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:

Finley: Oakland seeks to be most civil campus

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Oakland University has an ambitious goal: to be the most civil and civically engaged campus in the nation.

“It’s going to make us stand out as an institution,” says David Dulio, a political science professor and director of OU’s Center for Civic Engagement. “We started looking at this during the 2016 election, which brought the issue of civility in politics to a head. That Americans were not really able to talk to each other really worried me.”

At the same time, Dulio noticed the civics IQ of his students was on the decline.

“One semester, in a class of 80 to 100 students, I gave them the citizenship test,” he says. “Sixty percent didn’t pass and would not have been able to become U.S. citizens. That jolted me.”

So Dulio, with the support of the Oakland administration, started a formal effort to make students more aware of politics and how their government works.

The Rochester-based university has staged 50 campus-wide events over the past five years, including a mock Iowa-style caucus and debates on pressing issues such as abortion. They also host candidate debates and will be the site of the second and final gubernatorial debate Tuesday between Democratic incumbent Gretchen Whitmer and Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

Civic engagement goes hand-in-hand with civility, Dulio says. The university is bucking a distressing trend in higher engagement to close campuses to viewpoints that run against the prevailing opinions of faculty and students.

He invites both progressives and conservatives to OU, and encourages students to exchange ideas with those with whom they disagree.

“I insist on viewpoint diversity,” Dulio says. “It is a bad thing for higher education, for democracy, that certain viewpoints are not permitted or shied away from.

“If a college campus can’t be a place where different ideas can come to the table for discussion, then we’re lost.”

The center has developed a list of tenets for civility that include, “Employ honest listening”; “Support free and open discourse”; and “Consider viewpoints other than your own.”

“We don’t want them to back away from important issues, but rather to provide them with a place where they can have these conversations the right way, in a civil, deliberative and productive manner,” Dulio says.

Tuesday, Oakland is hosting its first-ever Civility Day, a workshop on how to have a civil conversation on any subject. Stephen Henderson and I are presenting our Great Lakes Civility Project, which seeks to break down the barriers to civil discourse.

Other speakers include U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, members of Congress’ bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus along with local religious and civic leaders.

Sponsors include Delta Dental Plan of Michigan and Huntington Bank.

I’d love to see you there.

For information and to register, visit