In the fall of 2011, I co-founded a project in reaction to what I saw as our "crumbling civic infrastructure." The Theater of Public Policy's mission is to use conversations and theater to introduce audiences to ideas and debates they might not have otherwise tuned into — and to equip them with enough information on those topics that they can make some decisions on how they feel about them.
On Nov. 19, that crumbling civic infrastructure caught up with us. As the Star Tribune detailed ("Pipeline protests spill into theater" Nov. 21), our show at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis was cut short when a group of protesters heckled and shouted us off stage.
The show was intended to be a conversation and audience Q&A with two members of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. If you are wondering what the PUC is or how a show about a relatively obscure regulatory agency could be so controversial, you are far from alone.
We originally booked two guests from the PUC because it is largely unknown and its processes can seem opaque. We wanted to shed light on this poorly understood agency.
What we didn't know when we booked our guests was that the PUC would be leading newscasts on the day of our show for its vote that morning reaffirming support for a new oil pipeline called Line 3.
The pipeline is controversial. It would be a major investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure at a critical moment for the world's climate. And it would cut across multiple Native American tribes' treaty land.
Unfortunately, we never got to discuss any of those issues. The group protesting our event shouted down our guests and even my questions of them. Had we been able to continue the program, I would have asked the commissioners about Line 3, climate change and how their vote earlier that day could be reconciled with treaty rights. We would have also opened it up for members of the audience to ask questions and challenge the commissioners themselves (as we do in all of our shows).
Those opportunities for an audience to learn about the PUC, Line 3 and whether allowing that pipeline was a terrible decision or not were closed off by the actions of a few. This was particularly frustrating for large parts of our audience, many of whom told me in calls and e-mails after the abbreviated event that they were against the new pipeline but had wanted the chance to learn more about the PUC and how they might engage with it going forward on precisely these kinds of issues.
Those opposed to the PUC's decision had a packed theater full of potential allies. In the end, those who had wanted to educate themselves in order to be better advocates were denied that opportunity.
Part of how that evening unfolded can be attributed to bad timing. The PUC's vote on Line 3 was understandably devastating for opponents. Had we known that vote would happen that day, we would not have planned a public event with members of the commission. Emotions were running extremely high. Had the event happened a week earlier or later, I believe it would have gone very differently.
This is still an opportunity to reaffirm our mission at the Theater of Public Policy and the value of civil discourse broadly. We believe in creating spaces where people can learn something new, discuss big issues and disagree while appreciating the humanity of people on all sides of an issue. We do our work in this way not simply for some polite notions of how civil society should work, but because we believe they will produce the most socially just outcomes.
We believe in our audiences and the people we serve with our show. Given the breadth of information and perspectives on an issue, they will better understand the reasons to be engaged with it and will be better equipped to do so.
Finally, we believe we can disagree without dehumanizing one another. It is imperative we recognize that people on all sides of a debate are just that — people. They may be right, wrong, good, flawed or all of the above, but they are people.
We believe — to paraphrase a great Minnesotan — that we all do better when we all know more. We will continue to do that work, starting with our next show. And we invite you to join us.
Tane Danger is co-founder of the Theater of Public Policy.