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Bridging the divide one living room at a time

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Living Room Conversations is a newly formed group that aims to connect people across political spectrums through exchanged ideas and face-to-face connections. (Courtesy photo)
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http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

We are a deeply divided country. And yet, to solve the serious problems we face, we have to find some way to work together.

I went to a neighbor’s house last week to see one of the latest attempts to bridge the political divide. Two people with opposing political views had each invited two friends to gather in the living room to discuss a topic — in this case, the status of the American Dream.

It wasn’t a debate. It wasn’t one side trying to convince the other they’re right. The focus was to listen, without judging, to what each person said. In this way, the hope was, participants could get past political rhetoric and find some common ground. And to a large degree, it worked.

The evening was part of “Living Room Conversations,” a fledgling group that hopes to foster communication across the red-blue political divide. The group provides sample topics and questions to guide the discussions, along with ground rules to help ensure the conversation remains cordial and productive. But putting the group together and choosing the topic falls on each evening’s organizers.

Three women and three men joined in the conversation at my neighbor’s house. All were white and of similar economic class. All were Baby Boomers. Although split between Democrats and Republicans, they actually had a lot in common, and that may be why they seemed to find common ground relatively easily.

Nearly everyone admitted that the current political climate had affected their discussions and relationships with family and friends. They agreed that the divisiveness and unkindness in today’s politics were almost physically painful. And they agreed that most people don’t want to acknowledge that the other side may have a point.

Surprisingly, nearly everyone agreed a major problem facing the country is that many of our institutions no longer adequately fulfill the missions they were created to address. Each political side has institutions that it champions, and that support keeps each side from acknowledging problems with those same institutions.

For example, as one man said, Democrats usually won’t admit that teachers unions might stifle innovation in education by protecting tenure, while Republicans generally won’t admit that bias by police may result in unnecessary use of force against people of color.

It wasn’t all consensus, however, with immigration and welfare producing less agreement. But even then, the discussion remained civil and respectful.

I doubt anyone changed his or her opinions at the end of the two-hour conversation, but they definitely listened to what each other had to say. And they did find some common themes on which they could agree, or at least consider further. Indeed, side conversations continued after the evening was officially over, as people stood around the dining room table eating snacks. Everyone said they’d definitely consider taking part in future living room conversations.

It would be interesting to take part in a conversation where the participants had more varied life experiences than the ones at my neighbor’s house, to see whether that makes it harder for people to find common ground.

Nearly everyone at my neighbor’s house said they felt more hopeful at the end of the evening. And that’s the point behind Living Room Conversations. The small size of the group and the informal setting helped the participants see each other — especially those with whom they disagree — as humans, not just ideological cartoons. And that may be a necessary first step to find ways to solve our problems.

Hundreds of these conversations have taken place in cities around the country, with more and more held each year. Co-founder Joan Blades believes that the intimacy of the living room helps people look beyond partisan rancor. “When you’re a host and guest,” she has said, “people abide by social norms.” And that helps them listen to each other and find areas where they can agree.

We are a deeply divided country. But maybe we can begin to bridge the divide, one living room conversation at a time.

To organize or take part in a conversation, visit www.livingroomconversations.org.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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