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Talk about it: Movement works to bridge political divisions through dialogue

BY KARINA IOFEE, reposted from East Bay Times.

 

BERKELEY — What do you get when you put a libertarian from Kentucky, a Trump supporter from Louisiana, a UC Berkeley student and the founder of a liberal political movement in the same room?

A discussion about some of the most pressing issues facing the country that teaches Bay Area liberals a few things about the way conservatives see the world and vice versa.

It’s no joke.

Living Room Conversations, created by a Berkeley mediator and founder of liberal political organizing group MoveOn.org, is a fledgling movement to tackle the national political rift brought to the forefront by last year’s presidential election. Like any war, it has led to family feuds, arguments with longtime friends or simply isolation from anyone with differing viewpoints.

But contrary to advice dispensed around the holidays to avoid political discussions with friends or family to keep the peace, Living Room Conversations believes that engaging with ideological opposites is not only good for the brain but can lead to vital breakthroughs in the political sphere, where compromise has become a dirty word.

“The dream is that we are all listening to each other in a way that respects each other,” said Joan Blades, who co-founded the movement in 2010, and describes herself as an “accidental activist.”

“Right now, we are living in parallel universes and are reluctant to engage with people who think differently from us,” she said.

The idea behind the project is simple: Two friends with opposing viewpoints invite two more friends for a chat at someone’s home. (If you don’t know anyone with a different viewpoint, the group will happily set you up with someone.) A theme is picked — religion, environment, faith, justice, politics and government, to name just a few — and ground rules are established, such as respect for others’ opinions and suspending judgment. Snacks are served and prompts are given to guide the talk through a little bit of participants’ backgrounds, core values and motivating factors before moving on to the actual topic.

“There is a huge desire of an alternative way of talking and being with each other, and that has to start with people,” said John Gable, founder of AllSides, a website devoted to exposing bias in the media, who has participated in about a dozen conversations. “This can be a beacon on a hill for more human respect for one another.”

Since its founding, hundreds of “conversations” have taken place in the Bay Area, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Portland and Washington, D.C., especially over the past year. The movement describes itself as open source and offers templates for self-facilitated discussions without necessarily tracking the outcome, although it encourages feedback from participants.

On a recent day, a meeting at a Berkeley home to discuss the environment and pollution included Blades; Sharon Galicia, a resident of Lake Charles, Louisiana and a self-described libertarian who voted for Donald Trump; her children, ages 18 and 14; Serena Witherspoon, a 20-year-old Berkeley student and the only African-American in the group; and Gable, a conservative born and raised in Kentucky. The talk featured discussion about how states could begin to reduce emissions and how to balance regulations with the need for jobs.

Galicia, a trim woman who sells insurance for a living, said many Lake Charles residents depend on the petrochemical industry, the only source of well-paying jobs in the area.

“Politicians are always saying that they’re going to retrain workers for new jobs, but are you really going to get hired by a company when you’re 55, or go back to school at that age?” she said. “It’s just not practical.”

But her 18-year-old son, Bailey, who supported Bernie Sanders, said the switch to cleaner energy and more regulation is needed because so many local residents have been diagnosed with cancer.

“No one is calling for the complete shutdown of the industry, but there is a way to start developing other industries that don’t have such severe impacts on people’s health,” Bailey said.

At the end of the two-hour discussion, no one changed their opinion. What they did get was a little better insight into what people on the other side of the ideological divide think. Another was the realization that despite the demonization of political opposites, people are largely worried about the same things, said Gable.

“We all very much want the same results, but … our fundamental beliefs about what will work is what gets us all aflutter,” he said. “But in general, people want to accomplish things that are good for society, and Living Room Conversations are designed to discover that.”