stories matter.

I’m a pretty cool person.

So cool that on any given night, I am either reading Alice Walker, discovering the best ‘Hello’ covers, or attending the Posner Center for International Development Lecture Series. Yes, I may in fact be 85 years old at heart.

This week, it was all above.

On Thursday, I gathered in my new office building (“the horsebarn”) to listen to a short educational piece from Diana Hess, the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She co-authored The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education and Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion. It was sponsored by Facing History & Ourselves, an educational organization that seeks to educate the population on racism, prejudice, and history to prevent hatred from occurring in the future. Props.

I had been working all day and frankly, I didn’t want to go. I would have rather gathered my blue, flimsy lunchbox and head home. But something told me to stay. I’m glad I did.

The discussion was a “Community Conversation” to answer the elephant-in-the-room sort of question – “how do we live together?”

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In a time where Donald Trump is running for President and our political world is a chaotic mess (I think that’s being nice), it’s important we take a step back and reconsider: how do we exist in a time like this?

Diana Hess began her presentation by talking about polarization. Political polarization refers to cases in which an individual’s stance on a given issue, policy, or person is more likely to be strictly defined by their identification with a particular political party (e.g., Democrat or Republican) or ideology (e.g., liberal or conservative).

After showing us a representation of our ideologies as an American people from the 1950’s until now, our political climate is more polarized than ever. A big cause of this, really, is due in part because of the “echo chambers” we create around ourselves. That is, when you google the very same thing your friend does, you will get different results.

Somehow, technology has advanced in such a way, that the information that is provided to us is tailored and customized to our already existing belief systems. Our choices in radio, television, and reporting is the same too; if you are a Republican listening to Fox News, than the reality is that you are only going to hear the headlines and news in such a way that supports your belief system. The same could be true of a Democrat following MSNBC too; it’s not limited to one side of partisanship.

The presentation went on to ask some pretty interesting and contemplative questions.

Is it right for educators’ to reveal their own political leanings in the classroom?

Should parents try and influence the political beliefs of their own children? 

Or more boldly,

Do you regularly talk about political issues with those who have beliefs different from your own? What are the consequences or results of doing so? 

These are hard questions. I can admit, I do try and engage people that believe different things than I do. But I typically do one of two things – either I become extremely sensitive when they disagree with the way I see the world OR I try to conform my own beliefs to what the other person is saying.

How do we “own” our own worldviews and ideas without feeling like we have to change simply to please the other person OR staunchly defend so much so that we are offensive and stand-offish?

I know the answer, but I’m not so good at implementing it.

The answer is in the stories we bring to the table. Our experiences shape us. They are ours, and ours alone. Nobody can take those away. It’s important, in a time like this, to respect people who think differently. I suppose my goal this year, this very important election year, is to not enter conversations expecting to change the minds of people I encounter. But also, it’s going to involve and challenge me to stand up for what I think too.

As a relatively moderate liberal, I may have to explain why I think our immigration policy needs to change, why taxes need to be graduated and fair according to income levels, why gay marriage is welcomed, and how racial injustice should be recognized. When it comes to foreign policy, I might have to share my opinions that our meddling has only been concerned with our own gains and has propelled ISIS into the limelight. It might get murky, but my hope is that someone might be more concerned with why I believe what I do, and less about criticizing me for where I might be wrong. You see, our stories will fill in the gaps. Our stories inform why we do what we do. That’s what we should be concerned with. Even for those that are the polar opposite of me; I want to know why you think a certain way; you matter, therefore your ideas should matter too.

Let’s make this kind of respect possible – please.

Somehow, I might have to have the humility to admit that I don’t know everything and yet still acknowledge that as a human, I have ideas, and they matter. Stories matter. I hope that everyone adopts that attitude, so that maybe we can share our ideas, collaborate, and find our way in these uncertain times.

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