Finding civility

League of Women Voters present case for civil discourse in today’s world

Martha Cox (standing) observes a group including Dylan Gray (left), Elaina McReynolds (foreground) and Susan Wilson practice civil discourse during Saturday’s workshop.

Martha Cox (standing) observes a group including Dylan Gray (left), Elaina McReynolds (foreground) and Susan Wilson practice civil discourse during Saturday’s workshop.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

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Martha Cox has a passion for politics. Since retiring as a high school English teacher 10 years ago, she’s become active with the League of Women Voters, currently serving as first vice president in the state organization. Saturday (Nov. 4), she took a plane-hopping day trip from San Diego to conduct a workshop on politicking.

That event—held at Chico State, titled “What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?”—focused on bringing together community members to solve problems through civil discourse, in a time when incivility runs rampant. Cox has devoted the better part of six years to finding a means to counter divisiveness and coarseness in public dialogue.

“I just found that our country was in trouble, because we were not able to sit around a table and solve our country’s problems,” she told the CN&R after the workshop, echoing a theme of her introductory remarks. “It seemed like the decibel level needed to be raised before any discussion occurred; it was not productive discussion, and it seemed like there needed to be a better way.

“The league’s motto is ‘Make Democracy Work’—and to me [this effort] made perfect sense.”

A seminal event spurred action. In 2011, then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot while meeting constituents in Arizona. She was wounded, but six people died that day. Cox and her North County San Diego league colleagues dedicated themselves to addressing the problem of incivility. They were not alone: Within weeks of the tragedy, citizens of Tucson and others formed the National Institute for Civil Discourse, whose work the San Diego league members used as a resource.

The result of the undertaking was a public engagement facilitation guide; Cox shared its process on Saturday.

Debra Barger, president of the Butte County league, met Cox in Sacramento at the group’s state convention in June. After hearing about her work, Barger said she thought, We need to bring that to our community.

“I’m excited about the larger applications,” said Barger, dean of Chico State’s Department of Regional and Continuing Education, who attended the workshop. She envisions “community-building” from the act of convening distinct individuals. She sees solutions emerging from “civil conversations about tough problems” in which people acknowledge their differences.

Cox presented—and asked the 20 participants to practice—a structured process, essentially advocating for broad-based focus groups. To solve a problem, first survey the community to glean information; use that information to frame the issue; hold meetings, with facilitators and note-takers, to distill ideas; then, identify commonalities to create an action plan.

Asked afterward if she had other, less extensive and intensive, suggestions for involvement, Cox offered several, from living room conversations to large-format community discussions.

“There are almost endless ways you can engage civilly within your community,” she continued. “The reason that this [method] jumps out at me, and why we [at the League of Women Voters] have latched onto this one, is we need to solve problems. The others have a place, but if you want to solve problems in your community, I’m sorry, but citizens have to work as citizens.

“Democracy was based on the fact that citizens get engaged. We can’t sit back and let others be in charge.”

Cox’s ideas found a receptive audience, which consisted of league members from Butte County and the Redding area, plus several Chicoans actively serving the community. Those attendees included Dylan Gray, Associated Students president at Chico State; Elaina McReynolds, a Chico parks commissioner (and league member); Kate McCarthy, a board member at the Inspire School of Arts and Sciences; and Richard Ober, a Chico City Council candidate who chairs the Torres Community Shelter board.

McReynolds, program director for regional and continuing education, also knew about Cox. A league friend in Southern California had told her about the civil discourse program, which she relayed to Barger, her boss at Chico State. McReynolds was pleased to learn the local league already intended to bring Cox to Chico.

Emphasizing she spoke as a citizen, not as a commissioner, McReynolds said she came because “the skills of civil discourse are strongly needed now because we seem to be in a politically polarized environment in our country in this point in time…. I was motivated by [learning] is there some way, somewhere down the road, I can be a positive part of this because I have these skills.”

Even with some familiarity, McReynolds told the CN&R she “absolutely was expecting something different” Saturday. She’d anticipated a lecture; while Cox did provide a historical context for the current climate, she devoted the bulk of the three hours to her practical solution, which McReynolds said she “liked better.”

Gray, the A.S. president, received an invitation from Susan Roll, the campus’ director of civic engagement, to expand Chico State’s One Democracy initiative. The initiative promotes voter education, registration and engagement through university and community efforts (catalogued on the “One Democracy” page at

“We want to spread this out to the student body so we can create more civically minded individuals that would like to participate on a day-to-day basis with issues going on, on our campus and in our nation,” Gray said.

Like McReynolds, he said he was “expecting something very general, so this was an actual fantastic experience. I didn’t think I was going to come across such intellectual people, people actually in the field doing work to help out our society and our democracy.” The process Cox presented “is something that absolutely can work” within One Democracy.

Barger said the local League of Women Voters also could utilize the model. While most known for its nonpartisan forums before elections, the league formulates positions on specific issues. Currently, the Butte County league is drafting a position paper on biomass, which is more data-driven than opinion-based; for more multifaceted issues, however, “this process is ideal for us to be better at our work.”