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A Sarasota initiative aims to bring civility back to political discussions

Several people chatting at a round dinner table
The group's mission is to reduce polarization and return respectful conversations among people with differing political views.

In this divided era of American politics, it’s not easy to speak openly across party lines. A new local initiative hopes to change that.

A recent national report shows that political-based conflict is on the rise. 

Conversations Across the Aisle, or The CATA Project, was created to promote respectful conversations among people with differing beliefs. A dinner workshop format was chosen because organizers thought that breaking bread together would help facilitate conversations where participants opinions may diverge. 

The concept of CATA was created by Bill Woodson, a Newtown Sarasota native and currently the vice president for DEI at a private liberal arts college in New York. Woodson recently retired from New College of Florida, where he served as the college’s first chief diversity officer as well as their first dean of outreach. 

Board members include Misty Servia, a former Manatee County commissioner and one of the hosts of The Big Picture Manatee, a podcast about issues facing Manatee County. 

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke with Woodson and Servia about CATA’s mission to bring back civility to conversations over political differences.

Bill, CATA is an acronym for Conversations Across the Aisle. What inspired you to create this project? 

I think it's such an important skill to know how to disagree without being disagreeable. We've lost a focus on that. I think that social media has a lot to do with it. Everyone wants to get clicks; everyone wants to be seen as an influencer. And you don't get there by being reasonable. You get there by being antagonistic, you get there by having the snappiest comeback. And that really gets in the way of informed and thoughtful conversation and discourse. We have to let people know that there's a different way to get recognition and to be influential, and that is by knowing how to share space, including with others of different opinions.

And you facilitate these conversations with people of differing political views?

We've been very particular about trying to keep the room balanced and very intentional about engaging a similar number of people who identify as progressive or as conservative, or libertarian. I wanted to create that dynamic where you could come across lines of political difference, and then provide a maximum amount of space for to be informed, but also to respond to that information, with dialogue, perspective and with solutions. 

Misty, as a former Manatee County commissioner, you bring a unique perspective to this project. So, how do we get back to an era where people from different political parties can work together in a bipartisan fashion? 

It's a good question, and I wish there was an easy answer. I think that we need diversity in every subject that we're dealing with in our lives, because the more diversity of opinions that we bring into problems or questions, the better solutions we're going to reach. If we keep ourselves in an echo chamber, where we're listening to what people are saying that we totally agree with and never challenge us, we're not going to grow. It is important that we leave our silos and listen to others, and that's what the CATA project is all about. 

White woman wearing glasses and red shirt speaks into microphone and addresses people at tables.
Conversations Across The Aisle, or The CATA Project will hold their next dinner workshop Feb 22.

Bill, you have these conversations over dinner, hoping that perhaps breaking bread can encourage people to be more respectful towards each other. The format is then broken down where you ask questions and people are asked to try to solve problems. For your first workshop, the topic was public education. So, tell us how it worked. 

We encouraged them to identify whether they had come to consensus, but we didn't mandate that they try to reach consensus. We really wanted them to discover if they in fact, agreed about a course of action on things. Like, is the voucher system a good idea, or who should control whether certain books are in the library, and they had a chance to share their opinions, discover whether or not they came to consensus, and then share their outcomes and their discussions with the rest of the group. 

How do you think the first workshop went? 

People were really enthused and energized by the opportunity. It was something I hoped for but you never know until you actually do the thing, if it's going to land with others the way that you hope it will. But in most cases, the tables came to consensus more often than not, which I didn't frankly expect. And in the cases where they didn't come to consensus, they were able to articulate the different points of view reflected at each table in a way that was clearly respectful of the reasonableness of someone who maybe had a different conclusion. 

Finally, Misty, what would you say to people that might be in a bit of despair about our political division? 

It's a tough time, but we can do better. Civility is important because it shows that the person who is speaking has respect for the person that they are speaking to. And isn't that where we should all start? You know, having respect for each other and being open to listening to why people may feel differently. I bet you at the end of the day, if we thought about it, we all have very similar values. We all love our kids. We all want our community to be the best. We can care about each other. And when we do that, it just strengthens our democracy.

If you're interested in taking part in a workshop, write events.cata@gmail.com

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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