The Open Discussion Project, which launched this month, aims to promote civil conversation among left- and right-leaning individuals through book clubs held at independent bookstores across the U.S.
Led by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD), and the American Booksellers Association, the first phase of the project is being piloted by six independent bookstores across the country in a six-month trial period: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California; Anderson’s Bookshop in Chicago and Naperville, Illinois; Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire; and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The idea for the initiative was sparked during a conversation among ABA senior staff following the divisive 2016 election. A few months later, Chris Finan, then director of American Booksellers for Free Expression, discussed with Sarah Goddin, manager of Quail Ridge Books, the idea for a project to bring conservatives and liberals into conversation in independent bookstores.
While the idea was still in the discussion stage at ABA, Goddin launched the Bridging the Divide group at Quail Ridge. The monthly meeting alternated conservative and liberal titles, and two local people, a conservative and a liberal, took turns moderating.
Finan, who discussed the Open Discussion Project during the most recent episode of the American Booksellers for Free Expression podcast Counterspeak, told Bookselling This Week that the National Coalition Against Censorship agreed to co-sponsor the project with ABA when he joined the organization as executive director in 2017.
“NCAC’s mission is to promote freedom of inquiry and expression. These are goals that are endangered by polarization because they discourage people from talking freely about the issues that really matter for the country’s future,” Finan said. “For us, the project is absolutely central to what a free speech group should be promoting.”
In an effort to promote a spectrum of political views, the stores selected for the trial are in geographical areas that have a more even mix of both liberals and conservatives.
“The bottom line is this: Are we creating the conversations that we want to have between people who normally would not have an opportunity to talk to others with different views?” said Finan.
To ensure that the new groups include people from both ends of the political spectrum during the pilot program, NCAC has asked conservative groups to invite their members to participate. Professional mediators have been recruited as facilitators to guide the discussions.
“We think it’s really important to have people who are trained to start conversations and keep them going without dominating them,” said Finan. “They really are facilitators, not moderators or discussion leaders. They are there to keep things moving while staying in the background as much as possible.”
Although she attended every meeting for Bridging the Divide and was highly involved in the book club as a whole, Goddin said that “if you’re not a trained facilitator, it can be very challenging to facilitate something that is potentially emotional and scary to people.”
“Plus,” she added, “another thing that will be really beneficial with the Open Discussion Project is having other stores that are doing it at the same time, and everyone being in communication [with each other]. I am all in favor of joining in with that larger group and taking advantage of those opportunities it offers.”
Fifty-five community members attended the Quail Ridge’s first meeting, and a good mix of political opinions were represented, said Goddin. The meeting began with a short video called “Bob and Donna: An Unlikely Friendship,” which features an LGBTQ+ activist in Iowa initiating a friendship with the president/CEO of the Christian organization the Family Leader.
“It was a great kick-off to the meeting in terms of people realizing that it’s not about convincing anyone of their point of view, it’s about getting to know somebody different from them and understanding where they’re coming from,” Goddin said.
The most controversial aspect of the meeting, she noted, was deciding whether attendees should voice their political leaning. In preparation for the meeting, Goddin had reached out to conservative and libertarian groups suggested by Finan to encourage locals to attend, and in doing so, she discovered that many individuals wanted to identify their political leaning.
“I brought that up to the facilitators, and they were not in favor of it. And I understood, because we had never done that ourselves in the year and a half that we’ve been organizing, But I also had somebody whose thought was if you’re finding it hard to get conservative representation, it could be that there are conservatives who aren’t interested in speaking up or are hesitant to because they think they’re the only ones,” Goddin said, adding that identification might make conservatives feel more comfortable. “That was, by far, the most provocative discussion of the evening.”
The issue was put to a vote, and Goddin said it was decided that members could voluntarily identify themselves; that way, the group could embrace the fact that members have differing opinions rather than guess at their identification.
Along with deciding what topics the group would like to focus on over the next six months, it also formed a book selection committee. In February, Quail Ridge Books’ Open Discussion Project meeting will read Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (Sentinel) by Reihan Salam.
“The challenge is can we come up with another good book on the other side of that issue,” Goddin said, “or do we want to? That will be something the committee will have to wrestle with. I’ve already had somebody on the committee say, ‘Hey, you can’t. It’s not just one side or the other. There are many different perspectives.’”
Goddin added that whether the group reads books from differing perspectives on the same issue or simply addresses a new topic and new perspective each month depends on what books are available, readable, and financially accessible.
Overall, Goddin said she is excited for what the Open Discussion Project could bring to her store and local community. She’s looking forward to having a committed group of people “who will come regularly enough to actually get to know someone who thinks differently than they do and seeing how that process works in terms of opening up people’s minds and not vilifying each other,” she said.
Politics & Prose held its first Open Discussion Project conversation on January 13. Prior to the meeting, attendees were asked to read Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Oxford University Press), a title that encourages productive conversation through thoughtful and respectful discussion.
“We’re off to a good start. We’re very pleased to actually meet the participants, and as they went around the room it became clear that they do, indeed, represent a spectrum of opinion,” said co-owner Bradley Graham, who added that they had been concerned, given the store’s largely liberal customer base, about whether they could draw enough people with more conservative views to balance the group. “The group represents a range of opinions that are not all easily classified as liberal or conservative.”
Many attendees shared that they might lean one way on social issues but another on economic, Graham noted, and some had experience in situations that required bridging the gap between opposing viewpoints. Others had experience in mediating and facilitating other kinds of situations, Graham added, and few were shy about expressing their opinions.
The group also brainstormed a list of topics they’d like to discuss at upcoming meetings, including politics and division, race, gun control, free speech and media, campaign finance, voting rights, climate change, inequality, education, and migration, among other topics. The store will begin with politics and division, and has chosen to read How Democracies Die (Broadway Books) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt for its next meeting.
“There was a conscious effort not to put the matter to a vote, but instead to concentrate on reaching consensus,” Graham said, noting that consensus is different from unanimity as it requires discussion to see everybody’s point of view. “I think we’re going to try to avoid votes on questions that come before the group, and even though it might be more time-consuming to reach consensus, there’s a general feeling that it’s the best way to operate.”
“What I’m looking forward to is that the group achieves the stated goals of the project, which is to encourage an assortment of people with opposing views to set aside any tendencies to make quick judgements and instead focus on hearing one another out and understanding the views of those who hold different opinions,” Graham said. “This is a process not about debate but about dialogue, where the aim really isn’t to convert those who don’t agree, but rather to learn how to better converse with them. I think if this group can get to that point, then it will have been a success.”
Winter Institute attendees who are interested in learning more about phase one of the Open Discussion Project should attend the educational session “Bookstores Launch the Open Discussion Project,” which will be held from 3:40 p.m. to 4:40 p.m. on Thursday, January 24, in the Acoma/Tesuque/Zuni Room in the Albuquerque Convention Center.
Finan is attending Winter Institute and will be available to meet with booksellers who are interested in participating in the next phase of the project. He also welcomes inquiries from booksellers who are not attending. He can be reached by e-mail.