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Issues That Matter

Sno-Isle Libraries, WA
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Innovation Summary

Sno-Isle Libraries launched Issues That Matter, a community discussion series on a variety of volatile community/regional issues to support safe, civil and high-trust dialogue. The off-campus moderated panel discussion events have brought together people with differing viewpoints to explore issues that have an immediate impact on our communities.

Innovation Leader: Terry Beck, Adult/Teen Services Manager, tbeck@sno-isle.org

Problem Statement

Pot legalization and marriage equality were two highly-controversial and widely-publicized issues on Washington State’s November 2012 ballot. Initiative 502 (I-502) called for the legalization of marijuana and Referendum 74 (R-74) concerned marriage equality. Local, regional and national discussions on these issues typically reflect high tension, sharp disagreement and uncivil communications. It is difficult for community members to have the information behind the varying perspectives presented in reasonable fashion. The Issues That Matter forum created a venue for multiple points of view to be offered in civil, polite discourse, while avoiding the crossfire of strong, often harsh, opinions. Discussion panels were led by trained, neutral moderators who fielded audience questions and ensured panelists had an opportunity and equal amounts of time to respond.

Innovation

Sno-Isle Libraries took the opportunity to provide voters, within the Library District’s two-county service area, a safe and more neutral forum enabling potential voters to become better informed and hear the facts with a minimum of rhetoric. The Library District was able to secure funding for Issues That Matter from the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. An interdepartmental team of library staff selected volatile issues that would most likely be placed on the November 2012 ballot, as well as developed venue, moderator and panelist selections Interested residents attended two civic and civil discussion programs (one in each county) on the Washington state marijuana initiative during the spring 2012. Four speakers presented their viewpoints under moderated debate to help the audience understand the ramifications or lack of consequences which might result from legalizing marijuana. Attendee evaluations indicated real appreciation for the Library District’s role in providing a more relaxed and safe opportunity to gain information enabling them to make informed voter decisions. Two Issues That Matter events were hosted on the referendum of marriage equality or same-sex partners. R-74 was placed on the ballot mid-year and required library staff to scramble to secure discussion event venues and speakers only a few weeks before voter ballots were in the hands of voters [Vote by mail is the rule in the two counties served by Sno-Isle Libraries.] Respectful discussion illuminated the differences in opinion between panelists and audience members. Attendee evaluations indicated that even when audience members had arrived with minds already made, they appreciated the opportunity to hear the “other” side and dialogue without insult.

Progress

Post-program surveys overwhelmingly indicated the goal of providing neutral information on important topics was achieved. One emailed comment was representative of many comments received. It stated “In a political season where `fair and balanced’ is distressingly rare... [Issues that Matter] demonstrated the best of public discourse. You are a model of what citizenship can and should be.” Sno-Isle Libraries also intended, and achieved, a higher awareness of the public library’s role as a defender of democracy and leader in civic process. Local civic, government, and educational leaders have congratulated Sno-Isle Libraries on this approach and have indicated a desire to partner in future Issues That Matter programs. One interesting aside. In the development of a brand identity for Issues That Matter, an outline of the state overlaid with a symbol representing the discussion topic was considered and tested. However, for the discussion series on the pot legalization initiative, the state’s outline with a marijuana leaf imposed over it proved to be problematic and confusing with some individuals perceiving Library District bias. Final event graphics reflected an outline of the state with a large question mark with linked male wedding bands. This helped clarify the Library’s neutral stance. Resource lists, web pages, and book displays produced by Sno-Isle Libraries made an effort to showcase all sides. The Library District’s communications and marketing staff continue to look at graphic approaches for Issues That Matter to help mitigate or eliminate concerns that the Library District may favor one viewpoint over another.