The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides not by papering over them but by helping people have better arguments. Arguments don’t have to drive us apart—better arguments can bring us together. Oliviah Franke participated in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive, fellowship-style program designed to equip participants to bring the project to their communities. Oliviah is a conversations program coordinator at the Alaska Humanities Forum. She sat down with the Better Arguments team to discuss why she uses the Better Arguments framework to help bridge differences in the context of climate debates. This conversation took place at Aspen Ideas: Climate in May 2022.
Tell us about your community in Alaska. What are the types of arguments that are coming up there and what are some opportunities for those arguments to get better?
I live and work and play in Anchorage, Alaska, which is on the unceded lands of the Dena’ina people. These lands have been stewarded and protected in relationship with the Dena’ina people for time immemorial. Anchorage is also one of the most diverse school districts in the country and is a place that is home to folks from so many different perspectives, political leanings, industries, et cetera. It is really a cool community. There are lots of arguments and conversations that come up relating to climate change. The ones that are common (from my experience) are around salmon populations, timber harvesting, indigenous sovereignty, glacial and permafrost melting, and changes to fire seasons.
We often feel very strongly about climate issues, to the point that calling for arguments or inviting disagreement can feel odd. Still, you chose to participate in our program and incorporate Better Arguments into your work—why was that?
I think that having conversations with folks who have different perspectives and engaging in arguments is healthy because it allows us to complicate the narrative. It allows us to consider new perspectives and challenge ourselves to learn from others. One of the principles that guides our work is the idea that the more diverse perspectives that are in the argument or conversation, the more likely we are to come to a new understanding or a new solution that we would never be able to get to on our own or with limited perspectives. Disagreeing and working through that helps us to have a more nuanced understanding and appreciation for each other and the topic.
Why were you drawn to the Better Arguments approach?
There is a strong overlap between the principles of the Alaska Humanities Forum work and the Better Arguments approach. Things like “taking winning off the table,” “listening passionately,” and “embracing vulnerability” are all values that I want to show up in the work that I do. The Better Arguments framework seemed like a great foundation.
How did you apply your learnings from the Ambassador Program via your capstone project?
Some of the things that I learned in my time with the Ambassador Program that really stuck with me and that I applied were the importance of planning ahead, developing a strong sense of purpose and intention, and the importance of how we tell the story of our work. I worked with my team at the Alaska Humanities Forum to develop a set of principles to guide the work, be confident about our role in the work, and align our approach with both the Forum principles and the Better Arguments dimensions and principles. This allowed us to clearly reflect on our programs as well as communicate to participants and partners about what to expect and why!
Alaska is a unique setting for having climate conversations. The “historical context” and “power dynamics” aspects of Better Arguments come up strongly. What is the context that you are working in for trying to stimulate climate conversations?
The ones that come to mind most are the historical context of indigenous Alaskans. Their voices have been missing from many of the conversations and decision-making processes in the state. It is important to acknowledge that and dig into why that has been the case. This shapes decisions about inviting indigenous leaders, organizations, and individuals to the conversation spaces I facilitate and more importantly, inviting and involving those folks from the very beginning.
In contrast to that, there is a historical context of resource extraction in Alaska with the oil industry, timber industry, tourism, et cetera. Designing conversations in a way that stakeholders in those resource spaces can also contribute positively to arguments about climate change and its impacts in Alaska is also important. It is important to recognize that both of those historical contexts are also associated with power dynamics that have historically been exclusionary and dangerous to Alaska Natives and other BIPOC folks and advantageous to stakeholders in resource extraction spaces. Spaces must be anti-racist and be working towards decolonization to appropriately address the impact of those power dynamics and historical context. Ultimately though, if there is no winning and if the purpose is to connect Alaskans across differences on topics that are important; then having all these perspectives at the table is extremely important.
What is possible if we had more opportunities to have Better Arguments about climate issues?
Collaboration and understanding are made possible. A more equitable community of folks who can coexist and even engage in mutual support in the effort to address climate change is possible as we engage in better arguments and climate conversations.
What do you see as the opportunities and challenges for forging human connections across differences in the context of climate issues?
It can be hard to be willing to challenge myself to think outside of my own lived experiences and perspectives, so to facilitate spaces where I am actively prompting folks to do that is challenging. It also lets me think of challenges and opportunities as two sides to the same coin. Engaging in better arguments provides the chance to grow and learn through forging those connections across differences. Connections that are forged across differences are strong and resilient and beautiful.
Climate is a topic that can also seem inaccessible to folks if they do not have academic or professional training. But the reality is that everyone is experienced in climate, and everyone can engage in conversations and work relating to climate. It is all a matter of how those conversations are set up. For every challenge, I think there are multiple opportunities.
How do you keep an open mind and spirit of curiosity in your work and why is that important to you?
As an undergrad student, my professor once told me, “If you’re doing science to prove yourself right, you’re doing it wrong.” That has stuck with me for a long time. It has really shaped me as someone who wants to prove myself wrong, to be willing to challenge myself, and be humble enough to know that I do not know everything and that there is so much more to learn. It fosters a sense of curiosity that also continues to fuel my belief that we are all scientists because we are all curious about the world around us. When we can find ways to lean into that curiosity, to ask questions and listen, to share our stories, and know that they are just one part of the braided narrative, it opens so many possibilities for creative problem solving and collaboration—and, ultimately, progress.