Where’s the salt?

Ghandi and the Salt March

I just attended a risk communication workshop put on by the BC Water and Waste Association. James (Jim) Hoggan, from the communication consultancy Hoggan and Associates and Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation inspired me to write this post.

Jim has been travelling around the world, interviewing communication reearchers, cognitive psychologists and spiritual leaders (even the Dali Lama) on public trust. Jim asked them all why, when all the scientific evidence points to the need for urgent, global environmental action, are we doing so little?

Jim has put all of this into a new book, The Polluted Public Square.  He got the name for this book after talking to Dan Kahan from Yale’s Law School, who believes that public conversations can be polluted in the same way that the environment can be polluted.

Industry public relations experts and environmental advocates are jointly to blame for this polluted public square, according to Jim.  He says that the polarization and disagreement we see from scientists, government, industry and advocacy groups on environmental issues is equivalent to hearing people shouting outside our homes. He quotes Linguistics professor, Deborah Tannen:

When you hear a ruckus outside your house you open the window to see
what’s going on. But if you hear a ruckus every night you close the shutters
and ignore it.

People are tuning out because environmental issues seem unsolvable, and while Jim doesn’t profess to have all the answers, he’s devoted a good chunk of the last few years trying to tune people back in to public debate. But communicating in a polluted public square requires us to take different approaches. Jim quotes Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt:

“I’m right, you’re wrong. Let me tell you what you should think” doesn’t
work because we all think we are right.

From Jim’s conversations with Haidt, he came to understand that humans are wired for ‘group righteousness’, and that we need to step outside this frame to reach others. Jim says that not demonising the opponent makes sense in theory but people have a hard time resisting. Harvard Public Policy lecturer, Marshall Ganz told Jim to watch Al Pacino’s locker room speech scene for inspiration.

Jim wants to see a compelling sustainability narrative that incorporates environmental information but also focuses on fairness and justice — an emotional dialogue. Jim says that people need to tell their own story and then tell the ‘story of us’ as a population and what we stand for.  We won’t find this story without listening.

“Ghandi had salt to bring people together,” Jim says. “Find the salt.”

Ghandi and the Salt March
Ghandi picking up salt after his march. Source=http://www.calpeacepower.org/0101/images/1930-pick-salt-GS_BG.jpg |Date=April 1930. |Author=unknown


Abbotsford goes to Albuquerque

Greetings from New Mexico and the annual conference of the Western States Communication Association. Don’t be too jealous. It has been windy and cold in the high desert, making me happy that I brought my good, Canadian winter coat. On the other hand, the days have been warm inside while meeting colleagues, hearing about teaching practices, and representing the University of the Fraser Valley in two research presentations.

One interesting teaching practice that both faculty and students may enjoy bringing to CMNS 235, Oral Communication, is the idea of using music to segue from speaker to speaker. Patricia O’Keefe from the College of Marin asks each student in her oral communications class to pick a song that they want to use as their theme for the semester. Throughout the semester, various classmates act as the “DJ” who spins the “anthem” as the student walks up and prepares to present. Pat says this practice has had a phenomenal effect in calming nerves and creating community. A song she particularly liked was Andy Grammer’s “Keep Your Head Up.” Leave a comment and let us know what you think about this strategy.

In preparation for this conference I had the pleasure of organizing two panel presentations that ended up garnering lively discussion. The first panel (at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning I might add) was titled, “A roundtable on theory-to-practice: Applied Communication for social change.” Dr. Avinash Thombre (seated in the centre of the above photo) started the session off explaining a project sponsored by the U.S. State Department that brought university students from Pakistan to Little Rock, Arkansas to learn about the democratic process. His role was to help them understand Diffusion of Innovation theory in thinking about how they could use their knowledge once they returned to their homes. This presentation was followed by Christine Hollis (seated right), the Director of a program called “Kids Count” (New Mexico Voices for Children) who spoke about the use of a variety of message design theories that her organization had used to try to persuade state legislators to increase funding for early childhood education. To wrap up the presentations and lead into discussion, I presented a piece on the use of my 9P planning model in the 2011 “Appreciating You and I” community dialogues organized by Abbotsford Community Services. The audience was enthusiastic about the topic; their questions and comments about their own experiences took us right up to the closing minutes and were brought to a close by people trying to get into the room for the next session.

The second panel I had the pleasure of organizing continued the conference theme of social change but concentrated on bringing social change to the post-secondary classroom through the use of culturally responsive teaching practices. I had the pleasure of talking about UFV’s efforts to indigenize, and my own research on reconciling instructional communication theory between the use of Bloom’s three “learning domains” and the four quadrants of the medicine wheel. Elizabeth Root from Oregon State University explained how she created a program to pair her intercultural communication students with international students on campus. Kris Kirschbaum, who experienced her own culture shock in taking a faculty position in North Carolina, talked about similar issues of working with students who had very little experience outside of their own communities and helping them to understand cultural differences and similarities. The fourth speaker, Willow Anderson, reinforced the Canadian presence on the panel. She traveled all the way from Newfoundland to talk about struggles in making sure that as instructors of oral communications we don’t focus exclusively on Aristotelian traditions of public speaking theory. This topic led to an especially lively discussion about alternative ways of configuring assignments and including choices for presentation rubrics. I am definitely going to bring some of these ideas back to discuss with my colleagues at UFV.

See you all soon!