Next Doors: Promoting Civil Discourse in a Cynical Age

Sandra Day O’Connor Institute sees opportunity in the clamor

We live in a time when it’s difficult to discuss our differences calmly and rationally. This fact has dominated recent news cycles, when black seems white, and white seems black, and there’s no other point on the spectrum.

Our country has faced moments like this before — to the point of civil war, even — but for anyone living today, the environment around public discourse may seem more fractured than ever. When we must debate what truth is and what truth even means, we’ve reached a new frontier; one that could lead in a number of directions, many of them bad.

So you might think that an organization founded to promote civil discourse and public engagement would find these challenging and frustrating times. But if you ask Sarah Suggs, president & CEO of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, she’ll give you a different opinion.

“Because of what I do, I have a sense of optimism,” she said. “It’s an interesting silver lining with what’s going on today with the divisiveness and lack of civility. Until something is missing, you don’t know what it’s like to live without it.”

A quick step back, for those of you unfamiliar with one of the most famous and impactful Arizonans and her namesake nonprofit institute. Sandra Day O’Connor was one of Arizona’s most prominent political and legal figures for decades before being tapped by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

From her time in the state Legislature to her time in the nation’s highest court, she was known as someone who would look for common ground with her colleagues, someone who placed a high value on civil discourse and public service.

“When Justice O’Connor was in the state Legislature as majority leader, she often clashed with her colleagues,” Suggs said. “But she would also invite them to her home and cook them dinner, to share a meal, to listen and learn. As she said, we would often start on the fringes and work our way in until we found common ground. She took that spirit to the Supreme Court.”

The Sandra Day O’Connor Institute was started in 2009 by Justice O’Connor, with the catalyst being to save her historic adobe home in Paradise Valley, which was scheduled for demolition. Through the hard work of a dedicated group of community leaders and philanthropists, the house was moved brick by brick to Papago Park near the Arizona Heritage Center.

Once it was moved, Suggs said, O’Connor was gratified. Still, she was not one to have monuments unto herself and wanted to know what action could be taken from there. The charity itself was initially called O’Connor House, but its board of directors was reconstituted in 2015 and the organization was rebranded to be the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute. The mission changed to civic engagement, civic education and civil discourse — the three pillars that drive its work.

“We have sort of a motto here, ‘Civics for life,’” Suggs said. “When you look at what we do in our programs, we believe in civics for every generation, and we believe in lifelong learning.”

For kids and teenagers — from across the country — the main focus is Camp O’Connor, a “democracy boot camp” for seventh and eighth graders that includes immersion into the branches of government. They learn how to interact around issues, the machinery of democracy and voting, learn why every vote matters, and how representative government works.

For young adults, the Institute puts on an Emerging Leaders Network, which they consider to be an on-ramp for civic engagement. “A lot of millennials were not taught civics in the classroom, and what we find is the majority of adults cannot identify three branches of government,” Suggs said. “These are fundamental things they lack, but they are bright people and just don’t have the information.” The program teaches them how to interact with all levels of government and create civic engagement opportunities.

And for adults of all ages, the O’Connor Institute puts on a broad spectrum of events designed to create engagement and discourse, ranging from regular forums to their Legacy Luncheon and Annual History Dinner coming up in November, which examines key historical topics and how they were discussed and debated at the time.

The organization also keeps a digital archive of O’Connor’s life and writings for use by current and future generations, as well as provides scholarships to law students at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

But overall, the work the Institute does focuses on the three pillars — civic engagement, civics education and civil discourse — that are often so lacking in today’s America. But they are not lost on everyone. Many Americans long for a return to better public discourse.

“As a consequence, the O’Connor Institute is a beacon,” Suggs said. “We have people coming to us online and at events seeking a higher level of thinking and dialogue. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to carry our message forward. We’re growing, and our mission has never been more needed.”

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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