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Bridge-Building for School Leaders in Divided Communities

Schools and communities have become fractured in recent years. Race, politics, curriculum, economics, books, public health, and personal freedoms have divided communities and increased polarization. 

The dynamics we see play out in communities, social media, and evening news don’t tell the whole story. Social distancing, government mandates, political discord and isolation have fractured our collective social psyche — and it’s been a growing divide over the last 30-50 years.

According to neuroscientists and psychologists, people are hardwired for connection. We desire belonging and safety, want to feel connected and yearn for a sense of free will. People are searching for opportunities to exercise both.

Whether in a small town or a sprawling city, community engagement has never been more important to the future of our schools. 

This was the message of the keynote address at the Kansas Women’s Leadership Summit. 

Public relations professionals Cindy Leines and Janet Swiecichowski, APR, emphasized the powerful opportunity school leaders have in their communities — through engagement. In fact, those leaders who nurture opportunities to engage and connect — especially in divided communities — have the power to build trust and create lasting positive change for students, families, employees and taxpayers.

Civic Engagement in Schools Isn’t New

From the earliest days of organized education, school systems welcomed students, families and community members through their doors. Communities have always played an essential role in helping schools fulfill their mission. 

Civic engagement in schools began to change after 1900, however, according to Distributive Leadership, Civic Engagement and Deliberative Democracy as Vehicles for School Improvement, Leadership and Policy in Schools (Fusarelli, Kowalski and Petersen). The changing times led to a growing disconnection between schools and their communities and characterized the three types of engagement that now exist: adversarial, elector and communicative.


Unfortunately, the public has been conditioned to use public meetings to object to a decision already made. The traditional public hearing could be described as a “come and yell at me” response. Too often, stakeholders get involved only when they are upset about a decision. While leaders who play the adversarial game may win, the school system ultimately loses trust and support.

“Conflict generated between school officials and citizens often endures long after the issue is resolved; thus, restoring trust between school officials and citizens is virtually impossible.” – Kowalski

In adversarial communication, the stakes are high enough that a leader is willing to lose their job, confident that the change they are making will endure. But communities experience the pain of this dynamic for decades to come.


A majority-rules, winner-take-all dynamic is the norm in elections, whether for school board seats or tax increases. But an electoral engagement strategy focused on tallying votes is unlikely to win over the hearts and minds of a community’s majority.


This engagement approach brings together people of goodwill to share values, goals and beliefs — and make collective decisions. Kowalski calls this deliberative democracy, drawing a contrast between adversarial and electoral engagement. He notes that this approach leads stakeholders to communicate and test their assumptions about education through open dialogue, shared action and cooperation in both commitment and responsibility. 

“The struggle for legitimacy arguably is not the product of meddlesome parents or intrusive school boards; rather, it is the result of parents, students, and other community members feeling alienated from their schools,” Kowalski says.

We must always remember that the community owns our schools. As leaders, we have an obligation to be bridge builders. And it is our duty to engage in ways that inform and educate. Only then, working together, can we achieve the schools our stakeholders desire and deserve. – Janet Swiecichowski

Building connections in your community happens every day, through two-way communication as small as encountering a parent at the grocery store who has a question about the timing of a recent snow day decision. Being intentional about helping to close a divide and build trust demands a strategic approach that begins with research and planning.

Know Your Neighborhoods

The work to engage divided communities in conflict must begin with curiosity and understanding. As Mr. Rogers would say, learn about the people in your neighborhood. 

    • Visit the U.S. Census website — and look beyond the basics. In addition to age and ethnic groups, look up education levels. Dig into the most common types of jobs and income sources. 
    • Explore the detailed interactive map of 2020 election results for your community. Consider what the data might tell you about your community, including the news and networks of information they might use. 
    • Notice the way your local media report the news. What messages appear on the local editorial page from week to week?

As you learn about your community, pay attention to the news and opinions you take in through your choices of social media sources, books and magazines and news outlets. 

“Leaders can certainly select the news and information they personally find helpful or interesting,” Leines said to Kansas education leaders. “But it’s important to remember that not everyone thinks like you do. With different channels of information, we can’t assume to know what others believe or might be thinking. To understand your community, seek first to understand. Be curious and reflective.”

Engage With Purpose 

Understanding the community your schools serve helps prepare you to thoughtfully engage your stakeholders, even in a time of division. This information can inform a briefing—an internal document designed to articulate key elements of the current situation to help you and your team proceed effectively.

    • Define the issue or problem. Are you concerned about enrollment changes? Teacher and staff shortages? Civic discourse at school board meetings? Whatever the challenge, define it clearly.
    • Provide examples of different points of view. Brainstorm the variety of opinions and perspectives that exist in your community. How would someone with a different point of view describe the issue — and what should be done to address it?
    • Discuss goals and guiding principles. How does this issue or problem connect to your school’s mission and values? What type of one-way and two-way communication is needed to create common ground? How will you uphold such values as honesty, respect, and fairness among people with different opinions?
    • Identify hot-button words. Most often, there are specific words or phrases associated with a divisive issue. These words not only reflect a deeply-held opinion about the issue — they also can set off people with different opinions. Identifying these words is key to developing messages and communication tools that avoid them. 
    • Frame a productive dialogue. Imagine a conversation about your issue that engages people of differing viewpoints and, ideally, helps them consider a slightly different perspective. What stakeholders should be invited, and how many? How will participants feel welcomed? What questions might be used to favor new ideas over existing opinions? Who might facilitate a conversation without the perception of bias or agenda? This is often a combination of position/role, communication skills and emotional intelligence.

Set Goals for Effective Engagement

The engagement that delivers the greatest value to a community begins with a shared concern. A leader concerned about enrollment trends is unlikely to create true engagement in a community that is not aware of the trends or concerned about the risk or threat involved. 

But at the Kansas Summit, Swiecichowski stressed that a leader who seeks to engage stakeholders about something that the community already cares about will capture real opportunity.

list of community engagement methods

As an engagement activity is planned, consider research-based strategies for high-stakes communication, including the Power of Public Deliberation from the National Issues Forum Institute and the book Crucial Conversations.

“We can stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and regard another person’s basic humanity,” the authors write. “In essence, feelings of disrespect come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. … When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier to find a way to respect others. When we do this, we feel a kinship or mutuality between ourselves and even the thorniest of people. This sense of kinship and connection to others helps create mutual respect and eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.”

The beginning of every conversation — especially those at risk of high emotion — must establish mutual purpose. Even people who have deeply divided opinions about curriculum or teaching approaches, for example, may have a mutual purpose, such as “We want our students to thrive in the world.” 

Communicating this shared purpose early and often will help keep productive dialogue flowing. These other Crucial Conversations strategies help all participants in a discussion feel valued, respected and ultimately heard. 

    • Seek to understand rather than convince or control. When someone’s comment triggers a response in you, choose to be curious. “Could you say a little more about that?” is an easy first step. You don’t have to agree — at all — with what the other person has said. The goal is to model respect and a commitment to seek common ground with others.
    • Give every person the benefit of the doubt. Even if you’ve seen or heard bad behavior up close, ask yourself, “Why would an otherwise reasonable person act unreasonably here?” 
    • Bring your humility along. As you seek to engage diverse (and perhaps uncomfortable) points of view, remember that your goal is to keep productive dialogue going. A hefty dose of humility makes it easier to keep participants engaged and slow the group’s defensive responses. 

Invite Equitable Participation

Meaningful engagement in solving a community’s most pressing issues must involve a cross-section of the many diverse stakeholders who are affected. 

Swiecichowski encouraged Kansas leaders to brainstorm a list of people who are close to the topic — pro and con. Identify community opinion leaders who are people of goodwill and look for opportunities to present a variety of opinions.

“In one district I worked with,” Swiecichowski said, “the chamber president did not believe that every child had the capacity to learn. This perspective was the complete opposite of most educators’ core beliefs. But as an opinion leader who was deeply committed to the community’s economic vitality, she needed to be in the room. We also needed the parent of a medically fragile student in the room. She shared the hopes and unwavering belief that her child brought value to the community and world.”

Bringing together people with strong opinions that vary requires planning and intention. But more importantly, it demonstrates a leader’s commitment to seeking out traditionally under-represented voices and creating a space where those voices are honored, heard and respected.

Real Engagement in Action

Leaders have several reliable opportunities to build bridges through engagement.  

The World Cafe Method is a group facilitation process that allows all opinions to be shared and heard, without giving priority to any point of view. Setting ground rules is important, but think also about opportunities to encourage sharing, thinking and reflection. 

One school system used World Cafe to engage stakeholders who were frightened by a school violence tragedy in the national news. While the community was not a victim of violence, residents wanted action to prevent a similar tragedy. The strong opinions of what should be done quickly became entrenched in single-issue factions: arming teachers, stricter gun control or mental health access. The district invited partners, including law enforcement and the community mental health center, to help facilitate small group discussions about each idea. As the groups moved through each station, participants shared, listened and learned. And based on the compliments and notes of thanks sent to district leaders in the days that followed, they felt honored, heard and respected.

Soon after, district leaders met with the community partners and facilitators to compare and review findings. As a report to the community was compiled, the agencies identified areas of collaboration to focus their resources. The principals and community mental health center began exploring opportunities to expand the licensed mental health services offered at school, and the school communication director developed a plan to promote a rarely-used mobile tip line to students, staff and families.  

Complex issues often require more time than a World Cafe evening allows. Study circles allows a smaller group — 8 to 12 people — to meet regularly over a period of weeks or months to address a critical public issue in a democratic and collaborative way. Participants meet regularly for discussion and are encouraged to visit with other stakeholders they know and gather other perspectives or feedback. The University of Kansas Community Tool Box offers a free study circle guide for leaders.

Your Leadership Makes A Difference

Speaking to the Kansas education leaders gathered at the Women’s Leadership Summit, Leines and Swiecichowski shared resources to explore the topic further, as well as a final piece of advice:

“Take a lesson from Dr. Fauci,” Swiecichowski said. “He showed us that no matter the tone or attitude, it’s always appropriate to thank someone for sharing their perspective. Even if you adamantly disagree with their opinions, thank them for being part of the conversation.”



A Search for Common Ground by Frederick Hess and Pedro Noguera
Waging Peace — Jim Lukaszewski, APR – Jim Lukaszewski, APR
High Conflict — Amanda Ripley


Published on: March 1, 2022