Turning dialogue into a new public school in Ohio

December 3, 2018
Yellow School Bus

The city of Oberlin, Ohio, faced a daunting municipal challenge: deciding whether to renovate four dilapidated school buildings, or to replace them with a single, modern, costly edifice.

Risks and rewards were present for both options, and the question had been publicly debated for nearly a decade with little forward progress. The public was frustrated that nothing was being done, but there was also no consensus on what to do.

That is, until four Oberlin residents attended Essential Partners' Ohio Civic Engagement Incubator training.

A Civic Initiative

Last fall, in cooperation with the League of Women Voters and Welcoming America, leaders from across Ohio joined Essential Partners for a yearlong Civic Engagement Incubator training program to learn EP’s approach to dialogue facilitation across divisive issues. And the participants committed to bring their newly-developed skills back to their communities.

The four EP alumni from Oberlin first appealed to the school board and administration for approval to engage in a community dialogue about the schools. They received lukewarm support. Most assumed this dialogue would end back in the status quo: stagnation, deadlocked conversations, no movement forward on the issue.

The first dialogue was held in April. In order for the conversation to be less polarized, the school board and administrators weren’t invited. During the dialogue, community participants revealed that they didn’t feel all voices have been heard on the matter. They also didn’t feel that information about the choice was readily accessible.

For this complicated and important project, the community felt both excluded and under-informed. This came as a surprise to the School Board, who requested that the EP alumni organize a second dialogue—one the board members and administrators could join as well.

Breakthrough and Ballot

The second community dialogue, held in June, attracted more participants and provided fresh perspectives on the issue. People from the larger community felt more involved in the process.

New voices and a new sense of enthusiasm pushed the board members out of their ruts. And in the 2018 election, after nearly a decade of deadlock and stagnation over the project, voters in Oberlin approved a municipal bond measure for the school. The new building should be ready for classes in 2022.

Civic Engagement Incubator alum Kim Davidson remarked on the importance of dialogue to the progress their community has made: “If we had had these skills several years ago—when the conversations around constructing a new school were younger, and people were less jaded and feeling less left out of the conversation—this might have been the kind of thing that could have produced a groundswell of support.”

Not Done Yet

The four alumni of the Essential Partners’ Civic Engagement Incubator training have started the process of building a more resilient community in Oberlin. They plan to lead more dialogues about education in the city of Oberlin, to find areas where people want to help improve their public schools. With their help, Oberlin is becoming a community where people can discuss divisive issues openly, where all voices can be heard, and where it’s possible to collaborate to create positive change.

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