Rebooting reason and civility
Photos courtesy of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) August 08, 2023
Valerie Biden Owens leads a discussion at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Nostos conference in Athens, Greece
A University of Delaware delegation including UD President Dennis Assanis, UD First Lady Eleni Assanis, Biden School Dean Amy Ellen Schwartz, Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens, Biden School Assistant Dean Sebastian Stelios Jannelli, and Biden School SNF Ithaca Director Timothy J. Shaffer recently attended the 2023 Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Nostos conference. They joined researchers, practitioners, and activists in Athens, Greece to discuss the state of mental health across the globe.
Speakers included former President Barack Obama, actors Glenn Close and Goldie Hawn, U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy and Special Olympics Chair Timothy Shriver. Sessions addressed loneliness, arts, AI, and technology such as chatbots and telehealth and their effects on mental health; the importance of support systems; and the mental health challenges faced by specific populations, including young people.
Two reports from the World Health Organization served as backdrops for the discussions, including the World Mental Health Report: Transforming Mental Health for All showing that mental health needs across the world are high, but responses are insufficient and inadequate. Another report found the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
The Biden School’s Valerie Biden Owens led a plenary entitled “Rebooting Reason and Civility.” She explored the power of empathy to “overcome all of the forces designed to divide us, restore civility, and bring reason back to our national and international life.”
Biden Owens interviewed Fred Guttenberg, an author and activist. Guttenberg lost his brother to 9/11-related cancer and his daughter Jaime was murdered at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida. During their discussion, they spoke of how we have become a society that elevates division and difference above solutions and shared aspirations.
Discussions around mental health usually focus on the perpetrators of violence and not the survivors. However this conversation centered on ways survivors heal, grow and improve our society following traumatic events.
They discussed how to find hope in tragic situations, ways to support a grieving community, and advice for turning internet adversaries into allies.
“It is hard to hate up close,” Biden Owens said, referring to people posting hateful things online. “It's really easy when you are an anonymous person behind the computer screen. You can say anything you want.” Then she asked Guttenberg about his encounters with gun rights advocates online versus in person saying, “Do you think you can change tribalism?”
Guttenberg’s answer was simple. “It may be one person at a time, but yes, I do. And maybe that goes back to the hope part of things. I am really aggressive on social media. I take on those who spread misinformation as often as I can,” he said.
Guttenberg shared a story about building a friendship with Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party Republican Congressman from Illinois after trading replies on Twitter. “He and I started about two years ago going back and forth on Twitter over what I thought constituted the right to be free from gun violence. And he is a self-proclaimed gun guy,” said Guttenberg. “Our back and forth led to an off-Twitter real phone conversation and then a follow-up in-person conversation. And since then he and I [have been] very public together about his agreement that you can be a gun rights guy like him and still be for reducing gun violence.”
Guttenberg ended by saying, “Always model who you want to be and say what you want to say and do it with decency, do it with civility, and do it with respect for others.” (SNF provided a video of the session.)
Teaching the importance of civil discourse is key to the Biden School’s mission. In the fall of 2021, it launched a civil discourse and civic engagement program supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Called the SNF Ithaca Initiative, the program is named after the home of Odysseus — one of Greek mythology's greatest leaders, whose talent for persuasive discourse was revered in ancient Greece.
“Through the SNF Ithaca Initiative, the Biden School is delivering crucial programs to prepare leaders with the knowledge, skills and values necessary to improve the quality of life in communities around the world,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, dean of the Biden School. “When our students have the tools to engage in important conversations, they have the power to address our greatest challenges.”
The SNF Ithaca Initiative serves as both the beginning of the Biden School students’ journey toward life as engaged and effective citizens and as the ultimate destination for students across the country to come together and work together to develop policy solutions.
“We prepare students to serve as civic leaders with the skills to identify issues and take steps to address them,” said Timothy J. Shaffer, SNF Ithaca Initiative director and Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) chair of civil discourse at the Biden School. “Change doesn’t happen overnight or alone, it requires we work with others, sometimes with people who seem to be on the ‘other side.’ A willingness to engage in civil discourse helps us sustain democracy during a time when democratic ideas and institutions are being challenged.”
In April, the Biden School announced a new multi-million dollar grant from SNF, allowing it to significantly expand program offerings for students in fall 2023 and build on the SNF Ithaca Initiative’s unique combination of academic coursework and experiential learning.
To learn more about the Biden School’s SNF Ithaca Initiative and its work to unite college students in the spirit of civil, civic engagement, visit bidenschool.udel.edu/snfithaca.
About the UD Biden School
Established in 1961 and named in 2018 for the University of Delaware’s most distinguished alumnus, the 46th President of the United States, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration prepares students with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in research and public service to improve the quality of life in communities around the world. Biden School faculty, staff, students, and alumni create and use interdisciplinary, nonpartisan research, and empirically based analysis to inform effective decision-making and policy and to improve leadership and administration. The Biden School partners with organizations from all sectors to discover innovative and equitable solutions to the critical challenges of our time.
About the SNF Ithaca Initiative
In the fall of 2021, the UD Biden School launched a civil discourse and civic engagement program supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Called the SNF Ithaca Initiative, the program is named after the home of Odysseus — one of Greek mythology's greatest leaders whose talent for persuasive discourse was revered in ancient Greece. For Odysseus, Ithaca represents not only the beginning of a journey but the ultimate destination. Likewise, the SNF Ithaca Initiative will serve both as the beginning of our students' journey toward becoming effective citizens and as the ultimate destination for students from across the country to come together and develop the civil, and civic engagement skills that will strengthen our democracy.
About the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) is one of the world's leading private, international philanthropic organizations, making grants to nonprofit organizations in arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare. SNF funds organizations and projects worldwide that aim to achieve a broad, lasting, and positive impact on society at large, and exhibit strong leadership and sound management. SNF also supports projects that facilitate the formation of public-private partnerships as an effective means for serving public welfare. Since 1996, the Foundation has committed more than $3.5 billion through over 5,300 grants to nonprofit organizations in more than 130 countries around the world.