Primer: Gen. Clark foundation helps to ‘Renew America.’

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05/23/2014 TCM Public Relations Friday Night Spotlight with Gen. Wesley Clark (US Army ret.) Turner Studios Atlanta, GA ph: E. M. Pio Roda / TCM

By Alexander Norris

Next week, the Overby Center will delve into the importance of empowering leaders for civil impact with a discussion featuring General Wesley K. Clark, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Overby Center chairman Charles Overby. The event starts at 4:00 p.m. in the Overby Auditorium and is open to the public. A reception and open bar will follow. 

Established in 2019 under the leadership of General (ret.) Wesley K. Clark, Renew America Together emerged as a proactive response to the growing societal rifts within our nation, aiming to foster unity.

Renew America Together is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to uniting America by bridging partisan divides and bureaucratic barriers. Its mission is to promote constructive dialogue and civic engagement through civics education and respectfulness. Some of Renew America Together’s key initiatives include town halls, civility programs, and the Civility Leadership Institute (CLI), bringing leaders together for a year of impactful discussions and training to address pressing polarizing challenges facing Americans today.

CLI graduates obtain certification in their Civility Communications Framework, training in TypeCoach Influence and fighting disinformation, along with exclusive invitations to enrichment programs and nationally renowned featured speakers. Upon completing the program, members join the CLI Alumni network, fostering enduring connections, commemorating achievements, and participating in continuing education opportunities. 

To learn more about the great work that Renew America Together does, The Overby Center spoke with Executive Director, Mary-Lee Smith. 

Photo Courtesy of Mary Lee Smith, Executive Director for Renew America Together

Q&A

Could you share more about the vision behind Renew America Together and how General Wesley K. Clark’s leadership influenced its founding?

In 2019, General Clark saw that there was a need in our country to pull people back together. Working in the business community and with his colleagues, he observed firsthand the increased division and the inability for people to see eye-to-eye. However, when you really start to get to the root of who people are, they agree on most things. Inspired by this idea, he wanted to form an organization that helped demonstrate the fact that most Americans have the ability to find common ground. It’s just certain issues and communication barriers causing them to become increasingly polarized.

What specific strategies has Renew America Together employed to foster greater common ground and reduce partisan division?

We have a couple of different programs. The first program is our town hall meetings, such as what we’ll be doing with Senator Lott at the Overby Center. The events feature bringing together two people who have historically been on different sides of the aisle. Typically, this is a formerly serving Democrat and a formerly serving Republican. The town hall meetings are designed where they’re not asking for money and they’re not asking for votes, rather simply discussing the civility that we once had in American politics and life. Together, the two participants are able to give a truly unbiased opinion of the way things were when the country used to operate in a more civilized manner. Town halls feature a moderated discussion followed by Q&A’s to allow students and participants to hear directly from people who have been in these leadership positions in the country and ask them the tough questions. 

Our flagship program we’ve created is called the Civility Leadership Institute. We are about to open the application window for our fourth cohort of participants. 30 individuals from around the country come together and go through six-months of training. They get training on civil communication, identifying and combating disinformation in the digital age, participate in a book club and TypeCoach framework, and they hear from well-known speakers from around the world and the country on different topical issues. We follow and survey participants for a full year after they complete the curriculum and use this feedback to measure the impact they make in their communities and organizations with what they’ve learned. But, the point of the program is to bring together a very diverse group. We have people from different states, ages, and professions. The more diverse of a group that we have, the more meaningful and rich the experience is.

Can you elaborate on the impact of your town hall events in promoting civics, citizenship, and civility within communities?

Our town hall meetings are a great way for us to bring awareness to problems and help offer solutions. By bringing folks together, we’re able to reach many people in the same room who have a desire to learn about what’s going on and then to find out how they can do more. This serves as a way to introduce people to the issues of the day and then encourage them to apply for our Civility Leadership Institute or get further involved with Renew America Together. 

How does the Civility Leadership Institute contribute to the organization’s mission, and what outcomes have you observed from its participants?

CLI contributes to the mission by getting people together who may never have crossed paths otherwise and giving them hands-on tools to use in their daily lives. All participants will be paired with a learning partner who has different viewpoints and experiences from themselves. For example, we had the former mayor of Phoenix who partnered with a woman who owned a small aviation company in rural Mississippi. These two people would have never crossed paths otherwise; they spent six months working together and learning from each other’s experiences, and it really opened their eyes to people outside of the echo chambers they’ve found themselves living in. That’s just one example; some of the success stories we have are of people who have found success in their personal life, from healing friendships to family relationships – folks who struggled to have Thanksgiving dinner together previously because politics always came up and created tension and arguments. We have alumni who were able to identify previous barriers with different communities and break those down, saving large-scale economic business deals using the skills they learned through CLI to communicate more civilly and find common ground. There’s an educator in Arkansas who, as a result of the training in our program, has created a nonprofit to better increase access to early childhood education. We have a group in Montana that worked through previous miscommunications with the local sheriff and were able to start a needle exchange program to benefit many disenfranchised members of the community. We are providing people skills to have hard conversations and civilly work through really tough issues so they can make progress where there previously had been barriers. 

We also provide the opportunity for other groups that want to partner with Renew America Together to run their own version of a CLI. This past year, we ran our first pilot project of this with Hiram College in Ohio. If there are other groups and organizations who are interested in conducting their own version of our training, we have those tools available, too, and we think that is really going to help get the message out to a broader audience during such a divisive time in our country.

What are the benefits of being a non-profit?

As a 501(c)(3) organization, Renew America Together is able to unbiasedly approach difficult political topics and host ways that people can communicate their views without having a political angle or agenda. Because we do not have a certain political affiliation, our participants can come to our programs knowing we will not push beliefs and instead create a safe and confidential environment to learn how to have difficult conversations. 

We rely on charitable donations to support our educational programming and CLI. With donations, we also are able to offer as many scholarships for CLI applicants as possible and offer minimal cost covering options for other programs. 

On President’s Day, we’re opening our application window for our next CLI cohort. We would love for people in the University of Mississippi community (whether they be students, faculty, alumni, or community members) to consider applying and taking part in the Civility Leadership Institute. Other than our kick-off Civility Summit, our program is virtual, so people don’t have to travel for the monthly training sessions, unlike many programs. This allows our non-profit to continue to keep the programs as accessible as possible. 

Could you discuss any challenges the organization has faced in its efforts to promote civility and common ground, and how you’ve addressed them?

I think that one of the challenges is that most people live in echo chambers and typically surround themselves with people who believe what they believe. They’re experiencing confirmation bias on a daily basis by reading articles from perspectives that confirm what they already believe. We try to find participants who are willing to realize this bias and step past those barriers to see a different perspective. Our applicants are self-selecting, and we want people who want to work on these issues to apply. 

Differing from our Civility Leadership Institute, having town hall meetings and working with large groups allows us to reach people who may not be ready to sign up for the Civility Leadership Institute, but they’re curious and want to learn more about civility. Reaching those individuals who aren’t quite ready to work together, but they know deep down that they need to.

Looking ahead, what are Renew America Together’s goals and priorities for the coming years in continuing its mission?

Our goal for this year is to get our curriculum (our civility framework and our dis-information curriculum) into the hands of as many people as possible. We’re looking to partner with organizations such as the University of Mississippi and other groups that offer training and help Americans get back to a civil discourse where they ask hard questions and identify false information online. We are empowering them with the tools to do something about it.