Colorado Academy Seniors Claire Arney and Arantza Pereira, the co-founders of the Upper School Respectful Discourse club, believe that promoting thoughtful, constructive disagreement is vital for today’s students.
“In the midst of our country’s polarization around politics and current events,” explains Arney, “we need a dedicated space where people can come to have an open and honest conversation about things we care about.”
“As a teenager during COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Arney continues, “I have grown up in a controversial world, and I am tired of people fighting without really listening. I am also passionate about solving climate change, but am disheartened when politics gets in the way of true progress. I believe that we need to work together to be successful; talking to each other in a positive manner is the first step.”
Pereira, too, has noticed the costs of political divisions. In recent years, she reached the conclusion that many of her peers felt afraid to voice their opinions in the classroom—specifically when a class took a turn into the political realm. Students told her they were afraid of sacrificing relationships or reputations if they were to take a stand that wasn’t in accordance with the rest of the classroom.
“Having felt this way myself on numerous occasions,” says Pereira, “I want to push the notion that disagreement can actually be greatly beneficial. I feel it’s important that our personal beliefs are challenged on a regular basis.”
“We need to normalize disagreement in the school setting,” she adds.
At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Arney and Pereira founded the Respectful Discourse club to put their ideas into practice. The club, which meets once during every six-day class rotation, provides Upper School students with the opportunity both to share their perspectives on difficult topics, and to learn from those whose beliefs differ from their own.
The club deliberately takes on contentious issues such as gun control, climate change, abortion, and the criminal justice system—precisely those topics that have divided not only society, but also CA students.
“Beginning in the midst of the 2020 elections, political division plagued our student body,” observes Pereira. “I both witnessed and experienced relationships deteriorate simply because of political disagreement. I also noticed an alarming number of hateful posts being shared all over the internet—further promoting a closed-minded ideology. And while this, of course, was a nationwide experience, I wanted to take initiative within my own community.”
Club meetings start with a quick introduction to the day’s topic, using sources like videos and articles from all across the political spectrum. Then the floor opens for discussion, with Arney and Pereira working to create a casual atmosphere where there is no pressure to “win” an argument. They encourage members to focus on ideas, rather than individuals, so that the root of a disagreement can become clear. They ensure that all participants have the opportunity to speak, and that conversations stay calm.
“I have found that this approach helps all participants truly appreciate learning about a given topic,” Arney says. “People are genuinely curious to hear from each other and explore new perspectives.”
After successfully hosting a number of productive discussions, says Pereira, “We’ve found that many students are surprised at the way in which they are able to successfully converse with those who hold differing beliefs, and find it rather refreshing. I’ve come to believe that there’s more to learn from those who have a different opinion than from those who agree with us.”
In the fall, the two Senior club leaders hosted a special debate that was facilitated by the nonprofit Braver Angels, a national organization dedicated to bringing people together despite their differences on contentious political and social issues. With Chandler Skinner, a Program Manager on the Braver Angels Debate & Public Discourse Team, as moderator, Upper Schoolers made presentations for and against the idea of arming classroom teachers (the arguments were theoretical, not about any policies at CA), and respectfully questioned each other about their views.
“It helped me feel a lot more educated about the topic,” said one debate participant, “while also being able to have a productive conversation.”
“Braver Angels unites all Americans in an alliance to depolarize America through conversations,” explains Arney. “Our club is very similar, in that we are trying to promote the value of honest and respectful discourse with people of all perspectives, especially in a world where it can be hard to voice your opinion without being shut down.”
Head of School Dr. Mike Davis, who joined Upper Schoolers for the Braver Angels session, says that he is impressed to see students engaging in constructive discussions about difficult topics.
“One of my goals this year at CA has been introducing more political, civic conversations at school,” Davis says. “I hear from both sides that individuals don’t feel like they can speak up, and unfortunately a lot of that is due to the influence of outside politicians and political groups on social media. The Respectful Discourse club and Braver Angels provide a model for having more dialog on campus and learning from one another, and I am grateful for that.”
A passion for learning
For Arney and Pereira, the Respectful Discourse club is more than the sum of the discussions that happen among its members. The two see the ideals of the club as a reflection of the personal commitment to growth, learning, and the exchange of ideas that they’ve discovered at CA.
“I enjoy taking on the challenge of engaging with others in difficult discussions,” Pereira acknowledges, “because there is often a newfound sense of understanding and connection between the given groups after having dissected emotional subject matter. Rather than creating further division, I find that taking part in these conversations actually helps to bridge this unspoken gap.”
Arney explains, “CA has taught me so much that has played a part in the club. From thoughtful and deep conversations and analysis of our learnings, to group projects in all of my subjects, CA has given me tools that can be used to depolarize and to help bring people together. In addition, CA’s support of its students’ varied interests—from sports to theater to service—has given me the confidence to take on things that may seem challenging or new, just like the topics that our club discusses.”
Reflecting on bringing students together around contentious ideas, the Seniors both believe their experience will serve them well in college and beyond.
“Being involved in leading this club has taught me to be a facilitator of conversation,” says Pereira, “which is something that will be useful anywhere. It’s not always possible to arrive at one ‘correct’ consensus; sometimes we can learn more from effective disagreement. Ultimately, the simple act of exchanging ideas can result in a better understanding of your own perspective.”
For her part, Arney can imagine the thread of Respectful Discourse continuing to unspool in the halls of a college dorm, a seminar classroom, or a formal student organization.
“A school should teach students how to think, not what to think,” she says, “and this club has tried to echo that belief and give CA students an opportunity to gain from other perspectives. The conversational and analytical tools we emphasize in Respectful Discourse can help long after graduation.”
Arney continues, “Personally, I will always value those moments when I can talk about something important with others and simply learn.”