Dunning, a government affairs associate with Rock Central.

The cohort also had the chance to connect during weekly networking sessions, which Dunning described as “top tier.”

“I was blown away by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of my fellow cohort, and I developed some relationships that I hope to carry on for years,” he said.

“Regardless if you see your professional career revolving around running for office or supporting a member of an elected position, the basic life skills that this course can teach you around conflict resolution and maintaining that ability to understand perspective are valuable and incredibly insightful for anybody,” Dunning added.

Those skills may be needed now more than ever.

“Conflict has reshaped itself into something that is much more based on identity, it’s more personal,” Davidson said. “If we can help to restructure people’s approach to American political conflict, we can help to re-guide the way conflict is approached both between acting politicians and our citizenry to make a stronger country.”