Groups Across The Country Bring Opposing Sides Together For Discussions What does it take to get citizens from red and blue America to talk to each other? One organization is on a mission to improve conversation, not just among politicians, but everybody else.
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Groups Across The Country Bring Opposing Sides Together For Discussions

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Groups Across The Country Bring Opposing Sides Together For Discussions

Groups Across The Country Bring Opposing Sides Together For Discussions

Groups Across The Country Bring Opposing Sides Together For Discussions

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/709767380/709767381" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

What does it take to get citizens from red and blue America to talk to each other? One organization is on a mission to improve conversation, not just among politicians, but everybody else.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Ashfield, Mass., 12 people - who have never met each other - get together for the weekend. Six are Trump supporters, six are not.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: The next 48 hours - what we're seeking to do is to kind of challenge you on a series of topics and exercises related to what it means to be an American.

MARTIN: The purpose of that gathering last September was to get people of different political backgrounds to just talk to each other. That's all, just talk. At a time when many Americans are worried civility is slipping away, NPR's Sarah McCammon reports on how one organization is trying to bring it back.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: So you've got a dozen people together for a weekend in Massachusetts - people who probably wouldn't normally hang out. You get them to share their life stories around the breakfast table, and also to dive into really thorny political issues like immigration.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: We see those people come in, and we see them get benefits that we don't get as Americans. And we pay taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: So that's not the immigrants' fault.

MCCAMMON: And you can bet, it does get heated.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: My grandmother came here and she didn't say, I'm going to beat the system. My grandmother...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #4: But do you know that for a fact, though?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: I know that for a fact. My grandmother worked her ass off. She was a librarian.

MCCAMMON: That conversation was recorded by NICD - the National Institute for Civil Discourse - as part of a future documentary project. They recruited a mix of people - among them a chef, a fitness instructor, a real estate agent - and paid them for their time.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: And Trump is not good for the country.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #4: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: Right. He's just not. To convince...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #5: No, but the point to the exercise was now that you know Linda - and you might like her as a person - the next time you bash Trump supporters, you might think of Linda and being a little more - so the idea was about humanizing the opposition, basically.

MCCAMMON: But people are also showing up for free to dialogues like these all over the country, led by a bunch of groups with earnest-sounding names like Better Arguments, Democracy Cafe, Living Room Conversations and plenty more. By at least one count, there are more than 200 of these groups nationwide. Some, like NICD, which hosted that Massachusetts gathering, have been doing this for years.

The group was founded in 2011 after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Carolyn Lukensmeyer was the first executive director, and she says it was hard to get traction at first.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: No matter who I was speaking to - members of Congress, the media, academics, the public - people really pushed back on, what is civility? Aren't you just telling me to be polite or nice? And believe me, today, no one asks that question.

MCCAMMON: Now, she says people are exhausted by the vitriol, and looking for ways to talk about difficult issues in a respectful way - like at this gathering in Chicago in January.

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KHADIJAH AMEEN: Well, I have something for Dan.

DAN FLETCHER: Yeah?

AMEEN: I do not dislike police.

FLETCHER: Right.

AMEEN: I think...

(LAUGHTER)

AMEEN: I think we need them. I think they're good for us. I just know that there are some bad apples.

FLETCHER: Yeah, and to kind of...

MCCAMMON: But you might wonder, what do these participants actually take away from these experiences? I put that question later to Khadijah Ameen, one of the participants in the Chicago gathering. She's a black woman who voted for Hillary Clinton.

AMEEN: It was a big discovery for me to know that I could have a conversation with someone with such an opposing view and not have to dislike them, as childish as that sounds.

MCCAMMON: Another participant, Dan Fletcher, is white and a Trump supporter. He also said it was refreshing to spend a few days having civil conversations, but he says there are limits to what you can accomplish in a weekend.

FLETCHER: It's almost like that therapist effect - like, where you go in and you have your, like, 30 minutes of just letting it all out. And then you feel comfortable. And you walk out of there, and you feel great. But then you go out in the world, and it's not what it was in that room.

MCCAMMON: Fletcher and Ameen say everyone kind of went their separate ways since that gathering in January. And anyway, they're just regular citizens. So even if they agree, they can't necessarily put that to practical use. They can't make public policy. But the same group that set up the Chicago and Massachusetts gatherings, NICD, is also working with people who can make policy - state lawmakers.

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SARA GIDEON: ...Prove the report.

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GIDEON: It's a vote. The chair recognizes the representative from Biddeford, Representative Fecteau.

RYAN FECTEAU: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

MCCAMMON: Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is a Democrat. She took part in a civility workshop for lawmakers several years ago where she and her colleagues took part in exercises where they explained how their life stories shaped their political views. Gideon says that experience was helpful, but maintaining civility can be really hard when you're the one holding the gavel...

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GIDEON: The representative may proceed. That was the last warning.

MCCAMMON: ...Like the debate last year over a bill banning the discredited practice of conversion therapy...

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GIDEON: Representative Reed.

MCCAMMON: ...Designed to make gay people straight.

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ROGER REED: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

MCCAMMON: At one point, Republican Representative Roger Reed stood up to oppose the ban.

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REED: ...Is an attempt by the LBGT community to legitimize the unnatural inclinations, now approved by society, over the natural inclinations...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #6: (Yelling).

GIDEON: Representative will defer.

REED: It is taught to our...

GIDEON: The representative will defer.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #6: (Yelling).

GIDEON: The representative will defer, and the representative will defer.

MCCAMMON: That was just one of several times Speaker Gideon had to step in to remind members on both sides to be more civil.

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GIDEON: This body will be at ease for five minutes while everyone takes a deep breath.

MCCAMMON: It was actually more like 25 minutes. In an effort to reduce these moments of incivility, Gideon recently decided to try something new. She proposed mixing up seating in the State House chamber among Republicans, Democrats and the handful of independents. There would be no other side of the aisle anymore - no more segregation by party. Gideon says she got a ton of complaints.

GIDEON: I heard, if I had known that you were thinking about this, I might not have run for office. I heard, I won't feel safe in the chamber. I won't feel comfortable in the chamber. And I heard, I don't want to sit next to that person, or that person, or that person, and I heard this from both sides of the aisle.

MCCAMMON: If anything, Gideon says the pushback made it clear how badly that new seating arrangement was needed. So she pressed on and intermingled the seating anyway. And she says it wasn't long before everyone just kind of got over it.

GIDEON: There is no better sight than when I look out from the speaker's rostrum and see a group of Republicans and Democrats, who sit in a couple of rows together, laughing together. It is just - it sounds a little silly, but it's just an amazing, great sight.

MCCAMMON: Gideon's quick to add this doesn't mean debates won't ever get heated again, but she hopes members are learning to see each other as people first. Lawmakers in Maine may soon have a chance to practice their civility skills again, sitting side by side with members of other parties. The conversion therapy ban has been reintroduced this year, and it's scheduled for a public hearing next week. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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