A frustrating and heartwarming experience at the Aspen Institute

 Director of Strategic Relationships Jerad Morey smiling while presenting at the Aspen Institute

I was flummoxed by the questions asked by the journalists, scholars, corporate and government staff in my Aspen Institute Q&A. They didn't want to know what I'd been invited to Washington, DC, to tell them - they wanted to learn something else.

As the Director of Strategic Relationships at MCC, one of our longstanding programs which I steward is MCC Respectful Conversations. I helped to found it 12 years ago when we wanted to figure out how to knit people in our communities together in relationship even when they disagreed intensely about worldview-related topics. We started the project in 2012 and thought it would only last until that year's election. We had trained dozens of lead facilitators and hundreds of table facilitators to lead conversations designed not to change minds, but soften hearts when discussing a hot topic. It was the amendment defining marriage.

Fifty-five conversation events with 1,550 Minnesotans later, we looked at our evaluations and saw that the mission had been accomplished: 62% of participants reported more empathy for the other side. 88% reported more confidence that they could now have better conversations about hard topics in the future. We didn't know in 2012 that by 2024 these would be considered measures for "affective polarization" and "bridging quotient" - we just knew they meant good things.


Members of a church in Saint Anthony engaged in a Respectful Conversation


Still, we were ready to pat ourselves on the back and call it a day. But it was our longitudinal evaluations - the ones we sent out to folks 3-9 months after their conversation experience - that convinced us to keep the work going. People kept telling us things like:

“Because of this experience, I am more aware of my own attitude when listening to others of different opinions.”
“In the weeks following the event I found myself using better listening skills.”
“This open discussion tells me I should never judge others by past experience or simple observation.”
“I feel the quality of conversation was the best I have ever experienced when discussing a controversial topic.”

We also saw that, months later:

  • 58% of participants had improved or dramatically improved in their ability to practice respectful conversations with others in their daily life.
  • 67% had grown in their appreciation for how others arrive at their viewpoints.
  • 75% had grown in their willingness to examine their own attitudes and beliefs in conflicts.


a slide from aspen institute presentation shows pie charts about Respectful Conversations results


Learning these results, we realized something: We weren't just helping folks navigate one controversial topic on the November 2012 ballot. Instead, we were teaching them to love their neighbor. To love their enemy.

"Discipleship" is a word used in Christian circles to talk about how we train ourselves to be more loving people; to do what we believe Jesus would have us do. MCC Respectful Conversations, we concluded, was evidence-based discipleship.

So we kept it up; long after our initial philanthropic support had tapered off we still had congregations, campuses, community groups, municipalities, boards of directors and public school districts ask if we could help them navigate intense conflict with MCC Respectful Conversations. We have always been proud to say "yes." We have always been grateful to have an active network of lead facilitators. I, personally, have always been excited to receive the evaluations: consistent evidence of our positive impact. We truly were equipping communities to better manage conflict.


Line outside a Respectful Conversation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the Midway


As 2020 unrolled with COVID isolation, Presidential campaign anger, and the police murder of George Floyd, I began networking with more national groups and coalitions, trying to learn both whether MCC Respectful Conversations had a place in our country’s peacebuilding firmament and also what other tools existed out there that we could help bring to Minnesota. One of the first things I learned was that almost nobody from coast to coast had been doing this work as long as we had. And rare was the organization that had been trying to evaluate their work to the degree that we were.

These were good things to learn as I connected with the Centers for Disease Control and Carter Center, International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and Resetting the Table, Princeton Bridging Divides and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. I found out from Civic Health Project about SCIM, the Social Cohesion Impact Measure that had been developed in 2019-2020 to gauge the impact of peacebuilding efforts. We incorporated some of their academically-validated questions into our evaluations. I learned about the success of the Civity Storytelling Intervention on positively impacting democratic attitudes and we won an award from Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab to enhance our own evaluation capacity and test out complementary methods.

Our new capacity has helped us to better measure our success with pre/post surveys. The impact of most recent MCC Respectful Conversations at a saint Paul univeristy campus can be called “statistically significant” with regard to key measures, including having positive feelings towards those with whom one disagrees, one’s understanding of others’ points of view, one’s comfort having friends with whom they disagree on key issues, and the belief that one’s opponents are still “good people.”


Line Graphs evidence significant impact of Respectful Conversations


All this I shared with my audience at Washinton, DC’s Aspen Institute in January 2024. They were gathered because they were invested in learning how to have “better arguments;” many of them were focused on making plans for improved dialogue experiences in their own communities, some were hoping to help other organizations like theirs, some were simply personally passionate on the topic. All had come to my presentation, “Measuring Better,” where I shared MCC's own proud journey evaluating the quality and impact of MCC Respectful Conversations. People took photos of some of my slides demonstrating impact and naming handy partners. Other members of the audience wrote down notes and follow-ups.

I finished talking about our evaluation journey and invited questions. But I was unprepared for the first:

“Why is Minnesota so awesome?” asked someone from the northeast

That had hardly been the point of my presentation. “I’m sorry?” I asked.

They explained “Minnesota Council of Churches does so much great stuff. And you’ve just got so many organizations there ready to be partners.”

“Umm…” was my cogent response.

“Yeah,” added someone from the southwest. “It seems like every time I read a good headline it’s about something happening in Minnesota.”


Director of Strategic Relationships Jerad Morey frowning while presenting at Aspen Institute


“Look,” I reminded the audience, “according to Princeton University, Minnesota had three counties which were disproportionately more prone to ideological or political violence... We are the state where George Floyd was murdered.” The point of my presentation wasn’t to place a halo over my home state.

“Yes,” said the first questioner, “but you’ve just got so many people ready to help. How do we find partners like you?”

That’s when I saw it in her eyes. I had been describing the ways we measure the powerful impact of Minnesota Council of Churches’ Respectful Conversations: They strengthen relationships in the face of division. They build empathy. They strengthen democracy. They help us to love our neighbors. The whole time what my audience was asking themselves wasn’t “how can we measure our impact like that?” Instead, they were asking “how do we get neighbors like that?”


Audience members in the foreground of Morey's Aspen Institute presentation


Although I was frustrated that I couldn’t see how to swing the limited Q&A time left back to evaluating dialogue methods, I ultimately left the presentation with more gratitude in my heart.

Gratitude for the Bush Foundation, who funded the first couple years of this project. For Essential Partners, who consulted with us on the initial design. For the other professionals who shaped our team in the first three years. For partners along the way like the Jay and Rose Philips Family Foundation, the Church in Society Ministry Team of the Minnesota Annual Conference United Methodist Church, for YMCA of the North, for the Mall Area Religious Council, the Delano Ministerium, the Wege Foundation, the League of Women Voters, and for everyone who reached out during the past 12 years saying “what you’re doing is great. How can we help you do more of it?”

Over 300 conversations and 8,000 participants later we have made a real difference in decreasing affective polarization and increasing the bridging quotient of Minnesotans. We’re starting to have an impact in Wisconsin and North Dakota. We’ve now been featured in national newspapers, been invited to major press events and participated in national think tanks.

Leaders throughout the country are saying “We’re so divided. How can we #disagreebetter ?” Minnesota Council of Churches is one of the organizations with answers to that question. And the only reason we have some of the answers is because of our wonderful neighbors who have said “This is great. How can we help you do more of it?”

We have you. Thank you, Minnesota.


People sit at outdoor tables in a Respectful Conversation in Saint Paul