The Power of Constructive Dialogue: Lessons Learned

The Power of Constructive Dialogue: Lessons Learned
Guest blogger:  Wayne H. Bell, Phd.

It is an honor and a challenge to open the blog for MHC’s “Let’s Be Shore” Project. As former Director of the Washington College Center for Environment and Society, I developed a Rural Communities Leadership program that included new courses, guest speakers, and public forums all centered on sustainable development of Eastern Shore communities. The safety of academia allowed us to examine issues involving environment, land use, sense of place, and local economics from a wide variety of different and often divisive perspectives. Our findings met the real world as students, citizen and faculty colleagues, and I developed what became a Vision Plan for Sustaining Agriculture in Talbot County, Maryland. It took over a year to complete, but after many constructive revisions the plan was endorsed by both the Talbot County Farm Bureau and the County Council at the end of 2007.

What lessons were learned over the seven years that I was deeply involved in sustainable community development? First and foremost is the power of constructive dialogue. This is fairly easy to achieve within the walls of a classroom where issues can be debated without having to implement the outcome. It is far more difficult in a public meeting where opinions are strongly held and personal livelihoods are at stake. Let’s Be Shore is making maximum use of advances in technology to provide opportunity for public discourse and exchange. Trust and civility must be strengths, not casualties, of such opportunity.

My second lesson involves information. Despite the extraordinary source of knowledge that the Internet has become, it seems to me that people involved in controversial issues actually are less informed about perspectives different from theirs. We hide our ignorance by using blanket words and concepts: Chesapeake Bay is “polluted;” “big agriculture” is a “problem;” keep the Shore “rural.” What do these really mean, and how are they interrelated?

My third and final lesson is the importance of leadership. Civil dialogue based on shared information is necessary but insufficient if there is no leader to serve as translator and catalyst. The problems you are addressing are ongoing and solutions to them will be as well. Ultimate success will depend less on creating a favorable outcome to a given controversy and more on sustaining that outcome. An initiative should not end when its current leader moves on.

One important concept that emerged from our various activities is “working landscape” — land use that is economically significant for those who depend on it and environmentally sustainable for those who enjoy it. Public forums held under the Talbot County visioning project revealed that citizens value agriculture most as a contributor to Eastern Shore quality of life and the scenic beauty its open spaces provide. Economic return appears to be secondary to many — but not to the farmer! If agriculture were not profitable, would quality of life be the same? Most of the land on Eastern Shore watersheds is over 80% agricultural, the great majority raising grain sold locally to the poultry industry. Conversion to small farms for niche markets sounds appealing, but where are those markets? How many such farms can the shore support? And what happens to the remaining lands if grain is no longer a viable economic option? Ross Hanson, while chair of MD Environmental Trust in 2002, defined a working landscape as “. . . one that maintains and works to enhance the responsibility of private land owners, individually, to improve the land for successive generations of those who work it and, collectively, to pass on to each new generation a landscape that is a greater environmental asset than they received. Moreover, a working landscape is an irreplaceable cultural resource.” In your search to reconcile issues of land use, agriculture, economy, and water quality, remember to help us all keep the Eastern Shore truly working.

I wish you the very best as you embark on “Let’s Be Shore.”

Wayne H. Bell, Ph.D. is a Senior Associate at the Center for Environment and Society at Washington College. He holds a B.S. from the University of Miami (FL), 1967; A.M. from Harvard University, 1969; and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, 1976.

About MD Humanities Council

LetsBeShore is a project of the Maryland Humanities Council's Practicing Democracy program, bringing together multiple perspectives for passionate and respectful dialogue about land use and agriculture and their effect on water quality along Maryland's Eastern Shore.
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