I am an experienced health professional formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has had success in bringing diverse citizens together to speak to each other civilly and productively in tackling public issues.
I say with confidence and many plans under my belt that “Hilton Head Island — Our Future,” the new vision and strategic action plan for the island, represents an impressive achievement.
It articulates an inspiring and widely supported vision framed as “Reinventing Sustainability … Again!” which seeks to redefine and revitalize the founding principles that made Hilton Head so special in the first place.
Finding such a shared vision is the prerequisite for any community seeking to fully thrive, and the plan contains numerous thoughtful and strategic action steps residents can take to achieve that goal. Hilton Head citizens should celebrate the unearthing of a tool so essential to their future well-being.
However, a shared vision and action plan are the necessary but not sufficient causes of bringing about a thriving future. As the plan makes clear, a successful community finds the way to conduct civic discourse.
Hilton Head is no different from other communities in having different values, experiences, and ideas, but Hilton Head is different in being disabled rather than empowered by its diversity.
On that score, David Buerle, the consultant who led the strategic planning process, minced no words in telling plan sponsors, according to The Island Packet, “You’re a hypercritical community. And not in a constructive sense, but in a destructive way where we’re not going to respect the other view.”
Hilton Head is not alone in facing a dialogue challenge. We live in a very angry and divisive time in our social and political life.
The political parties from the local to the national levels are more extreme in their views now than at any time since the Civil War.
We as citizens seem content to live only on the right or on the left with those who think like us. We are not talking to each other with real intent to listen and learn as well as speak.
As a result, we lack the connections on which trust is built, facts matter, and compromise can be forged to benefit the common good.
The good news is that we know how to fix this.
The dialogue and public engagement community has developed multiple mechanisms that have proven effective in convening everyday citizens to talk and think together, make recommendations to decision makers, and build trust along the way.
Sadly, these mechanisms are not being routinely and widely used for lack of public and political will. There’s the rub.
So the question becomes, can the Hilton Head community muster the will to undertake well-structured and constructive public dialogues?
I believe the answer is “yes” if the island’s ethos characterized in the plan document as “the relentless pursuit of excellence” is applied to the dialogue deficit. The goal would be to pursue excellence in engaging the public and the island’s leaders in the practice of democratic civility.
In doing so, Hilton Head could become a kind of “democracy laboratory” for learning and practicing the highest quality civic discourse.
This will have the added benefit of redefining sustainability more holistically to include not only environmental factors but also dialogue, an engaged public, and other elements considered critical for a fully sustainable community in the 21st century.
Local leaders, public officials, and everyday citizens interested in exploring ways to promote and support this kind of dialogue and public engagement in our area can obtain more information by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Bernier lives in Bluffton.