From the war in Iraq to the escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, its easy to see the world in black and white.

However, a small organization nestled within West Virginia Universitys Knapp Hall wants to change all of that.

Members of the Nova Institute see the world in shades of gray.

The purpose of public discussion is not simply to speak and expect that others will listen to you,said Roger Lohmann, director.Its more important to listen to others and hear what they have to say, to try to understand why they feel the way they do.

The Nova Institute is a collaborative effort among faculty in WVU s divisions of Social Work, Public Administration and Sociology/Anthropology in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

The institute is 2 years old, although its roots date to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Lohmann, a professor of social work, began to infuse deliberation and dialogue assignments into his graduate class in an attempt to show his students that theres a better way to resolve differences than resorting to violence.

Its better to talk with the people you disagree with than to bomb their buildings,he said.Things have continued to evolve since then.

The Nova Institutes ideals include encouraging citizen civic engagement and participation in the community to ensure a fuller democracy.

Voting is just a very small facet of democracy,said Dolly Ford, program coordinator.In fact, its very limiting. On Election Day, all you do is check yes or no. Its this part of democracy (civic engagement) that should occur along the way in order that people feel empowered and informed to vote thats eroding, and thats scary.

The Nova Institutes main goals include expanding nonprofit offerings, building a program in public deliberation and citizenship, working to sustain dialogue and mediation through individuals and building a coordinated service learning program.

Since its inception, the faculty members involved have been hard at work creating a climate of friendly conversation and acceptance of other ideas.

The Nova Institute has brought prominent speakers to the WVU campus, including former U.S. diplomat Harold Saunders and award-winning social issues filmmaker Liz Canner. It has kept students engaged through a Web-based dialogue calledDemocracy Laband has held public discussion sessions on topics such asAmerica at Warto bring various groups together to discuss and appreciate different points of view.

Democracy Labis a program operated out of Lock Haven University; through the Nova Institute, WVU is a partnering institution. Those enrolled in Social Work 105 had the opportunity to participate in online dialogue groups for 10 weeks on the assigned topicracial and ethnic tensionswith students from across the nation. To prepare for the dialogues, students were supplied with material gathered by The National Issues Forum, affiliated with the Kettering Foundation.

The student response to the assignment was overwhelming.

We were complimented as being forerunners in this dialogue,Ford said.

In June, Ford and six students traveled to Northern Ireland to study peace and reconciliation in the context of the conflict between the nations Catholics and Protestants.

They met with former IRA members, ex-British military members who are now a part of the peace process, victim and survivor groups and the Institute on Conflict Research, a center that focuses exclusively on the countrys troubles. And because the Nova Institute centers on diversity, they made sure to get both sides of the story.

We had a nice balance of both the Protestant and Catholic perspective,Ford said.

The trip, made possible through WVU s partnership with the nonprofit, Pittsburgh-based organization Amizade, was so successful that Ford hopes to offer the trip on an annual basis.

The Nova Institute also helped bring citywide, public discussions to reality by facilitating dialogue and giving citizens the space and support they need to get the conversation started. In March, it began an ongoing series of public forums to give the Muslim and Jewish communities in Morgantown an outlet for their voices and also held two separate dialogues onAmerica at War.

More than 57 people attended the latter dialogue, where they broke off into discussion tableswith particular areas of focus. There were many different opinions and beliefs all in the same room, and everybody ended up discovering that things arent always what they seem.

They were put in a room together, and they were pleasantly surprised,Ford said.

So whats next for the Nova Institute?

The newborn organization has just started taking its baby steps into what it could mean for WVU . One of its main objectives is to create a student organization on campus to get more involved.

When it fizzles, its always the same kinds of things. People have got assignments, people have projects coming up and they think,Oh, I dont have time to work on this right now,Lohmann said.Its basically just the student version of this general problem of citizen un-involvement.

However, as frustrating as it can be, Ford just knows that students want to talk.

I used to think this was a case of apathy, but afterDemocracy Labin 105, I am more convinced than ever that if given the chance, these students are just itching to talk about the uncomfortable issues that used to be raised in college classrooms but arent anymore,she said.

Nova Institute on the Net: