2017 Ethics Symposium Highlights

–submitted by Andrea Kaminski

dsc_0106More than 200 students from 20 area high schools assembled at Monona Terrace Convention Center on February 17 for the 17th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium, underwritten by our club’s Madison Rotary Foundation. They were welcomed by 2017 Ethics Symposium Chair Steve Johannsen, who noted that we all face ethical dilemmas several times a week. He explained that often it’s a small matter, for example, what to do when your cell phone starts ringing in a meeting. Other dilemmas can be gut-wrenching. Steve introduced the students to a hierarchy of four stages of ethical decision-making:

  • Stage 1: What action benefits me most? (Egoism)
  • Stage 2: What actions would my friends or group members think I should do? (Social Group Relativism)
  • Stage 3: What action would produce the greatest amount of good and the least amount of harm? (Utilitarian)
  • Stage 4: What action best respects the rights and dignity of each person? (Rights)

dsc_0046The First Wave Hip Hop Theater then opened the event artistically with dramatizations of three ethical dilemmas that teens might have to face: what to do when the friend who drove you to a party gets drunk; what to make of a famous athlete’s protest during the national anthem; and how to talk with a friend about a decision he has made. First Wave is a cutting-edge, multicultural, artistic program for UW-Madison students. It was the first university scholarship program in the country centered on the spoken word and hip-hop culture. The actors portrayed the dilemmas with humor and insight, and the moderator (a First Wave alumnus who now teaches in the Verona schools) invited audience participation between acts.

The students then participated in three consecutive breakout sessions in which they considered an ethical dilemma and analyzed it according to the stages of ethical decision-making. The scenarios focused on drunk-driving, affirmative action and transgender locker rooms. Designed by Edgewood College Business Ethics Professor Denis Collins and others, the breakout sessions were led by Rotarians with assistance from Edgewood College students, all of whom had been trained in a half-day session at Edgewood College before the symposium. With 18-20 students in each breakout, the facilitators led the students through a series of small-group discussions in which they deliberated about what action would reflect each level, or stage, of decision-making. The goal was to push students toward higher-level thinking.

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I found the students in the three groups that my team facilitated to be open-minded and thoughtful. They were generally familiar with the issues in the three scenarios, at least through the news. Whether they were personally connected with an issue or not, they found the discussion to be eye-opening. For example, one small-town student said that although he had heard about the transgender issue, he had never talked with anyone about it.  A student from Shabazz City High School responded that in her school there are many transgender students, and anyone may use any restroom or locker room. She added that the discussion at the Ethics Symposium helped her understand why the issue, which she said is “normalized” in her school, is an emotional one for others.

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Rotary President Michele McGrath applied her impressive skill in communicating with teens by asking how many wanted to be a CEO of a company or organization in a few years, how many want to lead impactful change in their community, and how many want to lead impactful change in the world. She got an enthusiastic response to all three questions. She explained they can do that through Rotary.

The impact of the day may have been best articulated by the students themselves at lunchtime. Almost 40 of them responded when Steve Johannsen asked what they thought about the experience. Here are some of the things they said:

  • Even though people disagreed, I appreciated that people could talk and be respected.
  • Listening to other people’s opinions made me more open-minded.
  • It’s not OK to isolate someone for being different.
  • If you feel comfortable in school, then you can’t learn.
  • I gained some ideas for our upcoming Awareness Day at school this spring.
  • It was cool how many people think outside the box, not just levels 1, 2 and 3.
  • It helped me understand other schools, and not just the stereotypes about schools.
  • I was shocked by how many people were not mad at each other about their opinions.
  • I was surprised by how easy the ethical framework was to use after the first time.
  • It was good to talk with students about topics I don’t even talk to adults about.
  • I usually don’t share my opinions with people I don’t know. I was comfortable doing that here.
  • I was surprised how insightful and deeply thoughtful people were even though we’re “just teenagers.”
  • As an openly transgender student, I was happy to see how accepting people were of me.
  • I recognized that there was no single right or wrong answer in some issues.
  • I was impressed by how open people were to listening to others. It makes me optimistic and hopeful as we get ready to become the leaders of this nation.

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