Loudon County resident Melaney Tagg was horrified by the scene unfolding before her.
Tagg, who serves as president of the stake Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is no stranger to listening to others speak with spirit and conviction. But what she witnessed when her local Loudon County school board abruptly ended public comment during a crowded meeting felt more like chaos.
Some attendees threw objects nearby, others shouted profanities and insults while others demanded the exits, trying to escape the scene unfolding in this quiet Virginia suburb.
Earlier that year, the Commonwealth of Virginia required school boards to adopt transgender protection policies before the 2021 school year. In Loudon County – where tensions were already high over COVID masking policies -19, critical race theory and other polarizing issues – proposed protection policies have become a tipping point. Hundreds of attendees showed up at the school board meeting to voice their support or opposition to the school board’s proposed policy 8040, which outlined the rights of transgender and gender-wide students.
Comments were limited to 60 seconds and were not expected to elicit any reaction from the crowd – rules that school board members introduced after having to interrupt the meeting once already due to unruly behavior. After the 51st commentary was met with loud applause from participants against Policy 8040, the school board permanently ended the commentary portion and asked participants to leave. Many refused to do so. Some became aggressive towards other participants and others resisted arrest. They had come ready to fight.
Tagg felt compelled to apply her problem-solving and communication skills to try to bring the two sides of the polarizing issue together. She has what she calls “the gift of gossip” and a Rolodex full of people willing and eager to take her calls.
One such person was his friend and co-religionist Chris Stevenson who leads the Loudoun County Community Levee Association. Tagg, Stevenson and their friend Alice Parkin decided to leverage the CLA to try to bring together the so-called religious right and LGBTQ+ communities and draft revisions to Policy 8040 to better address the concerns of every parent and student. of the district. They looked to the 2015 “Utah Compromise” as a template for what they hoped to accomplish. The legislation offered anti-discrimination protections for gay people in Utah and religious freedom protections for faith-based organizations, and CLA members were confident a similar compromise could be reached in Loudoun County.
The time was approaching when the school board would vote to adopt 8040, so Tagg and the CLA needed to act quickly. They scheduled a meeting and invited representatives from Equality Loudoun as well as some of the school board meeting attendees who had voiced their opposition to 8040. They soon learned that some of the latter group’s names were problematic for Equality members. . Loudoun, who were afraid of falling into an ambush.
So Tagg and his team decided to hold two meetings with the two separate factions. Their encounter with Equality Loudoun helped Equality members realize that the CLA was truly a non-partisan and non-religious entity, and that Tagg, Stevenson, and Parkin could be trusted to create an atmosphere conducive to honest and productive. When meeting with opponents of 8040, however, CLA members learned that for the participants they had invited, the issue was not really religious freedom. In order to best follow Utah’s Compromise Plan, they decided to identify and invite attendees concerned about the religious freedom implications of 8040.
They found three such attendees, all leaders from various congregations, and invited them to join a second meeting with three Equality representatives who were now willing to meet with the larger group.
In preparation, Tagg and his team sought the advice of human behavior experts to better understand how to bring opposing parties to a place of trust. “We knew the only way to move forward in a conciliatory way was for people to trust each other,” she says.
Angela Smith Knoll agreed to represent the traditional religious perspective at the meeting. She had raised her children in Loudoun County, had a deep love for the school district and the opportunities it provided for her children, and feared that a poorly implemented 8040 policy would prevent parents, especially religious parents to influence the lives of their children. education. She worried that the CLA meeting might mimic the infamous school board meeting and was mentally prepared for more rancor and debate.
While some of the fears Equality Loudoun President and COO Cris Candice Tuck had previously expressed were allayed by his first encounter with CLA, he and his officers still had some apprehension as they walked into a conference room. with religious representatives. They were ready to be on the defensive.
Both Knoll and Tuck realized that the current speech pattern did not serve their interests, nor those of the students in the school district. And Knoll and Tuck understood that the situation required honest conversations, not sound bites and rants.
At the start of the meeting, Tagg surprised everyone by explaining that they might not even be discussing 8040 that day. The main purpose of the meeting, she said, was to build trust among the participants.
They began with what Tagg describes as “silly trust exercises” that highlighted participants’ ability to cooperate productively. At the end of the exercises, the participants laughed together and shared their common experiences.
Next, Tagg asked if everyone felt there was enough confidence in the room to discuss 8040. The answer was a unanimous yes. Tagg issued a mission – participants had to listen to what other people were saying about why they supported or opposed the policy, and identify what commonalities they had with those statements.
Tuck was surprised to learn that Knoll and other religious liberty advocates understood and did not oppose the need for facility access for transgender students. Knoll was moved by the stories of many gay, transgender and transgender students trying to overcome their daily challenges at school and at home.
By the end of their three hours together, the group had reached consensus on nearly all 8040 policy points. Working from a document shared from home, they drafted 10 policy suggestions to send to the school board before their vote. Participants at the meeting unanimously agreed to submit eight of these suggestions along with a letter explaining the process they had used to draft the suggestions. “Can we say what a profound experience this has been for us. We strongly believe that these methods of trust and reconciliation could be used in a variety of ways on a whole range of issues,” it reads.
Soon, school board members began calling, asking how and why CLA had brought the two parties together. “Wish we had done that,” a school board member reportedly wrote in an email.
The school board presented two of the policy suggestions at its meeting and one of the suggestions, which required all locker rooms and bathrooms to be upgraded to provide privacy, was passed as an amendment to 8040.
But the real success, according to Tagg, was the hugs shared between the reunion attendees at the end of their three hours together and their continued friendship. Knoll says she was surprised by the warm feelings she felt towards everyone else in the meeting at the end of the day.
“It was an unexpected gift,” she says. “When you meet as individuals, you become allies. You work together, not against each other. Tuck reports that the meeting was successful in helping each participant find common ground. “Deep down, everyone cared about the well-being of the children,” he says. “When we really understood the problem, we had a lot in common.”
Tagg and the CLA are under no illusions that they’ve solved all of the county’s problems in a few weeks of meetings. And the Loudon region remains a hotbed of contention. Much work remains to be done, and this work will be difficult. But now they have proof of concept.
So says retired Justice Tom Griffith, who recently made news as a Republican-appointed justice who presented Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing in the Supreme Court. Griffith, another Loudon County resident and Latter-day Saint, watched in awe as Tagg and his team dig in and do the necessary work the Constitution requires.
“Compromising in the name of unity is hard work,” says Griffith. “You must give up some things that are dear to you for the good of another, hoping that they will do the same for you. But that is what the Constitution requires. The Constitution will fail if we are not willing to compromise in the name of unity.
“We have to be willing to listen to each other. If we don’t, we’re doing ourselves and our children a huge disservice,” Tuck says. “If we don’t grow as people, we really have ceased to live.
Tagg and CLA members are eager to implement their system of building trust, conversation and compromise wherever it may be needed. “I hope we find ways to insert ourselves into local issues,” Tagg says. “We want opposing parties to see that there is a human middle ground.”