Bridging the Political Divide

Great Lakes Civility Project aims to teach people how to work together more effectively despite political differences.

The Great Lakes Civility Project invites the public to a day-long conference on civility at Oakland University on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

Founders of the Great Lakes Civility Project, Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson, developed the project to counteract the growing tendency in America to look across political divides with anger and without comprehension.

“The last decade has been one of the most politically and emotionally divisive in American history; and as we get closer to midterm elections, those tensions will continue to rise,” Henderson said.

Finley added, “A huge part of civility requires seeing the other person as human and trying to understand where they are coming from. Our goal is to teach people how to truly listen to one another to move past conflict and work together more effectively. You don’t have to agree — but listening to understand is key.”

Finley has long served as editorial page editor of the relatively conservative Detroit News. Henderson was editorial page editor of the relatively liberal Detroit Free Press; he currently hosts Detroit Today and America’s Black Journal. Though the two men hold opposing political views, they have remained good friends and have skillfully continued a respectful dialogue for years. They designed the program at Oakland University that encourages that skill: the ability to listen calmly and speak respectfully across the political divide.

Henderson believes that “finding some way to begin with a conversation about our stories and how we came to believe what we believe will disarm some of the conversation about how bitterly we do disagree with each other.”

Among the featured panels at the Civility Day Conference: political opponents in the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell and Republican Rep. Fred Upton, plan to co-lead a session on “Having Difficult Political Conversations.”

Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, CEO of the Zekelman Holocaust Center, is scheduled to present “The History of Dehumanization.” If, as Finley and Henderson assert, the strategy of civility requires recognizing political opponents as human beings, then when civility breaks down, we begin to treat “others” as enemies and as less than human. At the extreme, we can engage in dehumanization, classifying the others as animals, pests or diseased organisms, and that, Mayerfeld observes, “allows atrocities to occur, including the Holocaust.”

A panel trying to answer the question: “Why Does Politics Make Us So Mad?” will feature analysis by scholars from the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University, Oakland University’s Center for Civic Engagement, Henry Ford College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The conference will take place from 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Oakland University’s Oakland Center at 312 Meadow Brook Road in Rochester. There is a charge, which includes lunch. However, the first 100 participants will attend free of charge, courtesy of Delta Dental. Additional Civility Day sponsors include Huntington Bank and Oakland University.

Gary Torgow, chairman of Huntington Bank, notes that Finley and Henderson teach skills for cooperating despite differences. He explains why Huntington Bank serves as a sponsor of the Great Lakes Civility Project: “If we had more civility in the world, it would give us all an opportunity to accomplish much more.”

Increased civility could help in interpersonal relationships, in business and even, according to Torgow, “across the aisle in our government in Congress and in our governing bodies. If they can work together more civilly, that would be a credit to their institutions, and they could accomplish more for their constituents, their country and the world. So that was of interest to us to promote this project.”

Torgow also sees the goal of increasing civility as consistent with Jewish values, for “according to the rabbis,” he says, “the Almighty loves unity; He loves peace. Peace is a great conduit for all good things in the world.”

Registration and information are available at: