Communicating across difference: lessons from Champaign & Singapore
This blog post is written by Mikva Challenge staffer, Kenneth Porter.
Campaign Champaign! This is what we would announce to re-enthuse ourselves while door-knocking the moderately large city whose name resembles a bubbly celebratory beverage. The purpose of this trip was to engage students in the ever-changing world of campaign ground game, but a secondary goal was to guide students in their exploration of political identity and encourage them to communicate across political difference — a task that is proving increasingly difficult in the wake of a disorienting election. We brought 40 students across different races, economic backgrounds, and political backgrounds and split them into the most diverse groups we could achieve. I thought conversation might be difficult — it’s only natural that students butt heads occasionally. I was wrong. No difficulty. Our young people are role models and we should seek their expertise on communicating across differences as we prepare to enter a new political era shrouded in uncertainty from the most divisive election in recent history.
My van group had five students . One was very liberal, one moderately conservative, one didn’t know much about political ideology, and the other was seemingly apathetic and only talked about basketball every now and again. But these students who would have otherwise never crossed paths in their respective lives, not only learned how to communicate with others different from themselves, but ended the weekend with a host of unlikely new friendships.
After gathering at the Mikva office and setting out on our road trip, the first activity we did within our van groups was a Storyshare. Storyshare is an activity where students share a story that defines their identity, or at minimum, a story they are comfortable sharing with a partner. Their partner then has to tell their story to the group as if it were their own. Students have to trust someone they don’t know well to accurately share an intimate story about themselves. The story pushes receiving students to adopt another person’s story as their own, to be the person they are representing, which creates a level of empathy for the other person they may not otherwise had. It’s an activity that breeds awareness and understanding about other people’s lived experience.
When’s the last time you shared something with someone who espouses different political beliefs than your own? When I say something, I mean anything. Have you shared space in a waiting room or in your workplace? Have you had a beer, or maybe even a conversation? Often, sharing space can be geographically difficult. I found little political diversity in the years I spent in blue cities or those I spent in red rural america. It’s all too easy for those of us who do have the opportunity to engage with others with different belief systems to avoid not only sharing, but also those people with whom we disagree. In my experience, this is something young people seldomly struggle with. They share their stories about deer hunting and urban community gardens. Even if not politically motivated, these conversations create understanding for a way of life other than their own.
Many of us believe so fiercely in our political ideology that we often dismiss people who believe otherwise as misguided or even worse. I’m guilty of this. When brainstorming ways to help our students communicate across difference I had to constantly confront my own unwillingness to communicate across difference. How could I communicate with, let alone be friends with, people who support a candidate with obvious lapses in character and reason? I then have to remind myself that those people are thinking the same thing. Those people, who we try to dismiss, are half of our country and dismissing them because of who they voted for is foolish and makes you just as intolerant as you think they are.
I recently had the opportunity to work closely with someone with opposing political beliefs. Every year in my obligation to the Navy Reserve I have to complete an annual training and this year they sent me and a shipmate from El Paso, Texas to Singapore to support logistic operations. He is a middle-aged Latino border patrol officer and is about to retire out of the Navy after serving 20 years. I was friendly to him but I immediately wrote him off especially after he confirmed my suspicions about his political values. Since this was his fourth trip to Singapore, however, and I knew little about the country or how to get around, I took him up on his offer to grab some food and to show me how to navigate public transit.
He quickly got into conversations about politics after he learned of the work I’m involved in. I usually avoid these conversations with my peers in the military like the plague. This conversation was different though.This was my opportunity to share my thoughts with someone from the other side who was honestly curious about my beliefs and I shut him out. Luckily for me, however, we were serving there together for two weeks and that weekend I had an opportunity to redeem myself. We talked for hours about issues surrounding law enforcement and people of color over beer and mussels by the quay. We both took the time to truly listen to each other and we both walked away with a new understanding of the issues. Did we completely change each other’s minds? No. But we did move each other along the spectrum which is the first step to compromise.
I’m a open-minded person and it took me two weeks, beer, and expensive seafood to talk about issues with someone I disagree with. But four high school students cramped in a van together over a weekend got along effortlessly. What their secret to getting along? Leaving judgement based on political belief at the door.
I didn’t want to get to know my friend in Singapore. I wanted to judge him and move along. But after getting to know him I now consider him a friend despite our differences. As we prepare to take students to DC this MLK weekend I’m remembering the value of communicating with others with different ideas than my own. I’m remembering to share a part of myself with someone else. I’m remembering that we should aspire to be more King like and embrace even those who oppose us. I‘m going to do this by modeling my behavior after that of our amazing students.
Follow and join us in conversations on twitter using #bridgethedivide as we take 25 young people to DC this weekend in honor of MLK Day.