MarsigliaInstituteGraduation-2

Students of the Nancy M. Marsiglia Institute of Justice discuss the Constitution and its amendments with a panel of judges.

It's been a contentious few years in state and national politics, and no one expects things to get better any time soon. Seems everyone wishes we could get back to some level of civil discourse, but is anyone actually doing anything to make that happen?

Actually, yes, someone is.

This past September, about two dozen citizens comprised the first class of the Nancy M. Marsiglia Institute of Justice, a project of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana and Loyola Law School. The institute holds Thursday evening classes every fall and spring semester. Each class is a deep dive into the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, starting with the Founding Fathers' debates (including "The Federalist Papers").

This is no mere legal history course. The point of the classes is to get citizens with opposing viewpoints to debate — civilly — key provisions of the Constitution. I was privileged to co-present the class on the First Amendment with local attorney Scott Sternberg, whose media clients include The New Orleans Advocate and Gambit.

Members of that first class were a diverse group of engaged citizens who tackled each new topic with a passion that would have made the Founding Fathers proud. Their "graduation" in November required individual presentations to a three-judge panel on a variety of hot-button constitutional topics. The judges posed tough questions, but all three came away impressed.

As I watched the graduates make their presentations, I couldn't help thinking how proud Nancy Marsiglia, the namesake of the institute, would have been at that moment. Nancy, who co-owned Gambit with my wife Margo and me for nearly five years, conceived the institute over lunch one day about two years ago with about a dozen other women activists.

They were tired of the political noise that passes for discourse these days, so they recruited Martha Lemoine of the Center for Civic Education to teach them the Constitution (over lunches, of course). When Nancy died in May 2017, her friends and family agreed the institute should bear her name. I'm proud to serve on its advisory committee.

"Respect for civil discourse was a core belief for Nancy," said United Way of Southeast Louisiana Executive Vice President Charmaine Caccioppi, an institute board member. "I could think of no greater way to honor her extraordinary life than to name this remarkable institute after her."

I had many political discussions with Nancy over the years. She both inspired and challenged me to think and write about politics in new and deeper ways.

Nancy also was a great friend. I would visit her every Dec. 24 — her birthday — and after presenting her with a gift, we would discuss the burning issues of the day. I miss those visits and those conversations more than I can say, but as I watched the first graduates of the Marsiglia Institute presenting their arguments about America's greatest living document, it occurred to me that Nancy has given all of us a gift that lives on, much like the Constitution itself.

Happy Birthday, Nancy — and thank you for such a wonderful gift.

For more information or to apply to the Nancy M. Marsiglia Institute for Justice, email charmainec@unitedwaysela.org or call (504) 827-6823.