Imagine a table with a diverse selection of your family or community seated: a political meeting, a club or a holiday dinner. Now imagine that anyone at the table can present their opinion about a controversial topic without fear of reprimand, offense or stopping the conversation.
I have been at such a table, hosted by the Southern Cayuga Future Farmers of America team for the last three years. Conversation is governed by rules developed by the National Future Farmers of America Organization. These rules should apply to any discussion of critical issues needing community attention and action:
1. We respect your First Amendment right to speak. However, respect should always be demonstrated to cultures different from your own.
2. Answers to questions should be answered with facts rather than opinions or stereotypes.
3. Any issue discussed must have both the pros and cons presented and respected.
4. Everyone must understand the importance of the issue discussed and the value of all sides being presented.
5. Everyone at the table must speak knowing that their experience and the time they have spent researching and discussing the issue will be valued by the group.
6. After the discussion, there are no winners or losers. Understanding is valued as the first step to solving any issue.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, a team of six Southern Cayuga FFA high school students competed in the District 7 Agricultural Issues Forum. I watched as the team focused its presentation on water quality. Six students represented farmers, researchers, media, local residents and political and academic agencies. In their 15-minute presentation, they followed all six of the rules. Their research was excellent, as was their respect for all at the table. The shared goal was to assure that the water quality in Cayuga Lake be maintained for healthy swimming, boating and maintenance of all life both in and depending on the water, and maintaining farm productivity throughout the year.
A week after the competition, where Southern Cayuga placed first in its division, I interviewed the team: “Can you think of anywhere other than this forum where issues are discussed with this degree of respect and responsibility?"
I watched as seven faces fell. All shook their heads with a negative. One young woman broke the silence. “I was at a community meeting that had a very skillful moderator. She kept the conversation mostly balanced, but she had to remind speakers that they must be respectful and stick to the facts.” We discussed the value of skilled moderation and the ability of respect to defuse emotions.
Another student continued, “My family cannot agree on anything. We have to be so careful at the dinner table, if we want to enjoy the meal.” I asked her to role play with me. I took the role of “Angry Aunt Agnes.” She was to use her six rules to help the family survive dinner. As Angry Aunt Agnes debunked farmers, cozy political alliances and academics, this student smiled, asked respectful questions, and never indicated that Aunt Agnes did not have a right to her opinion. Even though I was role-playing, her demeanor had an immediate calming effect. I found I could not continue to be angry and opinionated in her presence. The group agreed that the six rules could be learned, applied in real life, and get results.
We shifted to the value of making sure that all sides of an issue have a fair airing in any discussion. One student discussed her work with equestrian events and the topic of the best diet for horses. She talked about a recent conversation with an adult who disagreed with her choice of feed. She was able to acknowledge their ideas and still feel comfortable with the choice she had made. She rested her case on her ability to know the needs of her horse — a colt she had raised and currently barrel-raced.
A young man listened thoughtfully: “Talking directly to each other is such an advantage. What worries me is how so many people rely on social media when they want to sound off. The very nature of social media encourages breaking all six of the rules. It lends itself to opinion rather than fact. You can also take anyone’s words out of context and create a false impression of their ideas.” Everyone in the room could think of an example of someone on social media who attempted to derail a productive conversation about an issue with a short-sighted, inflammatory message.
We left the room confident in the value of the six rules and the necessity of bringing all sides to any table if one is serious about changing the quality of water. I left our conversation assured that Southern Cayuga FFA knew how to grow leaders. I was confident that we would restore and enjoy Cayuga Lake water if only the adults could apply the wisdom of these youth.