By Patrick McArdle
A group of Rutland High School freshmen got a practical lesson last week in the importance of civility and good communication during a visit by Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
Donovan and Julio Thompson, director of the civil rights unit of the AG’s office, spoke to a class taught by Abby Brodowski, a ninth-grade English teacher.
Donovan told the students a little about his personal history and his office’s responsibilities.
“A lot of times, what happens in the law and what happens in politics, public policy, you know what it comes down to? It comes down to an ability to communicate effectively,” Donovan said. “To recognize the other side; to recognize their arguments and also to recognize the limits of your own arguments and to engage in civil discourse, not to demean, not to berate, but to get to yes. To get to a resolution. To solve the problem.”
Brodowski said the event was made possible through an “Honoring Diversity” grant from the Rowland Foundation. She and fellow teacher Jennie Gartner wanted to “teach students the skills of dialogue and how to have civil discourse, so that they could navigate difficult conversations in their lives.”
For the program, now in its second year, half the freshmen class are taken on a trip to Boston while the other half participates in group discussions and hears from guest speakers like Donovan and Thompson.
The next day, the groups switch — other students make the Boston trip, while students who traveled the day before talk about civil discussion strategies.
Brodowski said about 200 students are in Rutland High School’s freshmen class.
About 45 students were part of Wednesday’s discussion with Donovan. Others who spoke with freshmen students this year included William Notte and Lisa Ryan, both members of the city’s Board of Aldermen, and Dena Goldberg, a member of the Rutland City School Board.
Donovan and Thompson shared examples, some personal, about how good communication can be important in their lives.
Thompson talked about his days working at a fast-food restaurant as a teenager, and how he learned to pitch his request for another spot in the restaurant in a way that created a benefit for the management.
Thompson’s suggestion was heard and, he said, he not only got the spot he desired, he earned the gratitude of his fellow “grill guys.”
Donovan said civil communication could have a far-reaching effect.
“Whatever piece of legislation there is — whether you’re talking about the State House in Montpelier, whether you’re talking about Congress in Washington, D.C., or whether you’re talking about the city of Rutland — whatever the initiative is, it comes down to a vote, essentially,” he said. “And how are you going to persuade people to get to your side to get enough votes? That comes down to the ability to communicate, and the basis of that effectiveness really is respect, really is civility.”
Donovan told the students he was confident they could learn to be civil in their interactions with others.
“It is a skillset that I think will serve you all well,” he said. “It’s going to serve our state well. It’s going to serve our country well, because I fear that’s what we’re missing right now in our public discourse, is that civility and that respect for the other side.”
Donovan’s visit to Rutland High School was part of a tour that already included Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, and will continue with stops in Montpelier and Brattleboro next week.
“The goal, I think, is to stress the importance of civility in our political discourse; civility and respect for people’s differences and empathy for folks,” the attorney general said. “Vermont has a proud tradition of those three things, and I am concerned, given the political discourse in the state, that we’re losing that.”
Talking to the next generation of Vermont’s leaders is important, Donovan added.
“I think we do it well in Vermont but, look, these kids are smart; they know what’s going on,” he said. “We have an obligation to let them know we think civility and respect for people’s differences are important topics.”
The students were encouraged to write down any questions they had for Donovan. While the discussion by the attorneys went long, Natalie Silver, a spokeswoman for Donovan’s office, told Brodowski she should submit the students’ questions and Silver would try to get some answers.