June 2, 1997, is a date people across Oklahoma and the United States won’t soon forget. That day, more than two years after the most horrific act of domestic terrorism in American history, Timothy McVeigh was convicted in a Denver, Colorado, courtroom for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Twenty-five years after McVeigh’s conviction, Americans are still confronted with the threat of domestic terrorism and extremism. Preventing these acts of violence is one of the goals of an organization that is also dedicated to preserving the memories of those who lost their lives in Oklahoma City and educating people about how the attack forever changed the nation.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum offers an environment for people to reflect on the lives lost and a message of hope to those who still mourn. The museum is also reaching out to schools, businesses, and other social groups in an attempt to educate people about preventing extremism.
Much of that work comes through conversations – “Better Conversations,” that is. That’s the name of a program spearheaded by the museum to help people with differing views come together for peaceful, productive conversations, according to Kari Watkins, the museum’s president and CEO.
“Better Conversations really was designed to bring people together and to give them a chance to have difference of opinions, but be willing to listen – steadfast listening, generous listening,” Watkins says. “Hopefully we can learn from one another.”
The program began in February 2020, just weeks before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally, museum leaders intended for the program to consist of in-person events where people could put their phones away and talk for a while. But the program took a virtual turn and became a needed source of social interaction for people, Watkins says.
“I think that’s why it got off to such a great start because it gave people a chance to have interaction and discussion from the safety of their house due to COVID,” Watkins says. “But also, it gave us a chance to put some topics out there.”
Each Better Conversations event is centered around a topic, and facilitators provide questions for people to answer. Some topics center around holiday stresses and gatherings, while others focus on free speech and the forgiveness of people who have done wrong. The program is available to companies, school groups, social groups, and other organizations.
“People shared some pretty raw, tough subjects,” Watkins says. “They might see a family member that was an extremist or have extremist viewpoints. How did they handle this person?” Politics can also be a source of conflict. “Have they talked harshly because they didn’t believe in whoever the candidate was? A few things like that, people would bring up, and we’d talk through them and move on to the next subject. We didn’t run away from any topic.”
Most of the conversations are not recorded, allowing people to talk honestly and openly without the pressure of having their words and opinions immortalized online, Watkins says. Some discussions, however, have been taped and posted on the museum’s YouTube channel, demonstrating how the program works.
To participate, groups and businesses can sign up for a session by visiting the museum’s website. Once an application is submitted, members of the museum’s education team respond with the required information and coordinate the event. Those participating must agree to several so-called “Grounding Virtues” for the discussions, including humility, hospitality, generous listening, patience, and adventurous civility, according to a program outline.
The most remarkable part of the program, Watkins says, has been people’s willingness to look at topics from a new perspective – without being influenced and guided by social media “noise.”
“No matter what you do, no matter where you live, no matter who you are, we all come to the table with something that we can benefit from,” Watkins says. “Everyone’s got their own cross to bear. And I think for us, we want to make sure people have a chance to talk about it. Just maybe giving me a chance to hear your perspective will change something that I think of that you have no idea about.”
That ties in directly to the museum’s overall mission, which is to educate people “about the senselessness of violence,” Watkins says. The museum aims to show people that differences large and small can be worked through.
“There are ways for us to resolve our differences without resorting to violence, without resorting to murder or to killing people or to damaging things,” Watkins says. “We the people have to be the change, and it’s not to resort to violence. That’s not the way we make the change.”
Featured image: The grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (Courtesy Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum)
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