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PCC’s ‘Meaningful Conversations’ tackles fear and xenophobia

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This week, the Center for Civic Participation (CCP) at Portland Community College continues its “Meaningful Conversations” series with a forum discussion on “Fear Itself: Is Xenophobia Ever Justified?”

The event will be held Friday at Southeast Campus from 10 a.m. to noon in Room 138, Mount Tabor Hall.

John Farnum (right) with Neal Naigus at the college's last Center for Civic Participation event.

John Farnum (right) with Neal Naigus at the college’s last Center for Civic Participation event.

“Meaningful Conversations” has an informal, conversational format in which the CCP strives to create a place for open and honest dialogues that challenge participants to think about and reflect on difficult topics. John Farnum, a philosophy instructor and coordinator of the CCP, said that this week’s discussion will explore the philosophical and practical issues of xenophobia, including how it affects the community both within and outside PCC, and what people’s ethical obligations are when examining their own fears.

“Fear is a very biological thing and in some ways it’s also socially constructed. If we’re going to understand why xenophobia exists we have to get to the roots of it and look at it both in the social context but also in the psychological and the physiological contexts,” said Farnum.

Before attending Friday’s event, the college community is invited to visit the online issue repository of readings and videos that the PCC Library gathered to provide what Farnum called “the academic and media landscape” surrounding xenophobia. The CCP event then addresses the issue on a personal level and provides a safe space for people to talk about their own experiences and feelings.

“When we get into the conversation we have a set of guiding questions and also some ground rules about how to have respectful dialogue,” said Farnum. “What we’re trying to do at the CCP which is to foster communication across differences – not necessarily to agree on what is the right path or the ethical thing to do but to understand why people would have differences of opinion.”

PCC has had the CCP since 2012, and Farnum explained that it is part of a broad movement to create alternatives to polarized and adversarial conversations. The initiative was inspired by the groundbreaking work of the National Issues Forum (NIF) model developed by the Kettering Foundation, a group that works to increase the quality of conversations about public issues.

CCP is comprised of faculty, students and staff – all volunteers – who have been trained in the forum process. Previous topics in the “Meaningful Conversations” series have included the role of individuals in a democracy, income inequality, and politics in the classroom.

“If we can bring these ideas to the surface then people have a little bit more of – but not necessarily control of – an awareness of their own conditioning and how that affects their perception of reality,” said Farnum. “That’s where the interesting, productive dialogue can start.”