About 100 people gathered in Weill Hall on Wednesday afternoon to hear Kathy Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tell stories from her research on the exclusion of rural voices in political discussions. The event, entitled “Listening to Strengthen Democracy,” was hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy as part of the school’s “Conversations Across Difference” lecture series. 

The Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), a research center at the Public Policy School, co-hosted the event because they are interested in redefining the ways society views urban and rural populations, according to Sarah Mills, senior project manager at CLOSUP.

“We’ve been really looking at what’s conceptualized as an urban-rural divide, but we like to think of it as an urban-rural continuum,” Mills said.

CLOSUP and the Public Policy School invited Cramer to this lecture series because of her work in rural communities with the Local Voices Network, a digital network used to share community conversations. 

“Given her work trying to understand the rural side of the equation, we thought that sharing that with the U-M community would be helpful to understand what you can learn by listening to people in rural communities,” Mills said.

Cramer’s research involved working with experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cortico, a nonprofit focused on holding healthy political discussions in communities, to create the Local Voices Network.

“We are basically aiming for a way in which we can listen to one another and understand the perspectives of people who are unlike us or don’t live near (us) or who we haven’t had (an) interaction with,” Cramer said.

Cramer became interested in rural and urban dialogues as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. While doing research in the South, she came across interesting conversations among locals in public spaces like post offices.

“From pretty early on in my career as a political scientist, I knew I was interested in conversations, and I knew that I thought about (rural peoples’) lives and about the way they understand politics from listening to them talk with one another,” Cramer said.

In her research, she and her coworkers facilitate conversations about a variety of topics between six community volunteers, which are recorded using a digital hearth, an audio recording technology that has the capacity to play audio from other conversations. Cramer aims to place digital hearths in libraries across the country so more conversations can be recorded and shared.

“We’re trying to lift up the voices of people who aren’t normally heard, we’re trying to get people to listen and learn across boundaries,” Cramer said.

Cramer’s work culminated in a collection of conversations from communities in Massachusetts, New York, Alabama and Wisconsin that are available on the network’s website for online listening. 

“The conversations are shared across a community, across neighborhoods in a community and across geographic space,” Cramer said.

Mills explained the urban-rural divide exists at the University of Michigan.

“We are a university that is in an urban environment, a lot of people here are urban, but we are a public university that represents the whole state, and so I think it’s really important that we recognize what those rural voices care about,” Mills said.

Mills said people tend to take an argumentative approach to dialogues, focusing on difference rather than common ground.

“A lot of the concerns that we see in rural communities are similar to what we see in urban communities,” Mills said. “We don’t often look for those commonalities and we often talk past each other, or feel, on one side of the equation or the other, that we aren’t being heard.”

Cramer said focusing on conflict can prevent groups from making progress towards correcting the issues they care about.

“We throw up our hands, we turn away, we don’t engage, we don’t get involved, and the result is that the policies that are getting us to these places, whether we’re talking about economic policy or otherwise, continue,” Cramer said.

The main takeaways from Cramer’s work related to creating productive dialogues. She emphasized the importance of listening to all discussions.

“I think the key thing I would say is just giving yourself the luxury to listen as opposed to debate,” Cramer said. “All too often we assume that our role is to defend our point of view and persuade other people, but most of the time it doesn’t work, and there’s so much of a need right now to do the opposite.”

In an interview with The Daily after the event, LSA freshman Nina Rosenberg emphasized the importance of listening to different viewpoints.

“I think it’s important and part of being in college and learning in a different environment is hearing from different viewpoints and learning about environments you were never exposed to growing up,” Rosenberg said. 

Mills recognized it can be difficult to enter unfamiliar dialogues, but effort is important in order to create progress.

“When you truly care about hearing someone’s perspective, they’re not going to shut you out. It takes some effort, but I think that there are dividends,” Mills said.

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