Courageous RI: Teaching Us to Talk (And Listen) To One Another

Providence Zoom session of Courageous Conversations

“I’m going to do it with my brother. We haven’t spoken in five years,”  declared Providence resident and attorney Elayne Burke.  She was talking about a process called “looping for understanding” which she had learned and practiced in the Courageous Conversation regarding High Conflict. Burke did try it out when she was next with her brother. “I can’t say it went exactly as I’d hoped, but at least we’re speaking civilly again and I was able to use the tools I learned to take the emotion out of our conversation.

Also, my niece was very interested in what I’d learned, so I sent her to the Courageous website. I use what I learned in Courageous Conversations all the time,” Burke continued, “and I send people to the Courageous (RICRI) website. It feels like a good way to fight the discouragement that people are feeling.” Burke attended all nine sessions of Courageous Conversations and is currently in conversation with the Providence Public Library about collaborating to offer a series of sessions either online or in person for other Providence residents.

Stay curious, not furious. 

Have conversations, not confrontations. 

Put the unity back in community. 

These are all tagline messages of a statewide initiative called Courageous RI that uses comprehensive strategies and a whole-of-society approach in its three programs.

The first two of the three programs in this effort were aimed at adults, but the last one, a Youth Media Contest, kicked off on January 15th and accepts submissions from middle school, high school, and college-aged youth until May 15th. The contest, which will award $7000 in prizes, encourages young people to share their creative ideas related to the four major prevention strategies of Courageous RI – media literacy, active listening, kindness and compassion, and community engagement. They can submit an entry in a variety of forms in any of the four genres – Video, Audio, Graphic Design, or Writing. Sixteen winners will be announced in June, including a top prize of $1000.

In conjunction with the RI Civic Learning Coalition, Courageous RI is offering two online workshops during the third annual RI Civic Learning Week (March 11 – 15), one titled How to be a Courageous Citizen in a World of Weaponized Words,and another specifically aimed at students and educators – Talk Back: Mini-Podcasts Build Media Literacy and Active Listening Skills.  Other Providence workshops will be held at the State House, Lippitt House Museum, and Brown University and are free to all.

In his speech at the CRI launch, Secretary of State Gregg Amore, a former high school Social Studies and Civics educator, said “Misinformation is an existential threat to our democratic republic.” He went on to urge audience members to read Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Speech, saying “It is applicable today. He warns of the same exact things that we are seeing today that revolve around misinformation and that use political violence as a means to an end.” Secretary Amore also shared, “We are at a time in our nation’s history where people are getting behind Civic education and what it means to be, not only educated, but civically engaged…and we are rolling out programs over the course of the next year, and then two years, and then three years, that hope to align with this program’s goals, and make sure that we have a robust discussion around what it means to be civically engaged.”.

A central belief of Courageous RI is the transformative power of conversation. Facilitated to ensure an atmosphere of mutual respect and empathy, the conversations encourage participants to explore and understand differing viewpoints, and underscore the importance of dialogue in overcoming societal barriers and fostering mutual understanding. Courageous Conversations aims to lay the groundwork for collaborative problem-solving and to inspire a culture of active listening and respect across differing societal factions.

Graphic explaining Courageous Conversations topics

Acknowledging the critical role of education in effecting social change, from September to December 2023, Courageous RI’s Professional Development Program targeted middle school, high school, and college educators, offering a series of six seminars designed to enhance skills in media literacy and inclusive and courageous classroom conversations. By providing a foundation for understanding unconscious biases and media influences, the Professional Development Program asked educators to create lesson plans based on their learning in the program, which are now accessible on the Courageous RI website. Olwyn McCabe, an English teacher at Classical High said, “I very much appreciated the opportunity to learn this information which was very new to me. I can now use the lens of media literacy to develop a new skill base in my students. I can help them develop their media literacy skills which they can use to thoughtfully respond to inaccurate, misleading or damaging media messages”.

The Ripple Effect Program was designed to keep the conversations flowing by providing financial incentives to Courageous Conversations and Professional Development Program participants who replicated some part of what they learned in their communities or classrooms.

Since the project launch at the Rhode Island State House in February 2023, Courageous RI staff from the Media Education Lab at the University of RI has directly interacted with more than 1200 people through online information and skill-building sessions, and many more through the initiative outreach, the Courageous RI website, and social media presence.

In a world often divided by misunderstanding and mistrust, the holistic approach to societal change of the Courageous RI initiative emphasizes the importance of media literacy education, respectful speaking and listening, finding common ground across differences, and getting involved in the local community. In championing youth voices, facilitating transformative conversations, and equipping leaders with the tools for inclusive change, Courageous RI asks all Rhode Islanders to be courageous enough to disagree without being disagreeable. To stay curious, not furious.


Visit the Courageous RI, RI Civic Learning Coalition, or Media Education Lab websites to learn more about Civic Learning Week and the Youth Media Contest

Pam Steager is a 45-year resident of Providence and Senior Presenter and Writer at the Media Education Lab at URI. She currently serves as Director of Public Engagement for the Courageous RI project. Her prior thirty-year career in the education and human service fields included directing substance abuse and violence prevention programs in school systems, prisons and communities. She authored a newspaper column for the Providence Phoenix for 15 years and co-authored The Library Screen Scene, a book on film and media programs in school and public libraries, published by Oxford University Press in 2019.