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Local politics


IPFW-Wabash building civic dialogue


There is plenty of debate but not enough deliberation in politics, according to an IPFW political scientist.

“You have to find a situation where you allow the best processes for people to listen … where you are mixed with people who might agree with you or not,” Michael Wolf said.

“It’s uncommon in political life these days where you sit down with people who disagree with you,” he said.

IPFW’s Mike Downs Center for Politics is trying to create such situations, beginning tonight when it plays host to 16 students from Wabash College for a forum with a dozen IPFW students on America’s role in the world.

The Downs Center has become a Center for Public Life through a research agreement with the non-partisan, non-profit Kettering Foundation. Wabash is a Center for Public Life, too.

Based in Dayton and with offices in New York and Washington, the Kettering Foundation studies democracy and challenges to it. Wolf and Andrew Downs, director of the Downs Center, have received free training and content from the foundation.

“The foundation is set up to try to build communities of people engaged in political dialogue to guide (government) officials to deal with big issues,” said Wolf, who teaches a class called “Making Democracy Work.”

The missions of Kettering and the Downs Center are “extremely similar,” he said.

Alice Diebel, program officer for Kettering, said there is no “Kettering model” for partners to follow.

“We’re a research foundation, and we’re trying to learn what it takes for citizens to become engaged in the important issues in their communities – how public deliberation can help make that happen,” Diebel said.

She said the network is designed for partners “to learn from each other.” Kettering has partners in 39 states and Puerto Rico. In addition to IPFW and Wabash, Indiana University Bloomington is a Kettering research partner.

After today, the next program in which the Downs Center will use Kettering methods of deliberation will be IPFW Civics Day on April 21. The Downs Center has invited students from all the high schools in Allen County, plus Decatur’s Bellmont High School, where the center has a tie-in with a civics teacher.

IPFW Civics Day will feature a session with Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, and a forum on how to find political accord to solve problems in such policy areas as the national debt, immigration, illegal drugs and energy.

“There are a lot of these very broad political issues that are not resolved … that don’t seem to move forward with any consensus,” Wolf said.

It might take today’s high school and college students to fix the problems – but only if they are so inclined.

“The research demonstrates that this adolescent period is an extremely important one for the development of political attitudes,” Wolf said.

That is when people tend to acquire a sense of civic duty and political engagement, he said. But if they don’t, Wolf said, “it’s not going to be developed later.”

He said the Downs Center hopes to do more Kettering programs and forums with Wabash that have an Indiana focus.