Humanities Institute

Inside Dialogue: Difficult Dialogues Students Learn from Former Adversaries

Wed, March 6, 2013
Inside Dialogue: Difficult Dialogues Students Learn from Former Adversaries

How do two people who once engaged in a bitter public dispute reconcile, come to work together? Gloria Lee invited developer Gary Bradley and environmental activist Brigid Shea to her Difficult Dialogues Signature course, “Framing Sustainability,” to discuss their journey from hostile opponents to colleagues able to find common ground. Lee asks her students to keep three concepts in mind when defining sustainability: environment, economics, and equity. The discussion with Shea and Bradley revealed the ways in which this definition can both help find differences and commonality, which enables them to work together

Before discussion, the class watched the 2007 film, “The Unforeseen” (link: The film focuses on the conflict that ensued when Bradley and partner corporation Freeport-McMoRan proposed extending development across the Barton Creek watershed. Opponents of the development included Clean Water Action, Shea’s employer at the time. An emotional 1990 city council meeting, featuring hours of testimony from citizens opposed to the development, resulted in denial of the developers’ proposal. Environmental groups pushed the city to create new ordinances limiting growth in the watershed. Bradley and Shea played key roles in the ensuing battle for public opinion. “The times were very intense, and it was very personal,” Shea told the class. Her tires were slashed, and Bradley said that the then-editor of the Austin American Statesman told him, “I’m going to bring you down.” Both said they received hate mail and personal threats. In 1992, Austin voters approved the “Save Our Springs” ordinances. In the years following, conflict continued. Bradley and other developers successfully lobbied the for the passage of a state law that allowed development plans that pre-existed the 1992 regulations to avoid some of the more stringent standards. Shea served on the Austin City Council 1993-96, one particularly known for its concern with environmental issues.

Bradley attributed his ability to move forward with Shea to his Christian faith, which teaches forgiveness. Shea said a training seminar she attended that required participants to consider an adversary’s actions from a variety of perspectives enabled her to change her relationship with Bradley. The two agreed that disengaging from a personal investment in being right allows dialogue to continue and consensus issues to emerge. Bradley expressed deep concern with the current politically polarized climate in the United States. Shea agreed, and added her unease with the levels of anger she sees in these debates. “Anger comes out of fear,” she stated.

“What happened, why wasn’t there compromise,” a student asked. “A dearth of leadership,” Bradley answered. Both participants encouraged students to be actively concerned about the world around them. Bradley reminded them of their power as consumers: “Every time you make a decision about buying something, you make a decision about sustainability.” Shea urged them to assume responsibility for their actions, saying “The thing you have the most control over is your own behavior and reactions; the thing you have the greatest control over is how you react.”

Bookmark and Share