Starting a Humane Conversation

By Claire Howe

A few months ago, HEART joined forces with Oregon Humanities to host Portland’s first “Conversation Project” focused on humane education. Oregon Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is on a mission to “connect Oregonians to ideas that change lives and transform communities”. Every year, this inventive organization invites select applicants, including businesses, community groups, and NGO’s, to host conversations on topics ranging from “the ethics of food to government surveillance to the future of racial diversity in Oregon”. These events are free, open to the public, and allow community members to engage in free-thinking discussions about some of our society’s most pressing and timely issues.

HEART was fortunate to be selected as the host of an education-based Conservation Project at Portland State University, where we not only welcomed a diverse group of attendees, but also had the honor of working with Alex Sager. Sager, an associate professor of philosophy at PSU, has a keen interest in how education shapes our society, and during The Conversation Project, he masterfully guided a thoughtful dialogue around the concept and importance of humane education. Participants, everyone from college students to seasoned activists, were invited to share their thoughts, ideas, and personal experiences for an invigorating and inspiring hour and half, but two moments were particularly pivotal. The first was when Sager asked the entire group to think about the most important educational experience of their lives. It was a question most had never considered before, and yet, when given the opportunity to think deeply about it, everyone had a truly inspiring story to tell. One common thread weaved within everyone’s accounts: no one prized an A+ or accolades for getting the top score on a standardized test. Rather, everyone in the room told stories of meaningful learning experiences that continued to resonate in their lives. One woman spoke of time she spent traveling abroad and the much deeper appreciation and understanding she developed for other cultures. Another participant, who spoke with misty eyes, told a tale of a 3rd grade teacher who taught her about the importance of recycling, an experience she carried into adulthood as a professional advocate for environmental preservation. By opening the conversation with this simple question, attendees tuned into some of their most critical educational experiences, the ones that shaped them into kind, empathetic people and helped guide their futures towards compassionate action.

The second most pivotal moment, perhaps arguably, came when The Conversation Project came to a close. Participants were shocked to learn that we had not only reached our ending time, we had exceeded it by a half hour. The room was full of positive energy, and the energizing momentum simply could not be denied. As people slowly began to collect their belongings and inch towards the door, it became quite clear that there was a simple and obvious solution: we needed to meet again. That night, HEART decided to begin hosting regular meetings for community members to simply talk about education and how we can begin to infuse compassion, empathy, and global citizenship into every student’s learning experience. Because this effort would no longer be affiliated with Oregon Humanities, the new name, “Humane Conversations”, was born.

By organizing consistent meetings, drawing in new participants, and discussing varied topics related to humane education and its inherent value, we have effectively brainstormed myriad new ways to get active, raise awareness, and work towards a world where animal protection, environmental ethics, and human rights issues are mainstay components of a student’s education. This idea has allowed people to congregate and be heard, regardless of status, profession, or expertise, and with each meeting, we will gain more and more momentum in our effort to create a kinder, more sustainable world.

Humane Conversations are not just for Portland, though! If you or someone you know is interested in hosting an event that allows participants to organize, discuss, and brainstorm ideas for how we can all work towards a bright, compassionate, and sustainable world for future generations, please contact Claire Howe at Claire@teachhumane.org for ideas on how to get started. By coming together, our voices are only that much stronger.

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