SAGE Citizen Project – Citizens in the Center

SAGE inspires people over fifty to address the educational, environmental and economic challenges faced by younger and future generations. Our Citizen Project is a series of small group conversations focused on national trends that exacerbate these challenges, including increased political divisiveness and distrust of people with different political views. Consequently, it is more difficult to talk about challenges facing the future because we do not understand these challenges the same way, and we do not agree on facts or enduring solutions.

Read on to learn more about the Citizen Project. Click here to learn about hosting a SAGE conversation with your community.

SAGE recently hosted Van Jones to highlight the importance of working together across divides. Click here to learn more.


Since October of 2016, SAGE has hosted small group conversations on the call of citizens in these difficult times.

Our goals for these events have been twofold:

(1) to learn from each other constructive ways to promote civil discourse with people who hold opposing views

(2) to highlight strategies to advance civic service and leadership.

We have emphasized that, regardless of one’s politics, race, culture or other background, honest dialogue about the needs of the future is vital to addressing long-term, community challenges. We have also emphasized the leadership role that older adults play in promoting civic engagement and dialogue.

So far, over 300 people have come together to discover the mutual values that define our Oregon community.

Main Lessons
• Barriers in communication impede civic engagement. When people feel like they cannot talk to others about their differences, they are less inclined to work together for a common cause. The “soft” skills of conversation and dialogue are the grease for civic engagement.

• It is important to invest time to build rapport and basic trust among people who likely disagree on politics, before asking them to engage in an honest dialogue about challenges and solutions.

• It is also helpful to focus the conversation on specific issues (e.g., trust or funding for local institutions) so attendees can learn about each other and explore ways to work together.

Reflection: Honoring Our Connections
• Increasing diversity. When the United States was founded, citizens were deeply reliant on their neighbors. Today, we are much more diverse and connected across states. Diversity presents challenges, but also strengthens us. We share more common ground than we often assume. When we invest time in relationships based on trust and respect, these relationships can have a positive, enduring impact on democracy.
• Responding to crisis. Crisis involves urgency and a need to focus on a common goal. In the United States, citizens have often rallied around crisis to express national unity. Despite our differences, crisis can inspire us to make better decisions together.
Reflection: Understanding Our Differences
• Acknowledging disparities. We lead very different lives and view crisis in different ways. For instance, many people experience personal crisis each day because they lack adequate food, shelter and healthcare. Others regularly experience injustice, hatred and persecution. When we are sensitized to these differences, we are more likely to craft decisions that remedy overlapping and reinforcing problems.
• Building trust. Distrust of our media and government is a sign that we fear and distrust each other. Distrust is fueled, in part, by the lack of trust in experts, and our inclination to give more credence to media that reinforce our views. Without trust, it is difficult to have conversation about shared goals. Through active listening, we can better understand people who hold opposing views, and begin to build trust to solve complex problems.
Personal Action: Connect with People Who Disagree With You. Listen Better.
• Go to new places. Be proactive by reading news from different sources. Locate your meetings in venues where you can have dialogue with people of different economic, political, racial and religious backgrounds.
• Take the time to develop rapport before jumping into a major discussion. Share a meal or a slice of pie to break the ice.
• Find courage to have difficult conversations. Listen with intent, converse with “yes and,” rather than “no but.” Let yourself be vulnerable enough to take in something that you do not want to see or believe and be willing to hear someone else’s pain. The answer to some of our toughest questions is on the other side of discomfort.
• Focus on connections, not divisions. For example, people follow different faith traditions, but they share similar values such as helping people in need and investing in education.
• Where possible, agree on shared language and facts. Language sets the tone for a conversation. Be careful not to inadvertently charge the conversation by the choice of words (e.g., referring to some government programs with a derogatory term and similar programs by another term). On a related point, when you rely on a source to support your views, check the accuracy of your source. Opinion is often portrayed as fact. If we cannot agree on the facts, we will not able to agree on the solution.
Personal Action: Become More Engaged
• Citizens can change the world. For those who can vote, vote. We all have a responsibility to influence government, using our time, money and voice to advocate for the causes we believe in, and to affect change at the local, state and national levels.
• Action is the antidote to despair. For example, by becoming politically active, you become less disillusioned with politics. Seeing legislators working hard engenders confidence.
Personal Action: Promote Education and Participation In Government
• Promote civics education in our schools. In doing so, we can influence young people to become civically engaged which will, in turn, influence the next generation too.
• Help more people from underrepresented communities by providing pathways for minorities and young adults to participate in leadership roles.
• Encourage local political engagement. We have many leadership roles to advance local policies, and these policies can result in broad social change.

Original Poem by Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, as reflection from a SAGE citizenship conversation.

Your Finite Vote, Your Infinite Voice

To vote, you blacken a box on paper,
you keystroke a blip on a screen,
you punch a hole in a ballot
and your hope becomes a number
for tabulation in democracy’s machine,
one among millions, a seed of wheat
heaped in the granary, a drop of rain
seeking to quell the fires of confusion.
But you also have a voice—to speak,
to question, to imagine, to sing, to declare,
propose, honor, reveal, investigate, affirm,
console, discover, befriend.
How big is a vote? — one bead on a strand
of millions, one thorn scratch in mud, one
dimple left in sand by the centipede’s
hind foot on its journey from dusk to dawn.
How big is a voice? — partaking of the sky,
inhaling wind and sending forth a song
that fills a room, and could turn the minds of many,
could build a vision for our great adventure.
You must count the river with a teaspoon, your
essential vote. You must also sing across the waters,
offering who you are to the long weaving work
of who we are for the days to come: in many, one.

Upcoming Events

Next Steps

If you’re inspired to make a difference in any of these areas, we want to hear from you! Contact us to learn more.
We also hope you’ll consider becoming a Legacy Fellow to lead a community benefit project of your own design. Learn more at SAGE Legacy Fellowship.
Special thanks to Bill Howe for his support and encouragement of this project. Bill conceived of this project and also serves on the SAGE Advisory Council.