Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, joined Sarah Goddin of Quail Ridge Books, Bradley Graham of Politics & Prose, and Alana Haley of Schuler Books at Winter Institute 2019 for a conversation about the creation of the Open Discussion Project as well as their experiences hosting initial meetings at their stores.
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 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.
Finan began the session by saying that there is currently a wall that is preventing Americans from talking to each other about the critical issues that face our nation. “It’s the wall of political polarization, and it’s a grave concern to the NCAC because we feel it’s having a chilling effect on free speech,” he said. “Democracy is obviously built on conversation between people who disagree. It’s what the image of the marketplace of ideas is all about...and it’s just not taking place the way it used to.”
The Open Discussion Project is a response to political polarization, Finan continued. The idea for it came shortly after the 2016 election while he still worked at ABA, as he was thinking of ways booksellers could orient themselves in a polarized world. At the 2017 Winter Institute, he spoke with Goddin about creating a group for booksellers to encourage conversation between liberals and conservatives, and Goddin went on to launch the Bridging the Divide group at Quail Ridge.
Based on the success of Bridging the Divide, the Open Discussion Project was created, said Finan.
“One of the things that the Open Discussion Project has been able to add to Sarah’s success is an alliance with a group called the National Institute of Civil Discourse,” Finan said, “which is providing groups with two professional mediators as facilitators, people who are trained to get conversations started, to encourage them when they falter, and to exercise some restraint if they become heated.”
“Based on the success of the first month of this program, I think we’ve seen confirmation that people want to talk, people want to have a chance to hear others explain their position and the chance to explain themselves to the people they disagree with,” Finan added. “Partially, this is a result of frustration with social media, but I also think it’s a deep human need to communicate with people and to try to find a meeting of the minds.”
Finan played for the audience a four-minute clip produced by Mutual of Omaha 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. The video was also played at the participating stores’ kickoff meetings.
Goddin participated in the Open Discussion Project because, despite Bridging the Divide’s success, there were aspects of the group that she knew needed improvement, such as finding participants who represent a spectrum of political beliefs, making the group’s purpose clear, and finding professional facilitators.
“Our greatest challenge [with Bridging the Divide] was actually getting conservatives and libertarians to participate,” Goddin said, noting that she feels there’s a sense of built-in mistrust of an independent bookstore’s ability to provide a space where everyone feels that their voice will be heard equally. “Once we got a core group of people who got to know each other, that was really when we started having some moments where people started to understand that they liked each other, but they didn’t have to agree [on issues].”
Goddin added that she had multiple members from both sides approach her to say that they didn’t think Bridging the Divide was working. “I had one woman in particular who, three or four times, asked for a meeting and said the liberal side was not being represented strongly enough by the liberal moderator, and we needed to do a better job of explaining our position and convincing people that it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I said, well, that’s not what we’re trying to do here. That’s not the point of the group.”
For the Open Discussion Project’s kickoff meeting, Quail Ridge hosted 55 participants from diverse backgrounds and with political beliefs across the spectrum. “I’m very excited to be part of the new group because I think having two trained facilitators will be something that will make a big difference to us,” Goddin said. “It’s not easy. Sometimes things do get heated, sometimes people are too polite and you have to draw them out, and I really do think it takes some effort to do that. But it’s been one of the most rewarding things we’ve done in the store since I’ve been there.”
Quail Ridge will be splitting the larger group into two smaller ones to encourage better conversation, and each meeting will last for 90 minutes.
Goddin added that with the Open Discussion Project and Bridging the Divide, Quail Ridge saw an increase in sales. Her store’s pick for February is Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam (Sentinel), which sold 20 copies after the first meeting. She attributes the jump in sales partly to the fact that the store puts book club picks on display.
Politics & Prose also wanted to bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives in Washington, D.C. Like Quail Ridge, it was a conversation they’d been having in the store prior to the Open Discussion Project’s inception. Graham said that the store had held teach-ins led by panelists on hot-button issues in the past, but he and his colleagues liked the idea of the Open Discussion Project because it seemed more contained.
“I thought we could work with a small group over time,” he said. “Unlike in the case of Quail Ridge, where their meetings were open to anybody who wanted to come, we wanted to be a little bit more intentional about how we put together this reading group.”
Politics & Prose made an announcement on its website and disseminated a survey to those interested, which garnered over 200 responses. Then, Graham and his staff and chose between 30 and 35 participants to shape it in a way that would be balanced between liberals and conservatives.
On the survey, Graham said, participants were asked to self-identify as liberal or conservative on a scale of one to 10, with one being the most liberal and 10 being the most conservative. To combat potential confusion with the scale, which Graham said there was, the survey also requested participants to list which sources they got their news from as a way to double-check responses.
“If they said they were a nine or 10 and they were enthusiasts of Fox News, we figured they understood the question,” he said, noting that in retrospect they realized it would have been easier to prompt participants to simply check a box if they were liberal, conservative, or on the fence.
The day of P&P’s first meeting happened to fall on the day of a bad snowstorm, so only 19 of the 33 slated to attend made it. Participants met the facilitators and introduced themselves, as well as their political leanings. The group was composed of diplomats, people of varying generations, and some people of the same family with differing views, said Graham.
For the first session, 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. Attendees also chose a title for February; the group settled on a book on politics and division called How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Broadway Books).
Ground rules were also established, which included using common sense, refraining from making personal attacks, and listening thoughtfully and respectfully. Graham noted the importance of one other element suggested by a member of the group: a designated fact-checker.
“I told attendees the goal of this whole process is not really debate. It’s not to argue, but it’s to dialogue with one another,” Graham said. “The aim of the Open Discussion Project is to not try to convert people, but to learn how to converse with them, and that seemed to resonate with everybody there.”
A storm also affected attendance at Schuler Books’ first meeting, Haley said, but a high level of interest in the Open Discussion Project encouraged the store to stay open for those who could make it out.
“There was just an explosion of interest once we announced that we were doing this project...we wanted to invite everyone, so we took that approach,” Haley said. “For anyone who was willing to join us on this journey, we very much encouraged them to bring someone that they know, whether it’s a friend or a relative that has opposing views, so they could do this process together.”
Haley shared that 262 people marked the event posted to Facebook as interested, and 54 shared it to their timeline. Schuler Books also added it to its e-newsletter, and the ad got more clicks than anything else. She added that a display in-store also attracted interest, and she has also been contacted via e-mail and social media, so while the store only had eight people at its first meeting, more are expected in the future.
The group at the first meeting primarily represented older generations and was composed of more women than men, Haley said. Moving forward, “we’re planning to do a lot of personal outreach to groups and organizations in our area to make sure that we have a really good representation of races and cultures, men and women, and different ages, to really bring everyone into the conversation.”
Although where her store is located is a conservative area, Haley said that she didn’t know why so few conservatives attended the initial meeting. She echoed Goddin’s previous statement, saying, “perhaps they were afraid to come because sometimes bookstores are perceived as liberal places, so that might have been a little bit intimidating.” She added that personal outreach will be the way Schuler Books tries to combat this issue.
“Those eight people who were there wanted to be there — they were thrilled to be there,” Haley said. “They understood it, and they were invested in it, and they were so excited to choose the books that we’re going to be doing going forward, and all of them were talking about who they were going to bring with them next time. Some of them were friends, some of them were relatives, but they were all somebody that they loved or liked but didn’t know how to talk to about these differing political views and it was hurting them.”
Booksellers who are interested in participating in the next phase of the Open Discussion Project are invited to contact Finan.