Photographer brings discussion of peace to Civil Discourse Symposium


GVL / Annabelle Robinson

Omari Seaberry and Katherine Rauhut, Staff Writers

On Nov. 9, Grand Valley State University hosted its 9th annual Civil Discourse Symposium. The symposium was titled “Sharing Our Stories: Moving from Division to Hope” and was part of the Talking Together series. This series is a dialogue initiative aimed at interrupting polarization and investing in the principles of civil discourse and respectful conversation.

This three-day event featured the work of John Noltner, an eminent photographer and storyteller, to showcase material from a multimedia project titled “Lessons on the Road to Peace” as well as conversations with the GVSU community.

Highlights of the symposium included a photography exhibit, a photography studio experience for GVSU community members and a studio workshop with Seeds of Promise, a community organization partner of the Center for this special event. The keynote address by Noltner held on Wednesday was the first Civil Discourse Symposium held in person since the COVID-19 shutdown, as well as the first to span multiple days, and the first in the GVSU Talking Together series.

Provost and Executive Vice President for the Division of Academic Affairs, Fatma Mili started the event with opening remarks. Her speech pertained to the transformational aspects of civil discourse and the important roles of dialogue in our country stating that this form of communication “touches both our hearts and our minds.” 

Mili expanded on this idea and paraphrased author Parker Palmer’s words from his book “Healing the Heart of a Democracy” which expressed the tensions that arise with disagreements and how best to address them. 

“When we have tension between the beliefs of individuals, our instinct is to rush and relieve the tension rather than holding it and seeing it for what it is as a source of energy and creativity,” Mili said. “When we rush and eliminate those tensions, we lose the opportunity to learn something and the opportunity to stretch our capacity, hearts, and minds.”

Following Mili’s remarks, Noltner was then introduced by Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse Jeff Kelly Lowenstein. During Noltner’s address, he presented a public art exhibit of his latest project, “A Piece of My Mind.” The exhibit featured portraits and personal stories of people with diverse backgrounds surrounding questions of what peace means to them.

One of the central questions for the speakers and attendees of the symposium was “What is one hope you have for our country in these divided times?” Noltner’s exhibit helped to tie into this idea as GVSU students and faculty proposed their own answers and thoughts to the question throughout the event.

The symposium’s focal question was posed to the GVSU community, and the responses were displayed in a seven-minute-long compilation shown at the keynote address. The responses, along with black-and-white headshots of the unnamed responders from the photography studio experience, provided a profound insight into the values of the GVSU community.

About 60 people from the GVSU community were featured in the video, many of whom said that open, amiable conversation is key to working out problems.

Noltner’s idea for this project stemmed from his frustration with polarization. During the recession in 2008, Noltner said he had time to work on this project and worked to make questions, conduct interviews and search for how to obtain peace. 

“I started playing with the idea of peace,” Noltner said. “We started building these conversations and interviews around the question, ‘What does peace mean to you?’ On the surface, that’s a really simple question, but it quickly gets to the core of who we are as human beings and what we want for society.” 

Over the past two years, he and his wife Karen drove 40,000 miles across the country interviewing and photographing hundreds of people from multiple walks of life. Noltner realized that through his process of freelance photography and travel projects in the United States and around the world he has found beauty in the most unexpected places. 

By recognizing both challenges and beauty in society, Noltner expressed that there can be a path to a brighter future. 

“That doesn’t mean that we ignore the challenges of the world,” Noltner said. “It is important that we address them honestly and directly, but I also have learned that it is imperative that we approach those challenges with the grace, hope and belief that something better is possible.” 

A Q&A and table discussion followed the keynote address as some students and faculty shared their questions, thoughts and hopes for the future discourse of our country. These conversations were facilitated by Seeds of Promise volunteers who made sure that people were being courteous and participating in productive dialogue.

Additionally, Noltner delves deeper into human connection and the importance of listening and understanding in his book titled “Portraits of Peace: Searching for Hope in a Divided America.” More details on Noltner and his project can also be found on his website.