Category Archives: Ethics Symposium

Fostering Ethical Decision Making

–submitted by Ben Hebebrand; photos by John Bonsett-Veal and Mike Wenzel

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Almost 250 11th grade students from 20 different Madison area high schools met for the 16th annual Rotary Club of Madison Ethics Symposium on Friday, Feb. 19 at Monona Terrace in Madison, affirming at the culminating luncheon the need not just for adolescents but all of us to “think all the way through decisions.” This kind of thinking, the students expressed, could be enhanced by discussing dilemmas with others including those whom we do not know and those who are different than us.

“Discussing issues with others can broaden your viewpoint,” said Katie Feller of La Follette High School. “It’s interesting to see how people can change their view (by thinking and talking it through),” added Liz Dominguez of Marshall High School.

DSC_0012The five-hour symposium kicked off with real-life reminders that ethical decisions abound throughout history and contemporary life. Steve Johannsen, the 2016 Rotary Ethics Symposium Chair, reminded students that the day was a significant date in history as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, authorizing the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. “It is a decision that is still being discussed today,” he said, leaving “tacit” the current political dialogue on the Syrian refugee crisis and immigration.

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It was a group of UW students by name of “First Wave Hip Hop Theater” that in the opening session framed and underscored the importance of ethics by its artistic representations of the Holocaust, slavery (particularly vivid  and thought-provoking through a simulation of a public whipping of a slave), police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement with particular reference to the Madison protests in the wake of the March 5, 2015, police shooting of 19-year-old Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr. First Wave is comprised of a diverse group of UW students, all of whom are part of the first university scholarship program in the U.S. centered on the spoken word and hip-hop culture. The group’s performance helped the assembled 11th grade students indeed grasp how ethics not only shape individual lives but instead entire cultures and societies.

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In three separate breakout sessions of about 20 students each, the high school students with the aid of a Rotary facilitator discussed the ethical implications of adolescent alcohol use and the potential for drunk driving, affirmative action directed toward youth of color, and the use of a locker room by a transgender student  who has not had gender reassignment surgery. Many of the students remarked not only how timely these topics were, but also incredibly important for them to discuss.

The three sessions not only provided rich dialogue among the high school students, but also introduced them to a hierarchy of moral and ethical thinking. Students initially were challenged to record their gut decision, and subsequently made decisions through the lens of “egoism” (What Action Will Benefit Me the Most?); “social group relativism” (What Action Do My Friends or Group Members Think I should Do?); Utilitarianism (What Action Would Produce the Greatest Amount of Good and the Least Amount of Harm?); and the “Right Approach” (What Action Will Best Respect the Rights and Dignity of Each Person?).

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Photo 1: Denis Collins & Melanie Ramey; Photo 2: Mike Casey and Rotary District Governor Mary Van Hout; Photo 3: Karen Christianson & Ben Hebebrand

“We want the students to think about these stages. Our goal is to lead them toward the Rights Approach,” said Denis Collins, who, as a Business Ethics Professor at Edgewood College, has lent his expertise to the symposium since its inception. “Creating a forum and a framework in a safe setting with new acquaintances,” is what defines the essence of the symposium, according to Johannsen. Affirming the sense of safety was a student speaker who proclaimed that “sometimes, but not today, our opinions get discounted.”

The sense of safety is no accident. All Rotarian facilitators underwent a five-hour training session, stressing ground rules best summarized by the mandate that participants need to “treat every single person with complete and unconditional respect.” The training for the facilitators included a presentation by local psychologist Dr. David Lee on “LGBTQ Discussion on Transgender and Identity Issues.”

The symposium also offered accompanying teachers and principals the opportunity to ponder possibilities to introduce further outlets for students to discuss ethical dilemmas. Rotarian Bob Shumaker pointed out that often it is the kids who bring back to their schools the need and desire for further ethics education. “Belleville High School kids created an Ethics program,” he said. “The kids created and gave their teachers ethical dilemmas relating to student discipline and assessment of student work.”

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Education, including learning about an ethical framework for decision-making, is of course enlightening. Thomas Mulholland of East High School summed it up this way: “Apathy is dangerous; ignorance is more dangerous.” Equally uplifting was an impromptu remark by a student during the public comment session that “after today, we can still have faith in humanity.”

The 15th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium Expands Students’ Bandwidth for Ethical Decision Making!

–submitted by Maggie Peterman; photos by Donna Beestman and John Bonsett-Veal

Stacy Nemeth, Chair of 2015 Ethics Symposium Committee

Stacy Nemeth, Chair of 2015 Ethics Symposium Committee

More than 200 students from 18 Dane County high schools were challenged to examine the decisions they make every day in a new way Friday, February 27, at the 15th annual Rotary Ethics Symposium at Monona Terrace.

With dramatic performances on edgy teenage issues – teenage pregnancy and a father confronting his adolescent son about drug use – members of the UW-Madison First Wave Hip Hop Theater, a cosmopolitan multicultural artistic program, set the stage for high school students.

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And First Wave led the students through the R-O-T-A-R-Y Framework for Ethical Decision Making, which is a six-step process of thinking through a dilemma and making a decision.

Then the high schoolers went to work. They were confronted with two dilemmas: Hostile Messages and an Affirmative Action Proposal.

“It was fun to be able to discuss realistic problems,” said Desmond Lawrence, 17, a junior at Madison’s Memorial High School, following the workshop. “I like that they (Rotarians) want us to reach out to our own high schools to get these (workshops) going.”

Rotary members along with participants from Rotaract clubs at UW-Madison and Edgewood College led the workshops. Students learned the ground rules, which emphasized: “Treat every single person in the room with complete and unconditional respect.”

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“I liked that whatever you had to say, you were going to be respected,” noted a student from Belleville High School. “It was nice to see that my friends had a serious side.”

“The coolest thing of all,” said a student from Monona Grove High School, “someone from my school and I, we had different opinions and we still like each other.”

The ROTARY Framework for Ethical Decision Making is as follows:

R = Recognize an ethical issue
O = Obtain information about the situation and others’ interests and perceptions
T = Test alternative actions from various perspectives
A= Act consistently with your best judgment
R = Reflect on your decision after acting
Y = Yield to your ethical judgments

Students dispersed into workshops to learn the practical application of the Rotary Framework. The sessions were designed to group together students from a variety of high schools.

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“Once students were in the smaller groups, they were willing to delve into the issues,” said Sophie Chadli, 17, a senior at Madison’s Shabazz High School.

At first, many participants felt isolated. They later discovered a new-found freedom as they listened to each other and even gained the confidence to rethink their stand.

“When we were doing the panel on affirmative action, others’ opinions changed mine about certain things,” said Dominique Taylor, 16, a junior at Middleton’s Clark Street Community School. “Me and some other students want to inform our teachers about the process so we can start training and recommend (the Ethics Symposium) to other students.”

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It was a new learning experience, most students agreed.

“I really enjoyed today,” said a student from Madison’s East High School. “It’s something that will stick with me. It’s a tradition that will keep on giving. I met lots of new people.”

The students’ willingness and enthusiasm to embrace a new experience impressed Rotary leaders.

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Sarah Gempeler, 20, a junior at Edgewood College and a Rotaract member, grew up in Monroe, a south-central Wisconsin city of about 45,000 residents.

“It’s great to see how passionate these kids are about (relevant) issues,” Gempler said. “I grew up in a town where there wasn’t much diversity in our high school.”

A first-time volunteer for the symposium, Janet Piraino, a Rotary member and district director for a Wisconsin representative, praised the next generation of Wisconsin voters.

“This is my first time and I’m blown away by their ability to stand their ground,” she said. “There were students of color on both sides of an issue that spoke very passionately for their position. One African American girl spoke in opposition to affirmative action because she felt it didn’t honor equality.”

Discussions on controversial topics showed that students are listening and collecting information as they go about their daily lives, said Steve Johannsen, a Rotary member and Madison business advisor.

“The (affirmative action) statistics were eye-opening for all the students,” Johannsen said. “It gave them a much better feel for real community issues. The conversations were unbelievably insightful and respectful.”

Rotary leaders are willing to assist high schools students and faculty with developing an “Ethics in Action” project at their schools, said Stacy Nemeth, Chair, 2015 Rotary Ethics Symposium.

Monona Grove High School Principal Paul Brost led a discussion with judicious students from his 925-student school. Students were enthusiastic about working with trained facilitators – Rotaract students and Rotary leaders – to deliver the project to Monona Grove.

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“People need help learning about ethical decisions, but we need someone to help facilitate our conversations,” noted a Monona Grove student who voted in favor of assistance from Rotaract students. “We’re too used to just listening and taking notes. We need a role model to help us get going.”

Throughout the discussion, Brost encouraged students to take a leadership role.

“I’m willing to preload the idea at a staff meeting,” he offered. “If it’s student-led, it’s up to you to take the lead and find a coach or a teacher willing to make it work. It needs to be bite-sized and meaningful.

“Part of our goal in school is to get kids to different leadership opportunities,” added Brost who has attended the conference 13 years. “Students always find this very worthwhile. It has high value for us.”

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Rotary member, Donna Beestman, is a veteran participant at the Ethics Symposium. She praises students and school leaders for their dedication and applauds the annual work of the more than 50 Rotaract and Rotary volunteers.

“It’s like students go through a transformation in the course of four hours,” she said.

2014 Rotary Ethics Symposium – Ethical Decision-Making in Action!

–submitted by Kathryne McGowan; photo credit to John Bonsett-Veal, Pete Christianson and Valerie Johnson

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From left: Dora Zuniga, John Bonsett-Veal, Karen Christianson & Rob Stroud

We did it again!  The Rotary Framework for Ethical Decision-Making has been shared and used by over 200 high school students from 19 schools in Dane County.  The 14th annual Rotary Ethics Symposium occurred on Friday, February 14, 2014.  After a year of planning, numerous committee meetings and intensive work on the curriculum and facilitation process, over 60 Rotarians and Rotaract volunteers led discussions on ethical dilemmas, hearing from the students about what they would do if they were part of the scenario and why.

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As the students gathered, there was the typical chatter about their morning, their friends, a homework assignment and occasionally a “Do you know what this is?” or “Do you know what is going to happen today?”  These inquiries were generally met with shoulder shrugs, or an “I don’t know.” The mood of the room was anticipatory, a little nervousness and maybe some expectation that this would be boring.

DSC_0033 (2)After a brief welcome by our chair Robyn Kitson (pictured at left), the opening session began.  A lone voice recited a poem, then a second voice, a third and a multitude of voices. A simple, yet powerful poem, should the protagonist take the life of someone who has attempted to harm him and others?  This began the discussions of the day.  Our keynote performers, First Wave Hip Hop Theater, sculpted their presentation to highlight ethical situations from violence, to use of language, to our impressions of others.  The “wow” of their thought-provoking performance was just the beginning of a day of exploring new ideas.  This was not going to be a boring day.

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First Wave (pictured above) introduced the ROTARY Framework for Ethical Decision-Making:

R = Recognize an ethical issue
O = Obtain information about the situation and others’ interests and perceptions
T = Test alternative actions from various perspectives
A = Act consistently with your best judgment
R = Reflect on your decision after acting
Y = Yield to your ethical judgments

The students went to sessions where the ROTARY framework was put to the test with two very different ethical dilemmas: the implications of keeping a promise to a friend who is being bullied via social networking; and, the implications of public policy for the homeless.  The students showed us that we should be very hopeful for our future.  The students readily embraced the framework and in many cases, naturally used the framework to approach the ethical dilemma.

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At the final sessions the students worked with others from their school to identify an ethical issue within their school, and to develop a plan of how to approach the problem. The students chose big issues — bullying, diversity, inappropriate use of social media were some of the topics. We are looking forward to hearing back from the students about the outcomes of applying the framework in their school with their chosen special projects implemented post event.

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The day concluded with an interactive lunch attended by many Rotarians that allowed the student to share their impressions from the day. Gone was the nervousness, fear of boredom and anticipation of the morning, replaced with confidence and understanding.  Student after student discussed their belief that they have found a way to keep the discussion going and continue as leaders in their school.

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Photo 1: Al Ripp & Jamie Weissburg; Photo 2: Kathryne McGowan & Nelson Cummings; Photo 3: Cheryl Wittke, Paul Karch, Mike Wenzel & Barb Siehr

This signature event of the Rotary Club of Madison continues to grow and develop the future thought leaders of our community.  If you had the opportunity to participate, this year we welcome your comments and if you’ve not yet participated in this event we encourage you to sign up for the Ethics Symposium Committee for 2014-15 and join us next year.

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(The Rotary Ethics Symposium is generously underwritten by Madison Rotary Foundation.)