By Thomas Moran | Staff Writer
The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative held a forum Tuesday afternoon in the Bobo Spiritual Life Center. Titled “Coming to America: A Public Deliberation Forum on Immigration,” the event was designed to promote conversation among students regarding the complex social issue of immigration in the United States.
Erin Payseur Oeth, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement and Service, is closely involved with Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor and helped establish the Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative with a colleague in 2014.
“The premise is that we have competing positive values. We aren’t looking at good versus evil,” Payseur Oeth said. “We are looking at lots of good options, but we are also breaking down the binaries so that we can have a different kind of conversation about it.”
The attendees were provided with a list of rules for the forum. Maintaining an open and respectful atmosphere, intentionally listening and speaking, considering all opinions fairly and looking for common ground were among the regulations outlined on the ground rules sheet.
Students were also provided with an outline of three distinct arguments within the discussion of immigration. Each of the three included a summary of the position, a list of actions that might be taken in pursuance of that objective, and a list of potential drawbacks of those actions.
The first position highlighted a very pro-immigration perspective. The option specified actions like providing undocumented individuals with a clear path to legal status, employment opportunities and legal residence.
The next position described a far more strict perspective on immigration and suggested deportation of undocumented individuals, prosecution of their employers and securement of borders.
The final position offered a more neutral view and supported reduction of illegal immigration, preferential treatment toward English-speaking undocumented immigrants and welcoming of refugees and persecuted individuals.
Participants were asked to read each individual option, its actions and drawbacks and engage in discussion with other attendees about their sentiments and thoughts toward the position. After sufficient discussion and examination of the position, the group moved on to the second and third options.
This is the normal structure for Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative meetings which happen several times a semester and cover a wide variety of complex social issues.
Since its inception, the forums have promoted student deliberation about many complex issues including, human trafficking, climate change, campus carry, the role of higher education, the economy, racial tensions on college campuses and more, Payseur Oeth said.
In her view, Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative forums provide the ideal environment for students to both see multiple sides of complex issues and find common ground in a safe environment — even when considering highly divisive issues.
“For example, with campus carry, that conversation is often pitched in terms of either pro-gun or anti-gun, but in deliberative forum, we talk about what it means to feel safe in community,” Payseur Oeth said. “What makes some people feel safe is having a weapon to protect themselves and others. What makes other people feel safe is not having weapons in an educational environment. But when we can talk about our shared need to feel safe, that’s a whole different conversation and it goes way beyond whether or not to have guns on campus.”
During the immigration deliberation forum, participants with differing views on the topic were encouraged to share their thoughts and to hear the thoughts of those with opposing views. Rather than sparking a heated argument, the environment promoted critical discussion instead. One of the Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative ground rules states that deliberation is not debate, but rather congregating to consider tough questions together.
This format of discourse allows students to consider the intricacies of complicated subjects in new ways and to discover how interconnected seemingly dissociated social issues often are, Payseur Oeth said. Public deliberation has three goals: issue awareness, building democratic skills and attitudes and institutional decision making.
Payseur Oeth has found that students leave Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative forums with a better understanding of the impact of issues on other people, how they fit into the discussion, and a desire to be more proactive in addressing the issue, regardless of perspective.
“In this forum, we are unlikely to change immigration policy, but we can come away with a sense of what we can do as individuals and what our communities can do,” Payseur Oeth said. “How can I respond differently? What might we do as a community at Baylor about how to best support undocumented students? It opens up new creativity, new possibilities for working together and moving forward in that topic.”
Jesse Lee Pyle, a graduate student studying higher education and student affairs, is apprenticing with Spirituality and Public Life at Baylor. Pyle helped lead the event and recognizes she has reaped notable benefits through participating in the Public Deliberation Initiative forums.
“We are going to face a lot of tough issues in our lives personally, nationally, on a community level, just in a lot of different areas of our lives,” Pyle said. “We need the tools and practices that help us to effectively talk about these issues while respecting everyone’s perspectives, while respecting everyone’s voice.”
Student opinions and thoughts shared during the event remain anonymous, but students had the choice to fill opinion sheets to be used in the National Issues Forum’s lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.
The next Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative forum will be held in April. Students looking to participate or get involved in the initiative can find more information on their site.