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Common Ground:

Closer Than You Think     


Wayne Jacobsen
Wayne Jacobsen

A school board president from the heartland called me late one afternoon about an anti-discrimination policy for sexual orientation that she was putting forward in her school district. She was meeting significant opposition from conservative parents who had requested she contact me.

“I can pass this tomorrow 4-3,” she told me. “Tell me why I shouldn’t do that?”

“It would seem to me,” I responded, “that if you truly wanted to resolve the discrimination in your district, you’d want to pass the policy 7-0.”

A New Possibility
That caught the board president off guard. I could tell she had never considered the possibility. “How likely do you think that is?” she finally asked.

I said I thought it was highly likely given my experience with the common ground work done by the First Amendment Center and BridgeBuilders. If we can switch the focus from “How can my side get its way?” to “How can we work together in the face of our deepest differences?” the vast majority of people will choose the latter and create policies that everyone can embrace. Such an approach has proved overwhelmingly successful wherever it has been tried.

Besides, I assured her, if our efforts failed, she could still pass the policy she already had proposed a month later.

Still skeptical, she nonetheless courageously put aside her proposal and formed a task force of 30 people from across her midsize school district representing all sides of the issue. Advocates for gay rights sat side by side with conservative church pastors and community leaders. The meeting room at the high school was tense when I walked in, as it usually is. Each side was gearing up for the battle to force its solutions on the other side.

Reaching a Midpoint
I began by giving them the option of finding common ground. Everyone has a vested interest in a safe school environment for all staff and students. Can we find a way to guard each other’s safety and provide equal opportunity, even though we might disagree on the morality of homosexuality?

I facilitated their discussion over that evening and the next. The group was able to develop and unanimously recommend a new set of policies to the school board that included provisions to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. What helped this group was to preserve a mission statement against all forms of discrimination and harassment without spelling out any specific groups, but then including in the subpoints the recognition that discrimination based on sexual orientation needed to be specifically addressed in future staff development.

After the second evening, the board president pulled me aside. “I’ll be honest,” she said. “I didn’t think this would work, and yet the policy from this group is even stronger than the one I wanted.” And, in the process, she had educated her community how to work through their disagreements without undermining people who have a different point of view. Within a month the school board passed the proposal 7-0.

I also worked with a school district in central California that had been polarized on the same issue. The district reached an out-of-court settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union in a case alleging sexual orientation discrimination by agreeing to hold training for staff and all high school students run by the Gay-Straight Alliance. Many parents expressed outrage and threatened to keep their students home on the training date, which would have forced the school district back to court. In the end, the district offered parents the ability to opt their student out of the training, but to do so they had to see the training first.

By working with the Gay-Straight Alliance and parents, we were able to develop a training session that affirmed differing points of view on the subject, but the point was made they had to work together to create a safe environment for all. After showing parents the training at all four high schools in the district, only three parents pulled their children out of the training.

Safe for All
While sexual orientation and gender identity continue to be hot political topics in this California community as elsewhere, a comprehensive policy recognizes that everyone does not have to view these issues in the same way to be able to work jointly for a safe environment for students.

No one should be asked to attend a public school district that is biased against his or her beliefs. That holds true as much for a student who identifies as gay as it does for an evangelical student. To truly build a safe environment for all, everyone has to be at the table and come up with solutions that will end discrimination and build mutual respect.

Wayne Jacobsen is president of BridgeBuilders in Newbury Park, Calif. E-mail: waynej@-bridge-builders.org


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