“Responsible Giving: Choices in Charity,” New York City, Dinner Round Table on January 31st, 2019.

Promoting Liberty Through the Art of Conversation

TAKEAWAY: The Center for the Study of Liberty is demonstrating that a vigorous but civil exchange of ideas is too important to be left to the pundits. Everyone has the responsibility to participate, and everyone can.

Overview: The concept of liberty is the foundational value for the United States. More than a million Americans have given their lives defending the broad concept of liberty. Yet today much of the polarization in society is rooted in differing perceptions of what liberty means. One dimension of liberty, and arguably its most important, is the ability to explore new ideas through free thinking with others, especially those who have different life experiences and may hold different opinions.  

To that end, the Center of the Study of Liberty is enabling people of differing backgrounds to meet, learn about and discuss issues critical to the meaning of liberty and its role in human achievement. Founded in 2015, the Center is centered on the idea that a thriving society must have free spaces to discuss ideas, and ideally, those free spaces should include people from all walks of life. One problem the Center wants to confront is that discussion of social policy is heavily “siloed.” People of like backgrounds tend to talk among themselves, and even institutions, such as universities, not-for-profit organizations and business, generally don’t convene for joint discussion. This dilutes the creation and uptake of ideas, since many people with the opportunity to influence change feel left out of the conversation.  

While we are passionate advocates of learning and liberty, we don’t believe there are preset formulas we can follow to improve the world. Instead, we believe in the power of human creativity to solve social problems through decentralized means.

Today, the Center offers three signature programs: Dinner Round Table/Drinks Round Table, Civil Squared and Virtual Reading Groups. Each of them enables people to talk about serious topics at varying levels of personal interaction. All three programs, and the Center itself, are nonpartisan and do not promote any policy agenda. These events (and again, like the Center itself) provide an open environment that “turns down the heat” of political rhetoric and encourages participants to talk with others. Says the Center’s Executive Director, Jennifer K. Thompson, “While we are passionate advocates of learning and liberty, we don’t believe there are preset formulas we can follow to improve the world. Instead, we believe in the power of human creativity to solve social problems through decentralized means.”  

The most prominent program of the Center is Dinner Round Table/Drinks Round Table. This event brings people from a neighborhood or community together to discuss a given topic. The event is typically composed of 15 people and often begins with a short opening by an expert on the topic. Before guests arrive, they are provided with material that outlines a variety of perspectives and opinions. Guests are asked to read these materials, and a trained, neutral facilitator guides the conversation. All opinions are respectfully heard by the group. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this program has become 100% virtual, utilizing the same principles but shifting the forum from dinner to drinks.

For those who are unable to join in person, or want to continue the conversation, the Center offers Virtual Reading Groups. Each is a series of four 75-minute online discussions where participants dive into select readings on a topic.  

Civil Squared and Civil Squared Live offer another online resource that allows participants to exchange ideas with a lower level of preparation. These sessions are hosted conversations with experts, who cover a variety of topics that take the form of podcasts, blog posts and live online events. Subsequent discussion is along the lines of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” model.  

Like many initiatives identified in these case histories, the Center’s programs have gone through growing pains and continue to evolve based on factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic. People are often skeptical, and programs require considerable effort by volunteers. The Center has been working to make programs easier to manage and to provide guest speakers on the chosen topics. Again, as with other programs highlighted in this report, there is more willingness by people to engage with each other once they have taken part in Center-sponsored program. Thompson reports that 2017 was a “breakout year” for the Center with climbing participation in all programs. Surveys taken after participation in a program show that 78% of the participants in Dinner Round Table, and 84% in online programs, demonstrate a desire to learn more about a topic.  

The Center for the Study of Liberty is supported by the Liberty Fund, a foundation organized in 1960 by Pierre Goodrich, a lawyer and entrepreneur from Indiana. Goodrich, who died in 1973, was dedicated to promoting research, discussion and thought on the importance of liberty in human progress. The Foundation bearing his name does not engage in politics or political action, and fulfills its mission by conducting its own programs, not by awarding grants to outside organizations or individuals. The Center for the Study of Liberty is now forging partnerships to increase its reach and is working alongside organizations such as Make American Dinner Again, Living Room Conversations, the Bridge Alliance and Better Angels, to name some of its partners. All offer food for thought, tools of analysis, and the space to respectfully inquire, debate and connect with people from different backgrounds.