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Same-Sex Marriage Ballot Measure in Minnesota

A state ballot initiative to limit marriage to one man and one woman created a contentious and heated election season in Minnesota. The 24 church bodies that comprise The Minnesota Council of Churches had different stands on the initiative. But the Council, which includes 3,000 congregations, didn’t want to stay silent on an issue that had enormous meaning for the state’s citizens.

The Bush Foundation provided funding to convene neutral conversations. Now, the Council had to figure out exactly how to create such conversations.

“We wanted to bring people together to build empathy and understand each other, but we couldn’t influence the vote. After looking at numerous methodologies, we chose Public Conversations. Unlike so many organizations that push consensus building, Public Conversations’ model fit perfectly with our aim to not influence the outcome of the election,” said Gail Anderson, who was at that time the Director of Unity and Relationships at Minnesota Council of Churches.

The Respectful Conversations Project

The Council created The Respectful Conversations Project—an initiative that would bring people together for community dialogues on same-sex marriage using Essential Partners model.

First, Essential Partners trained 15 people to be lead facilitators with a custom two-day workshop. Those lead facilitators, in turn, trained 200 to 300 people to be table facilitators.

Between April and November in 2012, 55 churches around the state held a Respectful Conversations event—a three-hour dialogue among small groups of people at round tables. Most of the conversations were open to the public. More than 1,500 residents participated. Respectful Conversations events were also held at universities, a national conference, and a quarterly meeting for pastors.

Each event started with a family-style meal and a few conversation starters unrelated to the amendment, which allowed participants to get to know one another outside of the contentious issue.

A video then highlighted key points about the amendment, different viewpoints, and guidelines around participation in the conversation. Using EP’s trademark Reflective Structured Dialogue model, participants shared responses to three carefully crafted questions before the floor was opened for questions of genuine interest.

Treating Each Other Humanely

“We became confident really early on that the model was working., said Anderson. “We were nervous there would be yelling and blow-ups but after a few conversations we realized that wasn’t happening… People were treating each other humanely.”

“[The questions of genuine interest was the] place we thought people would be forceful with their opinions and arguments,” she explained. “But [Essential Partners] told us to trust the power of human interaction; there had been two hours for people to build a human relationship. And, it worked!”

Anderson also remarked on the last impact of Essential Partners' capacity-building mission. “By training us in their model, Essential Partners has allowed us to create something for Minnesota that will have a long-lasting impact on the state and how we talk to each other and get along. Our objective was to convince the people of Minnesota that we can talk about divisive issues while maintaining—or even enhancing—our relationships with each other. And I’m absolutely confident we did that.”

On November 6, 2012, the ballot measure was rejected by 51.90% of voters.