Chris Collins had only been attending Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco for a few months when, after the 2016 presidential election, he asked the congregation if anyone would be interested in attending discussions with those who hold different political views.
“I wanted to make meaningful connections with people outside of our bubbles — not to debate — but to have conversations where we can understand one another a little better,” said Collins.
Interested members soon formed Different Together, and similar groups across the country popped up around the 2016 presidential election with the goal of conducting civil discourse with those across party lines. While Collins used a conversation format created by the nonprofit Living Room Conversations, other organizations such as Braver Angels began hosting Red-Blue workshops and used their own unique framework.
From the start, gathering an even balance of liberals and conservatives at each event was a challenge, especially in the Bay Area, where roughly 75% of votes went toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Even attracting those of varying ages and backgrounds initially proved difficult, both regionally and nationwide.
“The people who flock to this tend to be liberal, college-educated and located in urban areas, so it takes real work to attract people of other backgrounds,” said Paul Norris, a regional coordinator and moderator with Braver Angels.
Still, according to Different Together facilitator Winnie Fink, members continued to network with local conservative groups and Republican politicians to get their right-leaning colleagues to participate. The Rev. Erik Swanson of Saratoga’s Westhope Presbyterian Church started a Living Room Conversations-based group leading up to the 2016 election and connected with local rabbis and imams to increase the diversity of views in their monthly discussions. Norris said efforts to include young adults and people of color have required increased outreach as well.
But five years later, with the initial shock of the 2016 election diminished, the groups have struggled with not just maintaining an even balance of political affiliation but also overall participation.
“In 2016, liberals were scratching their heads and wondering how this happened and wanted to talk,” said David Fredrickson, a regular participant of Different Together.
“After 2020, we’ve gotten even more polarized in some ways, so it’s hard to find people across the aisle who still want to have these conversations.”
Waning enthusiasm by left-leaning participants has created an additional hurdle over the past couple years as well.
“I don’t know how many times my friends will tell me, ‘It’s so great that you’re doing that, but I couldn’t,’” Fink said. “It’s really interesting that people think they just can’t talk to the other side.”
When the pandemic hit, dwindling membership seemed imminent. Some older participants were less comfortable using online technology as meetings went remote, and many were dealing with pressing health and economic issues in light of COVID-19. According to Swanson, others were simply exhausted, especially after the 2020 presidential election.
“People wanted a break and were worn out from protesting and being distraught almost every day at what shows up in the news and what’s being talked about and what they need to worry about,” he said.
The switch to virtual meetings had unforeseen benefits though. While Swanson said the emotional connection of in-person meetings is hard to replicate online, some individuals felt safer expressing their opinions through a screen. Norris even noticed heightened participation as events became easier to organize and some had more time on their hands to attend events that typically occur monthly.
But the most obvious gain of the newer online format is the geographical diversity it has provided. Approximately one-third of Different Together participants are now located outside of California, and when the group recently partnered with a church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for an event, San Francisco members were looking forward to speaking with conservatives. Though the Arkansas congregation turned out to mostly consist of liberals, the discussion still proved fruitful.
“Even if we don’t have an even balance between conservatives and progressives, we have race and class to talk about,” said Collins. “If white middle class people — which is the demographic that is most involved with this movement — have some really frank and potentially uncomfortable conversations around that, that is making progress.”
Collins said that the conversations like the one with the Fayetteville participants reminded many Bay area members of the country’s underlying schisms that are unrelated to political labels.
“Although the Bay Area is this very progressive area, whenever we talk about examples of [race and class] with people across the country, there’s not much difference in our communities, so there is really no high horse to get on,” he said.
Even perspectives held by individuals of different age groups, countries of origin and religions have made for constructive conversation. According to Fredrickson, there is often a generational divide on subjects such as the role of government in citizens’ lives, even if they share similar stances on social issues. For Boris Yendler, a frequent Saratoga participant who emigrated from Russia in the 1980s, discussion topics such as defining democracy highlight not only cultural differences unique to the United States, but oversimplification of generally complex issues.
“A lot of Americans put a label on themselves, and I understand why. A label is much easier, because you don’t need to think about complexity. You can just say, ‘This is liberal,’ and then everything is covered with that label,” said Yendler. “But people are much more complicated.”
While discussing sociopolitical topics in front of a group of people seems daunting to many, for participants like Collins and Yendler, it feels like the exact opposite. Yendler is in the process of starting a group focused solely on discussing areas of common ground between liberals and conservatives, and Collins recently wrote and published a book inspired by his experience with Different Together. According to Fink, the importance of this work has only increased since 2016.
“What other choice do we have? We need to talk to each other. When more people are ready to talk, I want to be ready,” Fink said. “In the meantime, I am going to keep sticking out my hand and trying to give it another go.”