Can talking work?

Author’s Note: I want to be clear that nothing in this blog is meant to imply that anyone (liberal or conservative) should feel forced to participate in the conversations that I propose here. It is up to each person and organization to decide if these types of conversations are appropriate for their cause, and they should consider what they will do to create an expectation of respect for and from all participants. This decision should be made only after organizations have conversations with their members and/or those in the communities they serve.

I recently watched President Barack Obama's panel with young leaders in Chicago. It was a 90-minute discussion with a tone of hope that has been missing from the news lately (if you haven't, watch it now).

When I said in 2004 that there were no red states or blue states, they're the United States of America, that was an aspirational comment. But I think it's ― and it's one thing... that I still believe [you see] when you talk to individuals one-on-one — there's a lot more that people have in common than divides them.

I, feeling inspired, volunteered to write my first YNPN-TC blog on an issue I've been thinking about a lot since the election: the need for people of different political ideologies to talk with each other and the role that nonprofits can play in purposely making spaces for these conversations. I was pretty nervous to write it given today’s heated political climate, but I strongly feel we must find ways to get out of "own little bubbles" and create meaningful dialogues through which we can recognize that the "other side" is human and not, just, a faceless enemy.

Then Heineken released its "Worlds Apart" ad (and its related "Open Your World" campaign). 

It looks to be exactly what I'm talking about: Strangers talking to each other and magically getting along because they listened to another person's story! Yeah! We have world peace! (And beer, because that is what they are trying to sell.)

My Twitter feed was soon full of articles and tweets of people cheering, saying it was just what we needed at this time, and that it was the "Antidote to That Pepsi Kendall Jenner Ad." Then I saw a tweet pointing me to DiDi Delgado's commentary on Medium. The title was strong ("The Heineken Ad Is Worse Than The Pepsi Ad, You're Just Too Stupid To Know It"), and the words were stronger:

This commercial is the worst type of propaganda. It tricks you into thinking social problems can be resolved if only people tolerate their oppression just a LITTLE while longer. It pushes the idea that bigotry, sexism, and transphobia are just differences of opinion that are up for debate, and deserving of civil discourse and equal consideration.

Those words really hit me, and as I read my blog, I recognized that I seemed to be making the same mistake. While I was not intending it, I was pretending that everything would get better once people had a single conversation. I was not taking time to acknowledge the risks and pain involved for individuals from marginalized communities, the experiences in which people refuse to change their mind regardless of how many facts or stories you tell them, or the reality that minority individuals are asked to justify their humanity over and over and over to others. These are very real truths, and I want to acknowledge that they are valid reasons for why someone might choose not to engage the "other side." They also show that any organization who decides to create these conversations must listen to the advice given by Ruchika Tulshyan:

If we truly want to effect change, these carefully-facilitated conversations need to happen in a setting where the oppressed are kept physically and emotionally safe. They need to happen consistently over time, with an underlying understanding of how privilege and power dynamics inform every single belief we have.

What now?

While the Heineken ad had some things wrong, I still believe we need to find ways to get people talking about topics of mutual interest so they can recognize they may have similar goals. I believe nonprofits can help do this because they are, at their heart, dedicated to rallying people around goals for how to make the world a better place. These are goals that can be shared by people on different ends of the political spectrum even if they have very different ideas of how to get there (for example, a conversation between two education-related organizations can focus on their common goal of giving children the skills they need to succeed, even if they do not agree on what those skills are, where the money for schools should come from, how students should be tested, who their teachers should be—and so on).

By asking nonprofits to convene these conversations, I am asking them to talk to their membership and then reach out to an organization that they normally see as “the other side.” They can then work together to develop a framework where their members can come together to talk and learn from each other. 

So, let's talk

wrong-about-everything-logo.pngOne example of what can happen when bipartisan conversations occur is the local podcast "Wrong About Everything." It is a weekly show in which two Democrats and two Republicans come together to discuss the national and state politics of the week. The hosts are people that political geeks (like me) recognize from political events as local leaders with serious opinions: Javier Morillo (DFL, president of SEIU local 26), Carin Mrotz (DFL, Executive Director of Jewish Community Action), Brian McDaniel (GOP, political strategist), and Amy Koch (GOP, former MN Senate Majority Leader).

In a recent interview with KARE 11, Javier explained that the idea for the podcast came when Brian and he were working on the opposite sides of the marriage equality debate at the legislature:

I wanted to get people who disagree to get together and talk and laugh together. We live in a very siloed society, and we mostly laugh in our own silos. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to put people together who disagree and are comfortable enough with each other that they are willing to laugh and joke about their own party and each other's party and the politics of the day.

So they came together to talk and laugh, and they even found an issue in this legislative session that they could all support: ending the ban on Sunday liquor sales (check out their hilarious ad with "other regional celebrities" on their website).

They also have found that, in talking to each other, they gained a better understanding of their own beliefs, what the "other side" thinks, and possible alternatives. According to Carin, "I didn't have Republican friends before doing this podcast, and Amy is now in my life in a real way. Understanding where she comes from and how she thinks about the issues that we disagree on definitely adds to the richness of my analysis of those issues."

Amy also tells people WAE works because:

We take the issues very seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. People can become personally offended at a political argument and lash out in response. Because I have developed a friendship and trust with Carin and Javier, I can listen, internalize, and evaluate their comments objectively. I know they aren't trying to score points, and they feel very strongly about an issue. It also helps that they are willing to be critical of their party when they screw up—BOTH parties screw up—and if someone just blindly defends, their arguments become less about critical thinking and more about cheering for the home team.

I think Brian summed it well: "I think it's a lot easier to get along [and] work with people when you respect them and you trust them. The only way you get to trust and respect people is by actually talking with them..."

So, does this one example prove that we can all get along just as long as we talk to each other? Of course not. It could be that these are four people who can compartmentalize their opinions and views better than most of us (or that they are people who just really like a good debate).

But the thing that the Wrong About Everything crew gets right is also the thing that makes me want to ask nonprofits to purposely create spaces for cross-party conversations: When seemingly-opposed people purposely come together to discuss ideas they care about, they might find they care about the same things.

It may not be a big idea, and it may not be something that will create the large-scale changes we need to solve our society's biggest problems (whatever you believe those to be), but it is something that gets them talking. And that's a start.

Please Note: While I am a member of the YNPN-TC Board, this blog is only my opinion. It is not an official opinion or statement for the organization. Also, I want to thank everyone who shared their perspectives with me while I wrote this blog. I want you to know that all of your thoughts helped form this piece, even if I wasn't able to include all of your ideas here.

If you are interested in exploring these conversations on your own, the American Dialogue Project has a list of tools and organizations that can help (look for the list of "Related Efforts").

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