Will We Meet Up on the Bridge?

By Keith Kozloff. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

What should one do when approaching the bridge over the political divide, but can’t see anyone coming from the other side?

The goal of civil dialogue is understanding rather than persuasion. But political geography poses a serious challenge to someone like myself, seeking civil dialogue with people of a different political persuasion. In my case, I can throw a rock in any direction from my house and be assured of hitting a liberal because I live in (the People’s Republic of) Takoma Park, at the deep blue end of suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, a state with substantial red-leaning regions.

In 2015 when I invited people to participate in dialogue using the Living Room Conversations model, I knew to reach beyond the confines of my community to recruit red-leaning folks. To extend geographic reach, I created a Meetup called ”Conversations to Bridge the Political Divide.” Using this popular social networking platform, I joined various conservative Meetups to ask their organizers to publicize my events. None did. Although I did convene several interesting conversations, I ultimately became discouraged by my inability to attract many participants from across the political divide.

My ongoing walk to the bridge was reinvigorated after the 2016 election. In September I organized a workshop (located in a purple part of Montgomery County) designed to impart civil dialogue skills to 10 liberal and 10 conservative participants. The training was conducted by two professional mediators, one Democrat and one Republican.

To recruit conservatives for the workshop I planted many seeds, reaching out to three synagogues, five churches, the Montgomery County GOP Central Committee, Montgomery County Young Republicans, Black Republicans, Women Republican Clubs, University of Maryland Republicans, local Republican legislators, Washington area Republican Meetup, Montgomery County Conservatives, Montgomery County Liberty/Ron Paul Meetup, Tea Party Meetup, DC Conservatives, and others. My efforts eventually elicited more or less politically-balanced participation.

The workshop itself generated positive reviews from participants, for example:

  • “It was a challenge for me to listen non-judgmentally to a perspective quite opposite my own.”
  • “People want to connect more than I give them credit for.”
  • “Great to see more men than women.”

Moreover, several participants wanted a follow up dialogue, which I convened two weeks later. I observed participants using the skills more effectively as the dialogue progressed and trust began to develop.

My experience suggests that getting people “to the bridge” is as big, or bigger a challenge then effectively teaching and promulgating civil dialogue skills — and that extending geographic reach is not enough.

Not to be discouraged, I read relevant articles and sought input from the few conservatives I had met. Though I still have much to learn, these are some of the lessons that are emerging:

· It’s hard to even contemplate crossing the political divide when one feels disrespected, outnumbered or otherwise under attack. Although Republicans are in control of the federal government, I have been told by local conservatives that they feel defensive in an area dominated by progressives, and have already had to develop the requisite skills for engaging with them.

Below is a telling written exchange I had with the organizer of a Trump supporter meetup:

Dear ___, In 2015, I hosted a Meetup called “Conversations to Bridge the Political Divide”, whose meetings attracted folks from across the political spectrum, and were based on a model of respectful civil discourse. In 2017, there is an even stronger need to address the polarization that we all feed by only engaging with like-minded people. I decided to reach out to you to see if perhaps you and some of your Meetups’ members might be interested in civil dialogue with people who did not vote for Mr. Trump. The goal would not be about trying to convince each other of our respective positions, but rather to explore our common patriotism and understand how we came to our beliefs. If you are potentially interested, I would be happy to discuss by phone. Kind Regards, Keith Kozloff

Dear Keith. Sorry. I’m confused by your message. People are reacting WAY out of bounds on this election. Why don’t you host a forum studying the creation of the Constitution. The insurgency and conflict that existed to create America in the first place. I’ll ask you one question. Why host a forum? Outside of the crazed banner messages created by Media, what is wrong with Pres Donald Trump? Narcissistic? Check Hillary on that one…appreciate feedback but don’t believe a Forum would be helpful. People just need to start accepting and respecting.

· Trusted institutions are important. As the organizer for “Conversations to Bridge the Political Divide”, I used a photo taken while I worked for the federal government that showed me in my suit standing in front of an American flag. One conservative participant in a Living Room Conversationnoted she felt more comfortable once she noticed a photo of my sister-in-law in military uniform. I have read that conservatives look more to family, faith communities, and other local institutions than to government or public dialogue for addressing issues. For that reason, I have been advised several times to partner with a faith community for recruitment.

· Making a personal connection is critical. Given the high level of distrust floating about, it’s no wonder that my many cold calls to engage conservatives went unanswered. In contrast, after engaging on line with members of the Montgomery County Conservatives Meetup and being upfront about my political inclinations, I was invited to their next meeting. They were very welcoming.

Similarly, I was successful when approaching the Montgomery County GOP booth at the Takoma Park Folk Festival. After dispelling their concerns about being ambushed due to hidden political imbalance at the workshop, this face-to-face contact netted three participants.

· Check out pre-existing assumptions about someone’s political tribe. As part of my efforts to better understand how to attract conservatives to civil dialogue, I set up a coffee with someone I had met at a Montgomery County Conservatives Meetup this summer. Once we started talking, however, he acknowledged that he attended that Meetup primarily to find a date and did not identify with that group. In reality, he is fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and libertarian in foreign policy.

· Conservatives seem more comfortable with stability and liberals more comfortable with change. Although civil dialogue is not intended to change one’s beliefs, it could challenge them if one is exposed to an otherwise reasonable-seeming human with very different beliefs.

Besides continuing outreach to conservatives, I am currently organizing a civil dialogue to address conflicts among my neighbors around a proposed local development. As a parallel to the recruitment challenge I face in red/blue dialogue, as the organizer I need to overcome distrust (from across the bridge) due to views I have previously expressed about the development. My learning curve remains steep.

Keith Kozloff seeks to build peace through dialogue. In his last position, he was Director of Accountability for the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), in which his office addressed environmental or social disputes between private sector projects financed by OPIC and surrounding communities. Previously, he worked on climate change policy at the U.S. Treasury Department. Since retiring, he has been working with Living Room Conversations, the Pricing Carbon Initiative, and other organizations that look beyond partisanship for solutions to societal challenges.

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