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Michigan Seminars Encourage Civil Conversations on Difficult Issues

'AARP Listens to Michigan' on topics from budget crisis to health care

• Forums encourage people to listen to each other.
• Sign up for an “AARP Listens” forum in your area.
• Goal is to break through partisan bickering and foster consensus.

Imagine what might be accomplished in a world without political labels. No signs, no slogans, no slurs.

That is the challenge for people participating in AARP-sponsored roundtables throughout Michigan this year. At these community conversations, people with diverse opinions and backgrounds discuss thorny issues such as state budget cuts and health care reform. By design, they meet over dinner in a friendly setting meant to transcend ideology and partisanship.

Andy Farmer, AARP Michigan associate director, organized the forums to combat the divisive, talking-points-driven discourse that made headlines last year during town hall meetings on health care reform.

“It was in reaction to all the craziness—there was so much distortion going on,” said Farmer. A few informal sessions last year provided the framework for “AARP Listens to Michigan.”

In Detroit recently, more than 20 people introduced themselves over turkey and mashed potatoes. As they munched on chocolate chip cookies, Farmer launched a mental exercise: Try to imagine a world without the Christmas holiday. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” he said as the group chuckled. “And what would happen if it were introduced into Congress today?”

“It wouldn’t pass!” “Too liberal!” “Too conservative!” people chimed in.

That was a perfect segue for Farmer, who brandished a worksheet titled “Politics versus People: Who’s Winning?”

“As we proceed, try to think about current issues without labels like left or right, liberal or conservative,” Farmer said. He urged them to instead consider public policy in the context of job history, cultural background, life experiences, recreational pursuits and personal wellness. “Think about how things affect you and what you need,” he said.

Sue Shirkey, 52, thinks budget cutting can only solve so much. “At some point you have to start looking at raising revenue,” the Detroit accountant said.

“We have 14 percent unemployment in Michigan,” countered Jerry Williams, 68, a Ford retiree from Detroit. “How can you raise taxes on people who aren’t making any money to begin with?”

People laughed, shouted and even pounded the table, but they listened respectfully to other points of view. “It’s wonderful to have different people of different backgrounds coming together with different ideas on problem-solving,” said Johnnie Marie Wright, a retired mental health worker from Detroit.

Shirkey said she and her husband John, 55, were initially frustrated with the free-flowing conversation.

“Some things really push my buttons, and I can understand how people get emotional,” she said. “But at least we had a moderator, which is a huge step above a town hall meeting put on by a politician with an agenda. This wasn’t a hostile crowd, so we could learn from one another. When you get people to articulate out loud what scares them to death, you have an opportunity to present a solution.”

Williams said he hoped the message from the Michigan forums reached far beyond the meeting room. “What it boils down to, it gives people a chance to have their say and listen to what others say. It’s free expression. And my No. 1 issue is to have politicians listen to the people whose interests they’re supposed to be serving,” he said.

At Wayne State University, political science professor Mary Herring said people tend to seek out information sources that validate their own beliefs. As message overload grows—via partisan media and the Internet—it is easier to manipulate people with loaded phrases like “socialized medicine” or “millions of uninsured.”

“That’s really the conundrum. How do you get people who have strong opinions to expose themselves to a wider array of sources? I’m a really big proponent of this type of meeting,” Herring said. “It’s where democracy starts, well before the voting booth.”

Farmer is energized for the sessions coming up.

“Anything that encourages people to be curious, to make them look critically at politicians and the media, to do their own research, is a good thing,” he said. “If these meetings prompt people to do just that, we’ve done our jobs.”

The forums are free and include a light meal, but you must register by calling 1-877-926-8300 toll-free. Here is a schedule of upcoming events (with opening and closing dates for registration):

May 12, Kalamazoo, noon to 2 p.m. Kalamazoo Central Library, 315 S. Rose St. (Register by May 11.)

May 18, Lansing, 5 to 7 p.m. at the Delta Township Library, 5130 Davenport Dr. (Register by May 16.)

June 9, Detroit, noon to 2 p.m. at the Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave. (Register between May 21 and June 8.)

June 21, Adrian, noon to 2 p.m. at the Human Services Building, 1040 S. Winter St. (Register between May 28 and June 18.)

July 8, Alpena, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Alpena County Public Library, 211 N. First St. (Register between June 14 and July 6.)

Aug. 11, Sault Ste. Marie, noon to 2 p.m. at the Bayliss Public Library, 541 Library Dr. (Register between July 26 and Aug. 9.)

Aug. 12, Marquette, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Peter White Public Library, 217 N. Front St. (Register July 26 to Aug. 11.)

Sept. 14, Grand Rapids, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Yankee Clipper Branch Library, 2025 Leonard St. NE. (Register Aug. 26 to Sept. 13.)

Oct. 12, Detroit, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave. (Register Sept. 23 to Oct. 11.)

Nov. 10, Lansing, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Capital Area District Library, 401 S. Capitol Ave. (Register Oct. 22 to Nov. 9.)

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

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