It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood…And a Beautiful Day for a Civic Life Summit

By Josh Ritter

Here is the fundamental problem…most of us have no idea how to get to know our neighbors. The solution is both simple and far-reaching. We must learn to communicate well.

The biggest issue is that most people communicate through assumptions based on overly simplistic labels of identity. “Oh, you’re a Republican.” “Oh, you’re a liberal.” “Oh, you’re a Muslim.” “Oh, you’re a Christian.” Everyone thinks they know what these labels mean even though everyone’s identities are highly complex and vary from person to person. Not everyone who identifies as a Republican is only a Republican, and not everyone who is a Democrat is only a Democrat. We all have multiple identities that intersect and form who we are and who we become. Our identities shape how we interact with each other, and they inform the decisions that we make.

Part of the solution, then, is realizing that we are all complex, complicated people. The other part of the solution is realizing that living in community is messy, complicated, and difficult. We all want everyone to agree with us, but they often don’t. We all want everyone to believe the way that we do, but they often don’t. Should we just settle for agreeing to disagree? Or, is there more to communication and community than living within the compromises?

At work here is the root of communication and community – communion. Yes, communion…in the sense of “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” Living within community is a sacred journey with our neighbors. Living within community is a sharing and exchanging of thoughts and feelings, even when we disagree, which requires a level of trust that most of us simply do not extend to our neighbors, but it is this trust, this sacred vulnerability, that is precisely the necessary piece of the civic puzzle that we must fill in order to live in community and to neighbor well.

So how do we develop trust among strangers (that are also our neighbors)?

Here is a key insight that took me a long, long time to learn: When we lack the content and foundation of a trusting relationship, then we must rely on a form (or structure) of engagement that we can all trust. Said another way, when a trusting friendship does not exist in order for a difficult conversation among peers and neighbors to occur, then a dependable process of engagement must fill that space of trust. If we can’t find a process that we trust – a way to have a conversation that we trust – and we get stuck in disagreement about a controversial issue, then we will not be able to make well-reasoned decisions together due to mistrust and fear.

Fear is the number one factor that divides us. We are afraid that getting to know someone who believes differently from us will put our own beliefs in question and at risk. We are afraid that differences are a threat to our own identity. We react out of fear. We get angry, which is really just fear. We engage in fight or flight responses to those we fear. We try to distance ourselves from what we fear. The problem is that these moments of fear are precisely the instances that call for trust, risk, understanding, and vulnerability, but we haven’t learned that skill yet…how to disagree without being afraid, angry, fighting, or running. What we need to ask ourselves is what form or process can we use that we trust to help us dialogue and deliberate about difficult choices and hard conversations?

So what are these processes that we can trust?

There are many different processes of engagement to choose from, and they all focus on reasoning together as peers who live within a community. They all involve tested and well-researched ways to have healthy dialogue and deliberation, and they all involve a democratic skill set that we have largely abandoned for sound bites and a culture of polarization. The easiest way for a politician (or anyone) to get someone on their side is to make a complex issue into a simple either/or choice that is both polarizing and false. “You’re either with us or against us. It’s that simple.” Except that it’s not that simple, and over simplifying a complex issue doesn’t get us very far. “If I’m right, then you’re wrong.” That’s simple…but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t tell me why you are choosing one thing over another thing. It doesn’t tell me what the consequences of your decision might mean to me, my neighbor, and your neighbor.

With all that being said, what Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative hopes to accomplish at the Civic Life Summit on June 1-2 is a way to introduce all of our neighbors to multiple, different ways of engaging in healthy dialogue and deliberation. We want to bring all different types of people with all different types of beliefs together (yes, even the ones who don’t trust each other) to develop and to learn processes that we can trust to help us make decisions well. We want to help our broken communities heal through healthy conversation that is really a sacred act of communion. We all need a voice, and our work of civic engagement is the work of dialogue, deliberation, learning to trust, ending polarization, and practicing the art of sacred communion, which is also the act of sacred community building.

We must learn to make good decisions together for the common good of our communities if we want to make a difference in this world, and the Civic Life Summit is one crucial step in the right direction to fight injustice and to take right action together. Join with us, and step out of the fear…journey with us onto the challenging path of civic engagement that requires charity, trust, communication, and communion.

Dr. Josh Ritter is Assistant Director and Chaplain in the Department of Formation, Office of Spiritual Life, at Baylor University. He is Co-Leader of Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative and supervises all Cross Cultural Engagement programs in the Office of Spiritual Life. He is also Adjunct Faculty in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core where he teaches World of Rhetoric.

The Importance of Citizen Science

By Melissa Mullins

Have you heard of “citizen science”?  Different definitions for this term exist but they typically say something like: “Citizen science is scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions” or one I like “projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leader in citizen science).  Even if you didn’t call it citizen science, you probably know someone (maybe you) who has participated in a citizen science project.

Although the term citizen science is relatively new, amateur scientists (who may have had no formal training in science) have contributed to scientific discovery throughout history, and continue to do so today.  They do so because of a love of knowledge and a desire to learn about the natural world.  In fact, many great early scientists had other occupations and science was something they pursued in their leisure time.  Today, many professional scientists “crowdsource” data collection to help them accomplish tasks that otherwise might be difficult or impossible.

Citizen science has been practiced in Waco since at least 1957 through people participating in the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, which this year entered its 117th year.  Researchers have used data from the Christmas Bird Counts in over 200 peer-reviewed papers to answer questions about bird community ecology, distribution and population dynamics.  This year I participated in one of the two counts held locally, and it was great fun.  No experience necessary!

Both the City of Waco and Baylor University support the Texas Stream Team which has trained citizen science water quality monitors around the state for over 25 years.  The City provides kits and resources for volunteers concentrated on monitoring sites in the streams and rivers that feed Lake Waco, our source of drinking water, and Baylor students monitor sites around the Baylor campus.  The data is entered into a statewide database that is accessible to all.

Participation in citizen science is not limited to adults!  This spring, students at Indian Spring Middle School and Dewey Recreation Center began participating in Science Action Clubs, Birds in Your Schoolyard.  They are learning about birds weekly and collecting bird counts which will be entered into the Ebird database.  The Cameron Park Zoo is also hosting this program.  On World Water Day March 22, 300 8th graders at Cesar Chavez Middle School measured water quality from the Brazos River, Waco Creek, and Lake Waco and their data will be entered into the EarthEcho Water Monitoring Challenge database.

Citizen science is a great way for people, regardless of age, background or education, to be more involved in scientific endeavors that interest them.  Science benefits all of society, and the cost to fund scientific research is largely borne by the public, but those involved directly in scientific research have often been a fairly narrow swath of society.  Now more than ever in the face of a changing climate (both literally and politically) science can use champions among the public.  Will you be one?

Want to participate or learn more?

To learn more about the diversity of citizen science projects that may interest you, try visiting sites like or

Melissa Mullins is an aquatic scientist who coordinates education and outreach at Baylor’s Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research.  She is a Baylor alum (M.S. Environmental Biology ’95) and is on the Board of the Informal Science Education Association of Texas which focuses on promoting science learning outside the classroom.  She loves goats and yoga and recently visited the Nile River in Uganda as part of a Baylor trip.  She believes that a vibrant scientific community that includes the public in its work is a fundamental underpinning of a democratic society.

Creative Contagion: how arts blooming in Waco have inspired creative community building throughout Central Texas

By Nicole Metts

Ever since I can remember, I have been making art and writing. For me, creating things gives me the balance I need to survive in this stressful world. I was an emotional teen, and my first marriage was a disaster, but poetry and painting got me through it. Everyone needs an outlet for emotion; even when you are content in your life. I know some people do not understand this, but for an artist, you must create because it is as important as breathing. It does not have to be an immaculate piece though, because the creating of the art is the satisfying part. Writing and visual arts also show your life history. Time goes by so fast. Will you remember these moments; these spiritual changes in yourself ten or twenty years from now without them? I even save the bad ones, because it is a learning process and growing process.

Jenuine Poetess and myself at Waco Cultural Art Fest. 2016

Last summer, I came across a submission for artists and poets in an art and word collaboration called “Ekphrasis.” I had never submitted any work of mine before, but I felt I needed to be brave and I sent it. Not long after, I received an email from Steve & Angie Veracruz of Central Texas Artist Collective about my poem. I was so excited I drove to Waco to meet them. We met at Tea 2 Go for Waco Poets Society open mic where I met Jenuine Poetess. I joined her group in poetry recital even though I was terrified and inexperienced. I certainly was not yet a master of confidence and rhythm like all the other amazing poets I heard that night. They were so supportive and it was wonderful to hear and speak with them. I was so inspired I decided I was going to start a writing group of my own. Jenuine told me she would be happy to give me guidance through the way and even come visit in the beginning if I needed help getting started for open mic. I drove home on cloud nine so excited about the upcoming Ekphrasis event and the idea of starting my own writing group with support.

Dana Helms and I at the Waco Hipodrome

For the Ekphrasis exhibit artists and writers were paired together. I was paired with Dana Helms.  She is a teacher, an animator and a fiber artist. We lived in different cities, but we had a lot of fun emailing each other. She created an amazing tapestry to match with my poem. Our relationship helped me build my confidence even more. I could not have been paired with a more amazing artist.

The Ekphasis pieces were hanging in the windows of businesses in downtown Waco for everyone to enjoy. My family and I admired each one, sipping old fashioned soda in glass bottles, and devouring sweets from the candy store. The main event was at the patio of the Hippodrome where some of the poets read their pieces with a copy of the artist’s work on an easel beside them; it was beautiful and professional. I finally met Dana Helms in person and we had a delightful conversation about art forms that interested both of us.

My Garden

Tapestry by Dana Helms

Tip toe amongst my Garden of Eden,
And you will find zeppelins amongst the clouds;
With acrobats hanging down and then,
Dancing dragons through the air and sounds
Music blowing through a band of trees
A lost fairy captured by the breeze
Lilies laughing from tickles of the bees
Burrowing deep inside entrails touching hearts and seeds
Through the aroma mist of storm and seas
Intoxicated in bliss and ease
I watch the sun and moon taunt and tease
The jealous shooting stars that fail to seize
A pinnacle above wonderland plain to be
Found only by elite and obscure who believe
There is more to life than what can be seen.

Waco is getting ready to have another Ekphrasis event soon . If this sounds like fun then maybe you could get involved or follow Central Texas Artist Collective or Waco’s Poets Society to enjoy their happenings. Both groups are active in the community and are always up to something.

I have always loved the arts and believe it is essential part of our culture. If you think about it; what would your city be like without art?  No live music, film, dance, poetry, murals, museums, theater, sculpture, local art, and art focused events? Even the buildings, bridges, and landscaping are art. Waco has grown so much over the years and I can certainly see why. The right people are in place getting people excited about their community.

My Team David and Briann

Now I am thrilled to tell you that I have started a group called Central Texas Writing Society. It was hard finding members at first. I started with hanging flyers and talking to the library about having meetings there. With the help from the library director Kevin Marsh, my first dedicated writer and now VP of CTWS David Hardin, my friend Briann Gonzalez (our tech guru), and the local Five Hills Art Guild supporting us on first Friday at Frames & Things in Copperas Cove, we are growing. My city has a long way to go to catch up to the community involvement of Waco, but I am determined to be part of the driving force to get them there.


Our first open mic January 2017 at Lil Tex in Copperas Cove.


I invite you into our group or into one in your community — get involved! I have met many amazing people, and they have been encouraging and full of wisdom. I cannot imagine living life without them now. Surround yourself with people with similar interests, and they can inspire you and help you grow in whatever it is you love. If you do not think that is your “cup of tea” I hope you support the arts and community groups in your own way because that is just as important. I am still a strong believer that art and word can change the world! It has certainly changed my world.

Get Involved!

To learn more about and to register for the 2017 EKPHRASIS Waco! Exhibit, please visit the CTAC Call for Artists page here.  All call for participants is open now through June 2, 2017.

Nicole Metts is the founder of Central Texas Writers Society in Copperas Cove. She has been passionate about the arts since childhood. Besides being a poet, she is a painter, photographer, and enjoys exploring other medias as well. Currently; she is a full-time student at Central Texas College with plans to transfer soon to Texas A&M to achieve a B.A. in English with a minor in art. She also works full time as a supervisor, is happily married, and has two children. You can connect with her at or

Where do we go to learn to be citizens in a democracy?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was visiting with my friend Austin Meek (host of the fantastic KWBU program Downtown Depot) the other day and he asked me, “What’s the best thing happening at Baylor right now?”  Wow! So much to choose from…we just named our first woman president, who by all accounts will be a super-star.  We’re about to graduate another stellar class of brand new Baylor alums off to make the world a better place in all kinds of ways we can’t even imagine yet.  Baylor researchers are making new discoveries about everything from the effects of algae in the water supply, to how to detect eye cancer, to how to teach number sense to pre-k kids. I couldn’t pick the BEST thing, so I slyly answered a slightly different question: What’s MY FAVORITE thing happening at Baylor right now?

Before I reveal my answer, I want to take a little detour to consider the purpose of higher education.

College tuition is going up. Student debt is increasing.   Some people are starting to wonder if a college education is “worth it” in terms of increasing lifetime earning potential.  On another front, technology is making it easier and easier to “deliver content” in all kinds of convenient ways – perhaps much more convenient than sitting in classes for four years… I do not know what the future holds for higher education, but it will almost certainly include some big changes.  The aggravating thing about change is that it is almost always disruptive and stressful.  The good thing about change, though, is that it pushes us to circle around and think about core purposes and what we are really trying to accomplish.

What, then, is the purpose of higher education? One purpose is certainly to help people prepare for a career – a good job with good pay.   No argument there.  Just as certainly though, that is not the only purpose.  To me the “higher” in higher education, in the USA at least, is educating the citizenry of a democracy to govern themselves wisely and well.

Where do we learn to wrestle with the big questions of “truth, beauty and justice?”  Where do we learn to think about what kind of world we want to create together?  Where do we learn the skills of how to work together to create that world?  Where do we learn to listen and to present a reasoned argument instead of just yelling at each other? Where do we learn to have some empathy for our fellow humans even when we disagree with them?  Where do we learn to discuss difficult issues in a productive way?  Where do we learn to leaven our zeal for efficiency, productivity and profit with an understanding of the roles of diversity, creativity and compassion?

I don’t think we can run a democracy without citizens with this kind of knowledge and skill, and I don’t think we can take for granted that people will develop it on their own.  This kind of learning and thinking is the journey of a lifetime.  I think it is a core purpose of higher education to equip people for that journey and to give them a good running start on their way. As the form of higher education evolves, I don’t want this purpose to get lost along the way.  I want our institutions of higher ed, Baylor included, to be as creative in thinking of ways to fulfill this purpose as we are in thinking of ways to help students get the skills they need for a career.

That brings me to a terrific program that has taken root at Baylor this last year.  It’s called The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, “PDI” for short. PDI’s work is to “invite Baylor students, staff, and faculty as well as local community members to participate in forums about local and national issues to better understand the perspectives, possible outcomes, and trade-offs of different options.”  In other words, they set up workshops where we can practice doing democracy together. They invite not only Baylor students, but also the Waco community to participate, because part of what it means to do democracy is to do it with all kinds of different people from different stages of life, different walks of life and different life experiences.

The PDI folks have already facilitated deliberations on topics like Immigration, Campus Carry, and Climate Change.  At each deliberation participants share personal connections to the issue, have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of at least three different approaches to the issue, and then deliberate about what actions they believe they could agree to take despite differences in perspective. Doesn’t that sound like a terrific way to do democracy together?

As an extension of this work, PDI is hosting a “Civic Life Summit” that is open to the public.   On June 1 & 2, the summit will offer practical sessions designed to help us  learn the skills of citizenship.  Topics include “Living Room Conversations on Race,” “Beyond Reactions and Factions: A Pragmatic Approach,” “GRIT 101: Getting Gritty Doing Civic Engagement,” and many more.  The sessions will be led mostly by active Waco community members (including some Baylor faculty and staff) with a sprinkling of experts brought in from other communities. Registration is $95 until May 15, and a few scholarships are still available.

I love that my Alma Mater is hosting an event that focuses on civic learning, an event that invites students and the rest of us in the community to learn to be better citizens together.  Is it the best thing happening at Baylor right now? Not sure…it has lots of competition.  But, it is my favorite!  Hope to see you there.  It’s more fun to learn to be better citizens together!

 This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.