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Civil discourse to guide Saint Mary's through election 2020

As the political rhetoric continues to heat up as election day 2020 nears, Saint Mary’s School has set a goal and created a plan to lead the way in practicing civil discourse and serving as a model that, in our shared goal to form a more perfect union and world, we can disagree on policies, listen to other perspectives, debate vigorously but respectfully, and engage in civil conversations as our democratic process calls and empowers us to do.

Election season programming is underway in all aspects of campus life from chapel services to the Seminar program to community time activities to the classroom, with guidelines in place to facilitate respectful civil discourse throughout the Saint Mary’s community.

“This election season provides Saint Mary’s with an opportunity to be a model of civil discourse,” said Head of School Brendan O’Shea in addressing the school community via Microsoft Teams at the end of Chapel, Oct. 13. “We are a community of trust. Within this community we have a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions – as it should be. Our strength comes from our commitment to respect the worth and dignity of all, even those who don’t share are same opinions and beliefs.”

The school’s policy on political expression in the current political climate states, “As an educational institution preparing girls for college and life, we take seriously our role in preparing girls to be engaged citizens. We want our girls to engage in the political process in a meaningful and academic manner. We will work with our students in the election process in a way that gives voice to the issues that matter to our girls, educates all on the election process including the Electoral College, builds the skills needed to engage in productive political conversation, and sets norms for discussing the election built on civil discourse.”

The process kicked off officially during the Connected Saints community time Thursday, Oct. 15, with grade-level discussions about the school’s norms and protocols to set up the parameters for respectful conversations and expression. Humanities and Social Studies faculty, assisted by class officers and student health and wellness ambassadors, led the program. Topics included examples of norms for election conversations such as listening with respect, asking questions, sharing talking time without interrupting, considering and exploring diverse opinions, and recognizing what makes a conversation safe and productive or hurtful and unproductive.

Students broke into small group discussions and then reported their best takeaways to the whole class. Student comments included listening without interrupting or judging, freedom to say what you wish as long as it does not demean others or threaten their existence, considering differing opinions respectfully, and more.

The conversations will continue in the Seminar program, where students will explore topics such as learning how to spot fake news, being a responsible digital citizen, seeking out reliable sources of information, examining how women politicians are portrayed compared to males, navigating tough conversations, and more.

On October 28, an issues forum will be held including education about the Electoral College, including participation by members of Saint Mary’s Young Democrats and Young Republicans clubs.

Throughout election season during chapel services, Chaplain Maggie Stoddard is sharing a prayer she wrote with input from the vestry officers calling for unity founded in our common humanity. Messages and prayers for kindness and love will continue to be shared, and the Chaplain will deliver a special homily on election day, Nov. 3.

Faculty and staff are engaged in professional development sessions related to understanding others’ points of view, the election, and issues in our nation today.

On election day, Nov. 3, students will vote in their morning advisories to mimic the Electoral College, with the goal of helping students understand how that process works in electing the president. Students will vote individually within their advisory groups leading to a tally of the Saint Mary’s Electoral College votes. In the afternoon, an announcement will be made as to who won the popular vote and who won the Electoral College (and therefore, the presidency), according to Saint Mary’s School.

Other election season efforts include assistance with voter registration and absentee ballots, and plans are in the works to highlight various candidates and issues at the presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial levels in an upcoming assembly.

Following the conclusion of the election, the school will enter a “cooling off” period of one week, when members of the campus community will refrain from outward displays of campaign materials, clothing, paraphernalia, or political rhetoric, as a way of providing space to process the outcomes for those supporting  candidates who won election and those whose candidates were not elected.

Through these efforts, and more to come, Saint Mary’s seeks to achieve its goal to be a model of the tenet that civil discourse and diversity of opinion are at the very heart of engaged participation and responsible citizenship in our extraordinary democratic republic.

Mary Virginia Swain '77C

Director of Public Relations and Publications