Milwaukee center aims for civil community discussions

Last winter, Wisconsin saw sustained protests at the state capitol and subsequent claims that state politics had become more polarized than ever.

In Milwaukee, the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion in Redeemer Lutheran Church at 19th and Wisconsin Avenue is working to combat that growing political and social polarization in Wisconsin through community dialogue.

The center is named for Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee mayor from 1948-1960 and lifelong member of Redeemer. Lisa Bates-Froiland, director of the Zeidler Center, said the center’s founders wanted to create a space where the citizens of Milwaukee could talk about issues in a civil way.

“We want to have a safe place for people … to get together and talk about issues relevant to our lives, the tough stuff,” Froiland said.

The Zeidler Center opened five years ago, but recently introduced a new monthly forum for dialogue called “Mad Hot Community Conversations.” The first conversation was held Thursday, Oct. 13.

Froiland said the center has ground rules to ensure discussion goes smoothly: Each person gets two minutes to speak, no one is allowed to interrupt another person and each person must speak for himself or herself rather than as a representative for a group.

Though the community conversations are just beginning, Froiland says the center has big plans to grow.

“Ideally we want 45 to 50 people to attend,” she said. “We want it to be something that people look forward to and to wonder what we’re talking about next.”

Froiland likens the conversations to the 4th Street Forum, a weekly town hall meeting where Milwaukee residents gather to talk about pressing community issues, but said that she envisions more direct participation.

In response to the perceived polarization in Wisconsin, she said there’s a need for civil conversation.

“I see it all the time at the end of an op-ed piece,” Froiland said. “We need to talk to people, we don’t know how to engage one another … without it becoming accusations and name calling.”

Monica Lawton, a sophomore in the College of Communication, is completing her service learning at the Zeidler Center and likes hearing the variety of opinions that exist.

“I think the most interesting aspect (of the Ziedler Center) is it’s a place where members of an entire community can come and discuss controversial issues and don’t try to change minds,” Lawton said.  “At the end of the day, if one person understands where another person is coming from, they feel they’ve done their job.”

The Center for Peacemaking at Marquette has a similar program called “Peaceworks,” a peace-building conflict resolution program designed to improve nonviolent problem solving strategies among middle and high school-aged children, said Carole Poth, outreach coordinator for the Center for Peacemaking.

“What you’re hoping when you do (Peaceworks), is for people to get skills that they’re going to use for the rest of their lives,” Poth said. “When we work in the schools, kids can come back with stories with how they were able to apply these skills in community and with families.”