‘VBA at Karsh’ Aims To Improve Public Discourse, Civic Engagement

Karsh Center for Law and Democracy Connecting Lawyers and Educators
UVA Law School building facade

The Karsh Center for Law and Democracy and the Virginia Bar Association are partnering on an ambitious project to help society work across differences. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

May 14, 2021

The Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, housed at the University of Virginia School of Law, and the Virginia Bar Association have launched an ambitious campaign to see what lawyers can do to improve civic engagement and social trust in a society that seems increasingly at loggerheads.

“Lawyers have an important role in facilitating civil dialogue and in building relationships within our communities,” said Professor Micah Schwartzman ’05, the Karsh Center’s director. “The Karsh Center is essentially trying to put people in a room together — even though during the past year it has been virtually — and identify organizations and resources that our effort might draw upon to promote civic engagement and education in Virginia.”

On April 28, the collaborative effort — called VBA at Karsh — hosted its latest roundtable discussion “Reuniting America Part 2: Lawyers Building Bridges.” Schwartzman moderated the conversation, which featured lawyers and prominent figures in education and community development.

Even before the siege on Congress in January that threatened the orderly transfer of U.S. presidential power, divisiveness and discontent had been worsening on social media and elsewhere for years.

John Bridgeland ’87, who served as a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions and participated in the virtual event, said he sees parallels between today and the Progressive Era. That period, starting in the 1890s, challenged the political status quo. Yet confrontations ultimately resulted in positive change, rather than intransigence and bitter stalemate.

“During the Progressive Era, our country had a tremendous energy from the ground up that was at the heart of our civic revival,” Bridgeland said. He cited such radical improvements as a free public education for all up to high school and the GI Bill, which provides service members with a college education.

But, he noted, “Tragically we took a sharp U-turn in the 1960s toward extreme inequality, polarization, fragmentation and narcissism, culminating in today’s universal agreement the country has been on the wrong track.”

Bridgeland is among those who see great progress as achievable again. He suggested that the answer lies among youths. He hopes to see schools make civic education a renewed priority and suggested that a broad campaign to encourage a year or more of voluntary national service among young adults would be transformative.

He encouraged lawyers to think of themselves as “public problem-solvers first” in facilitating change.

“We need a generation of bridge-builders to counter a culture of division,” he said.

Research shows Americans agree about the problem of division, said Larry Roberts, director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA, which provides consensus-building training to public servants and ordinary residents looking to effect change. He pointed to a recent survey that found that 70% of Americans believe politicians and media outlets fuel the political, social and racial division in the U.S. — meaning they think change will have to come from elsewhere.

“Americans are more united in the idea that divisiveness is a problem than how to remedy the problem,” Roberts said. “This means we have room for building communities across environments.”

Some committee members had already begun thinking about or executing outreach projects that relate to civil forms of engagement.

Ron Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond, and Drew Stelljes, assistant vice president of student engagement and leadership at William & Mary, talked about launching an initiative for incoming college students. The high schoolers worked through online modules, such as one on managing emotions during difficult conversations, then participated in teleconferenced conversations with other incoming students of different backgrounds. Current college students were trained to be facilitators. All students who gave feedback said the program helped them engage in difficult conversations. The organizers hope to move the program from online to a summer residency.

Ian H. Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVA, spoke about hosting meals for ideologically diverse UVA students to build more thoughtful and resilient interactions.  (The effort has similarities to a Law School effort called Common Law Grounds.)

As VBA at Karsh and its varied projects continue to take shape, VBA members and others are invited to participate. The recent talk followed the group’s first report, “VBA at Karsh: Exploring Civility and Engagement Initiatives.”

Jeanne F. Franklin ’71, a professional mediator and former VBA president, was among those who initiated the project.

“What I will call for the moment ‘the new civics’ involves more than the substance of our government and how it runs, but it will also hopefully impart analytical and communications skills to empower people to engage effectively,” Franklin said.

Early in the process, Franklin reached out to fellow UVA Law alum Professor Richard Bonnie ’69, who has a long history of civic service. Bonnie connected her with the Karsh Center, and he has also served as a roundtable commentator for the initiative.

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