by Madeline Burdine
Along with her full-time job serving as an associate professor and the director of the communication studies concentration within Mississippi State University’s Department of Communication, Dr. Melanie Loehwing is also using the Civic Life Laboratory (CLL) to build capacity within communities to have strong, respectful, and productive conversations that include all members of the community.
“The thing that really is important to me is equipping folks who feel like they have less of a voice in our society to participate more fully and to be recognized for the contributions that they’re making,” said Loehwing.
Her work in the CLL at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) is beginning the process of helping others participate in society since the lab’s start in the summer of 2018.
Loehwing and co-founder Dr. Brian Shoup, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, formed an interdisciplinary team of researchers and students who are concerned with topics such as political deliberation, polarization, and divisions within communities in hopes of incorporating research-based interventions to improve conditions that continue dividing communities.
The first year of the CLL consisted of the use of an educational tool called Rebuilding Mainstreet, which takes the form of a simulation board game designed to teach people how to deliberate productively on issues of common concern within their communities. Groups of students were brought together to play the board game in order to develop those skills for themselves, while also providing Loehwing and her colleagues the opportunity to study how deliberation happens in real-world settings. Arising obstacles were observed by researchers as well as innovative solutions students created when figuring out how to deliberate with other players despite opposing interests.
What began as an educational board game experiment inside the CLL is now branching out into working with community partners in hopes of facilitating those community conversations. An example of this partnership exists between the CLL and the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, in which students are invited to participate in a series of student deliberative forums involving topics that concern the student population. The discussions are moderated by the CLL, allowing students to learn from peer perspectives while having the opportunity for their voices to be heard.
In addition to its founders, the CLL is composed of undergraduate researchers, one being Georgiana Swan, a Provost Scholar majoring in political science and psychology.
“Dr. Shoup and Dr. Loehwing have been great mentors for me in a lot of different avenues,” said Swan. “The CLL has given me really great experience.”
The CLL is currently in the process of seeking external funding in order to hold focus groups in other types of communities throughout Mississippi’s varying demographic landscape. The future of the CLL hopes to hold a year-long series of focus groups to talk about the role that rural and urban identities play in contributing to or potentially working to solve political polarization.
“There are many conversations happening right now at a national level right now that suggests that rural and urban communities are completely divided,” said Loehwing, “but one of the things we’ve noticed is that a lot of the scholarship on that topic tends to theorize using rural communities in the Midwest. Rural communities in the deep South look very different, so we would like to add to the store of knowledge on the role of rurality and the way that it influences political polarization by bringing Mississippi to the attention of this larger research community.”
Prior to her time in the CLL, Loehwing was a first-generation college student who fell in love with the study of rhetoric, knowing it to be the subject she wanted to think, write, and teach. With encouragement from outstanding mentors, she completed her Ph.D. in 2011 at Indiana University. In 2013, she made the move to Mississippi State University.
Loehwing’s research has been recognized with the Stephen E. Lucas Debut Publication Award from the National Communication Association and the Review of Politics Award from the Midwest Political Science Association. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and edited volumes, including the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Philosophy & Rhetoric, and Enculturation. She is also the author of Homeless Advocacy and the Rhetorical Construction of the Civic Home (Penn State University Press) and a Research Fellow at the SSRC.