The Better Arguments Project is a joint effort by the Aspen Institute, Allstate insurance and educational organization Facing History and Ourselves. It encourages thorough, reasonable debates on divisive topics. It maintains that public policy debates — about race, rights, equality and many other topics — are necessary for a healthy American civic life.
Organizers have five principles they promote for having a better argument.
1. Take winning off the table. Frame an argument as a way to understand a different point of view rather than winning or even resolving differences.
2. Prioritize relationships and listen passionately. Participants need to really listen to each other, with the goal of learning.
3. Pay attention to context. Participants should acknowledge and understand the culture of the people they are arguing with and how it shapes their point of view.
4. Embrace vulnerability. Instead of limiting discussions to people that agree, participants need to step outside of their beliefs and prepare to have those beliefs challenged.
5. Make room to transform. The goal is to change how people interact in a public space, rather than win. Participants need to be prepared to receive new information and to build community with people they might not agree with.
When Coloradans hear news reports that Amazon or any national tech giant is coming to to the state, Sam Bailey figures they imagine an invasion.
“When you saw something on the news, like Amazon’s (HQ2 expansion proposal) the assumption we hear, in letters, emails and phone calls, is that 50,000 new people are going to land at Denver International Airport, come on down Peña Boulevard and ruin our lives,” said Bailey, economic development vice president for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.
On the contrary, he said: Most high-tech companies starting up or moving to Denver hire locally, creating a multitude of new jobs for Colorado residents and boosting the quality of life.
“These are good growing pains,” he said. “They come with challenges, just as anything does. But I’ll say, though, it beats an out-migration from the state.”
Offering a counterpoint was former Denver mayoral candidate and Regis University lecturer Lisa Calderon. The state’s economic expansion largely ignores much of the population, especially women of color, she said.
“The real issue is how do we manage the transitions as we go through growth and what are the unintended — or even the intended consequences — of this growth,” Calderon said.
Calderon said she saw how stagnant growth and economic decline affected the state during the last recession.
“But back then, we also had choices about what we were going to do and those were made to the detriment of some people and helped others in their goal of wealth building,” she said. “So I want us to be honest about all that — about what are the costs.”
That disagreement was the point of a workshop June 13 at Anythink Library’s Wright Farms branch in Thornton — “Better Arguments: Tech boom tensions in Denver.”
The workshop was part of the national Better Arguments Project spearheaded by the Aspen Institute, the Allstate insurance corporation and global educational organization Facing History and Ourselves. The goal is to promote better arguments among people who disagree, especially in today’s divisive political climate.
“Everyone’s views are legitimate; people have their views,” said Allstate’s Tara Leweling, vice president of corporate relations. “But at the same time, people are just going to war and not talking to each other. We wondered if there was something we could to help bridge the divide and help people come together in a constructive way.”
The workshop was the second event the Better Arguments Project has hosted, after a March meeting in Detroit, Michigan, that drew an estimated 300 people.
Roger Brooks, president of Facing History and Ourselves, said organizers were paying attention to how the attendees spoke to each other and argued and would use those discussions to help frame future workshops. Filmmakers from the Aspen Institute recorded many of the discussions and planned to release a series of five- to 10-minute videos on the group’s website.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis opened the workshop. Divisions in society — along economic, political or religious lines — are nothing new, he said.
“There are all sorts of different ways that make people feel different,” Polis said. “And yet through our civil society, we have to come together and have these authentic discussions that lead to a better outcome. And it’s easier to reach a broad consensus when you are not being pulled into different directions by narrowly focused special interests, and keep a focus on the big picture.”
That fed into a panel discussion featuring Calderon, Bailey and Colorado Sun tech reporter Tamara Chuang.
For Calderon, Denver’s tech boom provides jobs but not for the lower economic rungs who could most benefit. That’s because many of their schools don’t have the resources to train them for tech jobs.
“They also face other challenges outside the classroom,” she said. “Outside the classroom, we see that two-thirds of white students have access to a computer at home, but only about 50 percent of students of color do.”
But Bailey said the state does try to use new tax revenues from new businesses to help all levels, with investments in education and transportation.
“We never want to set a tone and appear desperate and say anything to get you here,” Bailey said. “We’ll show how you can come here, how you can grow here and how you can get engaged in the community.”
But Calderon said those discussions don’t include everyone.
“Sam, when you say `We’ are having these discussions’, who is the we?” she said. “Because those of us who are on the ground dealing with issues of displacement, your `we’ does not include `us.’ ”
Respect and honesty
Finally, organizers turned the discussions over to attendees, who talked about the impact of Denver’s budding tech economy with their tablemates.
“That’s actually the heart of the Better Arguments project, which is you guys practicing what we are doing,” Brooks said.
He encouraged people attending the workshop to go forward and respect the people with who they talk.
“A better argument is about a whole bunch of things,” he said. “At every table is a diversity of opinion. We’ve purposely curated each table so that not everyone there thinks the same way or comes from the same perspective. So, be present, but find a way to respect the people you are with. Find ways to connect to them, because that changes the way the conversation goes. But say what you mean and be honest.”
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