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MARL seminar challenges participants to talk about difficult topics

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 01/02/2013 3:31 PM

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It was somewhere after 1 p.m. Dec. 14 that I learned of another school shooting. I and four of my Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership classmates were on our way home from Marshall. Three of the four had smartphones and they saw the news, sharing it with the group.

"If children can't be safe in school, where are they safe?" one asked.

It was only 24 hours earlier that I had discussed gun control in an exercise during my second seminar of MARL Class 7. We met in Marshall Dec. 12-14 and were joined on Dec. 13 by our counterparts from South Dakota who are enrolled in South Dakota Agricultural and Rural Leadership. Together, the 60 of us learned from internationally known speaker Michael Brandwein.

Brandwein spent more than five hours working with us and had us participate in several exercises, including one where we filled out a sheet marking where we stood on certain issues. The issues included the death penalty, hunting animals for sport, marriage between people of the same gender and owning guns.

After we circled how we felt, we were asked to find someone we didn't know in the room and discuss the issue that we disagree upon the most. This wasn't just any discussion, though. First, we needed to listen to the other person and repeat back what they said. Unless this was done to that person's satisfaction, the conversation couldn't advance.

I and my discussion partner from South Dakota found the greatest difference in this statement, "Citizens should be able to own guns without more government controls." He argued that's true. It's his Second Amendment right to own a gun.

It is your right, I said, but we have to do something to stop the senseless killing of children. I mentioned the teens gunned down in Little Falls, the two-year-old killed by his four-year-old brother in the Cities and the Rochester teen shot by her grandfather as she tried to enter their home.

Then the next day, 20 innocent children were massacred in their school.

My youngest daughter is 6. I thought of how she cried on her last day of kindergarten because she missed her teacher already. I thought of how easy it would be to walk into my children's school through an open door and about the windows that frame the cafeteria, where they all gather in the morning.

I cannot think about Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., without tears stinging my eyes and feeling sick to my stomach.

What can we do as agricultural and rural leaders to stop the slaying of our children?

I don't know, but I do know that we need to start the conversation. Some say that having teachers carry concealed weapons is the answer. Others say we need to put God back in our schools. Others say we need to ban automatic weapons.

Let's talk. As a nation, we should use the skills Brandwein tried to teach us in Marshall: Talk about our differences as if they are normal and natural and be respectful and tolerant of others' views.

The most important thing is that we do something. We cannot continue to allow mass tragedies like the massacre in Newtown to go on happening while wringing our hands and praying that it doesn't come to our town or our school.

"If children can't be safe in school, where are they safe?"