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The Conversation Project will include a series of programs on campus in Forest Grove that explore big issues.

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Ellen Knutson, right, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, leads a community discussion on what it means to be an American at Pacific University.One of the purposes of higher education is to challenge people to think critically and broaden their horizons.

It's in that spirit that Pacific University plays host, for the first time, to the Conversation Project — a statewide series of open-group discussions about serious topics — presented in partnership with Oregon Humanities.

The McCall Center for Civic Engagement on campus is offering the discussions free of charge to anyone who wants to participate. Stephanie Stokamer, the center's director, said she is hoping each discussion draws a "cross-section" of people from all walks of life, including Pacific students, faculty and even people with no connection to the Forest Grove-based university.

"My hope for this year is that we would do a couple that were really sort of broad, like this, 'What Does It Mean to Be an American?,' and then a couple that are more specific," Stokamer said before the first in a series of five Conversation Project events that are being scheduled throughout the 2019-20 school year. "Our April one is 'What Is the Meaning of Climate Change?' happening during Earth Week, and we have another one that's more focused around race and equity issues. But otherwise, they're pretty big topics that I'm hoping anybody can be contributing to."

About two dozen people, including a mix of students, faculty members and local residents, came to the inaugural program, "What Does It Mean to Be an American?," on Tuesday, Oct. 22. One of the first questions that facilitator Ellen Knutson posed to them was simply: "Why are you here?"

"I feel like it's our duty to discuss these things," one attendee said.

Another added, "It's something that I think about all the time."PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Ellen Knutson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, writes brainstormed words on what being an American means to participants during a community discussion at Pacific University.

Part of the McCall Center's mission statement is to promote "the value of life-long active citizenship, building a sense of empowerment to effect meaningful social participation, while cultivating the development of critical thinking skills and the capacity to reflect on one's own set of values."

For Stokamer, bringing the Conversation Project to Pacific University speaks to her goals.

"I've been really interested in having some form of civil dialogue, on campus but also open to the public and involving the community, for a while," Stokamer said. "This is just the first year that I've been able to get to it and get it off the ground."

Oregon Humanities, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Oregon Cultural Trust, has been partnering with local organizations — libraries, institutes, schools and more — to facilitate discussions on big topics for years. The Conversation Project, as these programs are collectively known, has included penetrating discussions on topics like "Racism and Resilience in Oregon's Past and Future," "What's the Purpose of Public Education?," and "Recognizing Leadership Beyond Power and Authority."

Each of the discussions at Pacific is set to run about 90 minutes long. Stokamer said that 90 minutes "felt like an amount of time that wasn't a huge commitment, but long enough that people could maybe sink their teeth into a conversation."

The next program in the series is titled "Beyond Fake News: How We Can Find Accurate Information About the World." It will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center, 2037 Douglas St.

For more information or to register, visit the McCall Center's website.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information on the Nov. 12 program's location. The venue for the Nov. 12 program will be off-campus, at the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center. The story has been updated as of Nov. 6 with the location.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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