Social networking with a soul

 

At a time when most issues are presented to the public in black-and-white terms, some organizations are, nevertheless, choosing to de-polarize a few of the state's most sensitive political subjects.

With its Social Networking with a Soul series, the Indianapolis Peace Institute plans to stimulate intelligent conversations about important issues, while bringing together locals who share similar passions. On the third Thursday of each month, the institute sponsors an expert on a local issue to speak with a group of interested people.

Now into its fourth month, interest in the series' events has been strong. And July 16's topic may stimulate the most intense discussion yet: Indiana's death penalty policy. The featured speaker will be Will McAuliffe, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions.

The Indianapolis Peace Institute was founded in 2002 as part of the Plowshares Collaborative, a joint educational effort by Earlham, Goshen and Manchester colleges to implement an interdisciplinary program in peace building. Funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment, the institute launched its first off-campus academic program in 2004. Its internship and semester-abroad programs are popular with students from around the country, who can earn academic credits while they get hands-on experience trying to effect positive change in the Indianapolis area. While the institute largely works to engage students with peace-building projects within their communities, it also wants to get a larger audience involved in the conversation.

One of the institute's major goals is to help people understand that the word "peace" is just as applicable in a local setting as it is in a global one. "It's a really broad term," says Jennifer Burchett, the institute's recruitment and marketing coordinator. "It's more than just an absence of war. It's making sure your street is safe, [that you have] good schools to go to, access to healthy food, clean water."

These aren't the kind of idealists who are looking to change the whole world in a heartbeat. They understand that positive change needs a solid foundation in order to have any sort of longevity. But oftentimes people don't understand that they can get involved with the issues at many levels, no matter what their experiences or political leanings. That's where Social Networking with a Soul comes in.

Since April, the series has sponsored speakers from organizations such as the Hoosier Environmental Council and the National Association for Community Mediation. Each month's program entails two sessions. The lunch session runs from noon to 1:15 p.m. at the Indianapolis Peace House, the hub of the institute's student programs. A less formal, after-work session takes place from 5-7 p.m. at the Jazz Kitchen in Broad Ripple, where the owners have included no cover charge and a 10-percent-off deal for those who are a part of the program. The institute is quick to remind people that neither of the sessions is formal. Both are open, constructive discussions.

"There's not a specific message or agenda," says Kate Williams, IPI's special projects coordinator. "There are a lot of young professionals who are heading up organizations trying to promote positive change. We're trying to showcase those."

One such young professional is Will McAuliffe, this month's featured speaker and the executive director of the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions. By his own admission, McAuliffe is the coalition's only permanent member, but a group of volunteers and interns help fuse his efforts with those of others who are involved with the same issues. A series like this allows McAuliffe to speak with people who might not seek out his organization otherwise. "If you set up an event that's just about the death penalty, usually the choir shows up, but not necessarily anyone else. [You connect with] organizations where there's not an obvious tie, but [they] are going to let you speak. That's how you find people who are interested, but maybe didn't know it."

Part of InCASE's success within the community stems from its fresh approach to the death penalty discussion. When it comes to educating the public on the facts about Indiana's death penalty system, McAuliffe favors pragmatism over the traditional moral conflicts.

"The moral arguments are out there," he says. "I think there's a huge moral component to this issue, but I'm not the one to talk about it."

Instead, InCASE focuses on the practical arguments often lost among the back-and-forth moral draw that dominates most discussions of the issue. McAuliffe emphasizes that to make any progress, both sides of the issue need to be examined together. "It's perceived as a polarizing issue I think, because it's been presented as one."

By bringing up practical aspects such as the cost and length of pursuing capital punishment cases, as well as those who have been wrongfully-convicted, McAuliffe plans to educate more people on the potential benefits of suspending executions in Indiana. He points to a 2001 study by the American Bar Association that indicated that 61 percent of Hoosiers supported a moratorium on executions.

"There's a sense that [capital punishment] may not be the way to go." But McAuliffe is just as eager to hear the opposing viewpoints of those who will attend the social networking sessions. He is looking for people who push back during discussions, keeping an open mind, while questioning all sides of the issue.

The Indianapolis Peace Institute has a non-advocacy policy, meaning that they don't take sides during the discussions; instead, they provide a forum for the interactions that take place. While this month's topic has the potential to spark some heat, Williams has faith in how McAuliffe will handle the discussion. "I'm glad it's Will [who is speaking], because I've seen him do presentations before and he's so good at what he does."

With an emphasis on open discussion and respect for all viewpoints, the sessions are certainly an arena for people to voice their perceptions of Indiana's death penalty system while networking with those who have similar public interests. Burchett notes that people should come to expand the questions in their minds instead of seeking to answer them. "We don't want somebody to leave with a set opinion."

For more about InCASE: www.indianacase.org.

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