Special to the Daily Press
Against the backdrop of a nation in which political debates often devolve into shouting matches, 16-year-old high school sophomore Mihret Melaku’s Civil Discourse Club aims to foster respectful dialogue.
Every Wednesday at lunch, almost 20 New Roads high school students sit in a circle to discuss current events. Following a short PowerPoint presentation by Melaku or another club member, participants are offered the chance to share their opinions freely.
Melaku started the Civil Discourse Club at the beginning of the school year with friends Cameron Cooper and Ben Wasson, also sophomores at New Roads, in order to educate students to make informed decisions about “important, pressing issues.”
“When you don’t have information, then you don’t have the power or the voice to be able to create change in your community,” Melaku said. “I’ve basically opened the club to create an environment where we can be able to not only have the information to make up our own minds, but also hear different perspectives, diverse perspectives, about these issues.”
Recent club meetings have included discussions of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the Me Too movement.
The Civil Discourse Club is home to students from a range of political affiliations. According to Melaku, open dialogue with people who hold different opinions is crucial; Melaku believes that polarization is one of the biggest problems facing Americans.
“We have people with varying perspectives stuck within their own bubbles. [This] only leads to us being radicalized within our own beliefs and our own perspectives. When that happens, we begin to view the people from the other side with different views as evil and malevolent,” Melaku said.
New Roads Head of School Luthern Williams said that he believes interaction with people from dissimilar backgrounds is important for his students. At New Roads, around half of the student body receives financial aid.
“I think that [students] need to experience really engaging [with] other people who are different from them,” Williams said. “Through those experiences, they develop an open mind, which counteracts the kind of polarization I think you get when people are more isolated from one another.”
Melaku hopes that discussions facilitated in places like the Civil Discourse Club can bridge divides between peers and citizens.
“The only way we can make progress is through compromise,” Melaku said. “The best way that we can be able to cause change in our community is by providing people with the chance to experience hearing from someone else that might have a different view.”
When not at school or working on the Civil Discourse Club, Melaku enjoys reading and writing. He is a classically trained pianist and won a scholarship to study piano and music theory at the Colburn School.
Melaku was born in Ethiopia and is fluent in both English and Amharic. He moved to the United States when he was less than one year old.
“[Immigrating from Ethiopia] made me more sympathetic to the immigration issue that’s become a quite dire crisis in America. But it’s also shown me that dividing people will only lead to weakening those people,” Melaku said. “As the famous saying goes, ‘a house divided cannot stand.’”
Throughout Civil Discourse Club meetings, club leaders and faculty sponsors ensure that the tone remains courteous. Melaku said he believes that disrespectful conversations are unproductive, serving only to anger those involved.
“Ultimately, the only way that we can be able to reach out to the other side is in a way that promotes peace,” Melaku said.
Melaku said he hopes that the productive exchanges he has had at New Roads and with students across the country permeate the rest of the nation’s dialogues.
“I hope that the work that we do as concerned and educated citizens doesn’t become just a school thing but also becomes local, becomes a state thing, becomes a national thing, and ultimately becomes an international thing,” Melaku said.