More than 100 people sat down for a Big Table discussion in Upper Arlington last week to talk about civility, civil discourse and other issues in the community.
Participants included city officials, residents, about 40 Upper Arlington High School students, five City Council members and representatives from Leadership UA and the Upper Arlington Public Library.
The Aug. 29 event at the Amelito Mirolo Barn picked up on an ongoing call from the Columbus Foundation, which each year encourages a day of community-building across central Ohio where people are asked to discuss ways to better understand each other and address community needs.
Facilitator Lauren Litton of Revive Civility Ohio asked attendees -- who were broken up into tables of five to 10 people -- to think about Upper Arlington's strengths and issues it's currently facing.
Recurring themes from the exercise were that Upper Arlington is a safe community with civic-minded residents who are engaged in the local decision-making process and often are willing to raise money and provide support to community projects.
But dividing issues also arose, such as "classicism" among people of different economic scales, a lack of racial and ethnic diversity and people who are resistant to change or oppose development in residential areas.
Litton encouraged participants to think about the dividing issues and ways in which people of different ages could begin to better address them in civil ways.
Opening remarks by City Councilman Kip Greenhill spoke directly to the issue of civil discourse.
He acknowledged he was hurt and angry after an unsuccessful bid in 2016 by some residents in the community to remove him and three other council members from office by a recall election.
"I'll admit, I wanted revenge," Greenhill said. "I wanted to hurt, because I was hurt."
However, Greenhill said he realized progress couldn't be made if he shut himself off from people who disliked him or disagreed with him.
"I started isolating myself and not talking to people who I strongly disagreed with," he said. "That's not good for me. I know that. It's not good for a community. Talking is the only way to bring people together, no matter how hurt we are."
Litton explained that civility is showing respect for others and civil discourse is the ability to disagree without being disrespectful.
"Disagreements are healthy," she said. "They help stretch our thinking. But if we're unable to have a conversation and share those experiences and learn from each other, then we never find common ground.
"Civil discourse is the tool for that," Litton said. "It helps foster empathy (and) tolerance and we get to learn about other people's experiences and what shaped their perceptions, their positions and their world views."
Going forward, the Upper Arlington Community Foundation and the Upper Arlington Public Library -- both sponsors with the city of the Big Table gathering -- announced projects aimed at encouraging civility and civil discourse.
Foundation Director Tracy Harbold said Upper Arlington would begin working on a "Revive Civility" project.
"The National Institute on Civil Discourse has worked in partnership with a number of organizations to create a 'Revive Civility' campaign that they are hoping will start communities across the United States on a path to begin repairing the divide that has widened between citizens, groups, families and organizations over many types of issues at the national, state and local level," Harbold said. "Revive Civility has chosen to focus on four states -- Ohio, Maine, Iowa and Arizona."
Jennifer Faure, community-engagement specialist for the Upper Arlington Public Library, said the library will work with various resident and community groups on activities to bolster civility and civil discourse throughout this year.
She noted Equal UA, a group that seeks to promote better understanding of people of different races and ethnicities, as well as those with varying ideals, plans to host monthly conversations on diversity, and Leadership UA will host a similar event next month.
The library will help promote Leadership UA's Oct. 18 Candidate Night as a way to help inform local voters of issues on this November's ballot and to expose residents to differing political perspectives.
"We'll be focusing on creating additional opportunities for civil discourse in the community," Faure said. "I think the Big Table gave people the concept for how a community conversation can work.
"Ultimately, this is a grassroots effort and we hope that members of the community will start hosting their own small, group discussions," she said. "While the larger community conversations are crucial to civil discourse, we'll have the greatest success with reviving civility if many people and organizations participate and help to create those opportunities."
Before leaving, Big Table participants were asked to take the "Civility Pledge" to help revive civility and respect in their community. The pledge calls on community members to seek out a variety of "reliable news sources with different perspectives," to listen respectfully to people who have different views and to encourage and support efforts to bring people with different views together.
Lydia Silver, a UAHS sophomore, was among those took the pledge.
"It's looking at all those different things that make each person unique and accepting that and trying to understand that for ourselves so that we can form this connection with everybody and we don't block anybody out of our lives because of one belief they have or one aspect of themselves," she said. "(I pledge) that we accept them as a whole."