In today’s divisive political climate, in-person community building may prove key in tempering the fierce partisanship in America.
In response to the vitriolic rhetoric that currently dominates political conversations, a number of initiatives have emerged that seek to pull people out of their echo chambers to engage with others who hold opposing views. Some media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, have conducted listening tours and held moderated conversations. Yet while the presence of moderators helped people have more civil and productive discussions, the format still allowed for debate and put participants on the defensive. In South Carolina, two teachers have created a forum, My Neighbor’s Voice, for community members to listen attentively to each other without the possibility of confrontation. The goal of the initiative is to foster empathy and counter the media’s portrayal of American society as entirely divided.
My Neighbor’s Voice was founded by Victoria Chance and Mary Anne Inglis, both Southerners who say that the South is a perfect region for these types of community discussions. “The South has a culture of hospitality, but also enormous disparity and tension,” Chance explained. This program tries to capitalize on the former quality to address the latter. Both Chance and Inglis have a history of community and political involvement. Inglis is married to a former congressman and helped manage his campaigns. Chance is on the board of another organization that promotes community dialogue, Greenville Interfaith Forum. That group’s Dinner Dialogues inspired the format of My Neighbor’s Voice.
For each gathering of this new program, a volunteer host invites a diverse group of people who self-identify as Democrat, Republican, independent, independent-left or independent-right. The guests represent different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds and most will not have met previously. Once all guests are seated, the moderator presents a stack of index cards with questions covering topics such as gun legislation, abortion, minimum wage, climate change and charter schools. Some of the questions are particularly broad such as, Do you believe in the basic goodness of people, and what does “liberty and justice for all” mean to you?
Each person selects a card at random and has two minutes to respond, either by presenting general views on the topic or telling a personal story. Others listen quietly without interrupting and are not distracted by cellphones, which are not permitted. After participants respond to their topic, they simply pass the stack of cards to the next person, who receives a different question. At the end of four rounds of questions, the moderator opens the table for final reflections.
What Does It Mean to You?
At the gathering I attended, the group of strangers around the table seemed tense when the first round of questions began. Since the goal was not to debate policy, participants tended to draw on personal and professional experiences rather than present ideological arguments. For example, when asked about LGBTQ rights, a minister’s wife talked about growing up with a gay father. Reflecting on tuition costs, a CPA discussed her work with clients deep in student loan debt, some of whom worked $10-hour jobs.
As the evening went on, participants made more eye contact with each other and appeared more interested, relaxed and engaged. At the same time, the stories shared became increasingly personal. When asked about discrimination, a Pakistani woman fought back tears as she shared her fears that her children would be targets of violence since they attend an Islamic school. She recalled kids on a playground shunning her young children and told a story about making soup for a sick neighbor with whom she thought she had a friendly relationship. She was turned away at the door because of her headscarf. At the end of the moderated session, most guests stayed to chat with each other.
Chance and Inglis say that they have observed similar shifts at every gathering of My Neighbor’s Voice. Participants almost always begin the evening in defensive postures, but relax as they are forced to turn their full attention to others. “The changes in body language are incredible,” said Inglis. Gatherings of My Neighbor’s Voice confirm that personal narratives move people far more than ideological arguments. One of the participants, Steven Caldwell, said that “Listening to real people share their real thoughts and feelings is much more likely to open my mind and reframe my thinking than reading about others’ views or watching well-orchestrated propaganda. At least that was my experience as I listened to a Muslim mother share her fear and to liberals confess their ‘bubbles’ of protective thought.”
Debbie Spear, who hosted the meeting, emphasized the power of narration. Spear, who has experience leading storytelling activities in diverse settings, said: “I have found people’s reactions to really good stories to be one of the most satisfying privileges in my whole life.” Chance and Inglis want to ensure that community members continue to tell their stories without a filter. For that reason, they have not posted guidelines online. Rather, they hope that My Neighbor’s Voice will grow organically; guests can train to become moderators at future meetings. “We don’t want any screens between us,” said Chance.
The media presents liberal and conservative agendas as irreconcilable and social media further fuels these tensions by offering users constant validation of their existing beliefs. Listening to others may not lead people to change their fundamental views, but community members will find that seemingly opposing groups often share similar concerns. The gathering I attended included people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet almost no one expressed extreme views and everyone agreed that social and political issues are more nuanced than the media would have us believe. The sort of in-person community building that My Neighbor’s Voice promotes may prove key in tempering the fierce partisanship in this country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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