Welcome to the second episode of our podcast, Thanks for Listening!
What would happen if people learned to flex their “dialogue muscles” at a very young age? What if, before developing a lot of disconnecting conversational habits, we developed the ones that allow us to engage constructively and effectively with others, even those with whom we disagree?
In Episode 2 of Thanks for Listening we’ll be talking about—and to!—teenagers who are discovering how to engage with the skills that bridge divides at a time when they are still developing their identities and shaping the way they interact with the world. We hear from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Gretchen Brion-Meisels about adolescent brain development, how adolescents are influenced, and how they are uniquely suited to the work of dialogue. And we are excited to host Coutia, Huy, and Jacob in studio—three amazing teens who participated in an experiment called The “Can We?” Project—along with “Can We?” project co-creator and facilitator Deb Bicknell. Our guests show us exactly what is possible when we ask a simple question: “can we?”
Thanks for Listening is a podcast tracking efforts to bridge the political divide in the U.S. through dialogue and collaborative processes and spotlighting the important and often courageous work of individuals and organizations who are helping citizens engage with one another on challenging topics. Episodes will dive deep into such issues as: managing difficult family dynamics and relationships affected by partisan differences; bridging the divides in Congress, the media, and in our social media spaces; training youth to move through conflict and toward civic responsibility; embracing dialogue in the face of extremism; engaging with others on highly emotional issues; and on working to restore divided communities. We hope that through the everyday examples of ordinary and extraordinary people all over the country, listeners will find optimism that we can—and are—moving beyond partisan divides, as well as inspiration to become part of the solution. This podcast is made possible with a grant from the American Arbitration Association International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation.
Sara del Nido Budish Neil McGaraghan Kate Ellis
Host Host Producer
The “Can We?” Project: An Experiment in Revitalizing Democracy
Recent decades have witnessed a distinct decline in the civility and functionality of the American democracy, a condition made especially troubling by the urgent challenges we face globally, nationally, and locally. Americans seem more divided than ever along lines of identity, class, geography, and viewpoint. This trend raises an essential question on which our future depends: Can we harness the wisdom and power inherent in the great diversity of the American people to revitalize our democracy, mend the social fabric, and live out the true meaning of the American promise of liberty and justice for all?
Drawing its name from this essential question, The “Can We?” Project seeks answers. Hosted by Waynflete School, and in partnership the Maine Heritage Policy Center and other schools in Maine, The “Can We?” Project recruits youth who represent a diverse range of backgrounds, political viewpoints, and life experiences. Students work together with experienced facilitators to learn how to talk across deep divides, develop a shared vision of a better Maine, and to design an interactive forum with political leaders. This project is a learning experiment for high school students interested in dialogue within a political sphere and who are up to the challenge of talking, listening, and seeking solutions.
Coutia, Huy, and Jacob are students in The “Can We?” Project.
Deborah Bicknell is an educational and organizational consultant and The “Can We?” Project lead program designer and facilitator.
Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a lecturer in the Prevention Science and Practice Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research seeks to explore partnerships between youth and adults that support both individual and collective development. She is particularly interested in using Youth Participatory Action Research to investigate and reform student support efforts, as well as to build positive school climate. Gretchen has participated in a variety of research projects including investigations of: adolescents’ perspectives of schooling and community-based work, social emotional learning in schools, holistic student support systems, and the intersections of bullying and discrimination in prevention research and practice. Her courses focus on supporting positive youth development, creating loving educational spaces, and partnering with youth in educational research and practice.
Sara del Nido Budish: From the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation clinical program at Harvard Law School, I’m Sara Del Nido Budish.
Neil McGaraghan: And I’m Neil McGaraghan. Welcome to episode two of Thanks for Listening, a podcast about bridging the partisan divide in America.
Sara: Since our episode 1 we’ve all made it through a long stretch of holidays and family gatherings which may or may not have been ample opportunities to apply some of the skills and some of the guidance that we heard in that first episode from Joan Blades and Mary Gaylord of Living Room Conversations.
Neil: Yeah, they told us a lot of, I think, really helpful and really important things. But among them that working to persuade people to change their mind frequently is counterproductive and not helpful, whereas sitting back and listening, genuinely listening, or sitting forward and engaging with questions of curiosity and genuine interest in where somebody else is coming from, actually has a much better chance of helping people engage through their differences and maybe even moving the dial a little bit on how they see the world and how they see the issues that they’re disagreeing about. This is particularly difficult with family, we learned in that episode, and many of us know from our from our personal lives as well, but it’s doable.
Sara: It is doable and if it were easy to do we wouldn’t be doing this podcast at all. This podcast would not exist. In fact bridging the partisan divide wouldn’t even be a thing if there weren’t some kind of barriers to this in place whether, you know, real or imagined. It would be very easy if, as a public and as individuals, we were all in the practice and really a habit of having thoughtful deliberate dialogues based on truly understanding others. Those are muscles that for many of us we haven’t grown up developing or exercising. Or maybe we have and we had those skills and abilities and we’re open to taking that approach with some people, maybe those who are most like us, but not with others who are more different or with whom we disagree. And when we get into that mode we tend to be stuck in these sort of unproductive or counterproductive habits of shouting each other down or disengaging entirely.
Neil: So what we thought would be interesting to look at for today’s episode is what would happen if we all started much earlier in life trying to develop good habits, develop those skills and habits that help people engage more effectively in conflict rather than waiting until the bad habits developed? What if we started earlier in life?
Sara: So today we’ll be talking about teenagers. What can teenagers teach us about bridging the divide and about the power of learning some of those productive dialogue skills at a time in life when there’s so much change going on, including that we’re still developing our identities and shaping our way of interacting with the world around us? Are young people more flexible, more willing to listen, and more open to different perspectives? So we spoke to some people who put this to the test, including three teenagers who themselves were part of a fascinating experiment called The “Can We?” Project. So we’re excited to get to that in just a few minutes.
Neil: Before we spoke with them though, I got a chance to interview an expert on adolescent brain development. Gretchen Brion-Meisels earned her doctorate in education and is now on faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I started out just by asking her what it is she finds so compelling about education and teenagers.
Gretchen Brion-Meisels: I love everything about adolescents. I did not love being one [laughs], but I love everything about working with them. And I think what it comes down to is actually quite relevant to this podcast, which is that adolescence is this unique period of time where folks have the analytic capacity to think in abstract ways about the world and to critique the ways in which the world is organized but they haven’t been so socialized by the world that they don’t see some of those things anymore. So adults often become so used to the way the world is organized that they don’t see the organizing structures anymore and it’s harder for them to identify or believe that it matters if they critique those structures. Adolescents really believe because they have this gift of youth that what they do can change things. In many contexts, not always, but often, and they also have this amazing ability to see the world with a fresh set of eyes and a way that provides as really important insight into what we might be doing wrong.
Neil: What about, I guess, teen development? Is there’s something unique about that part of a person’s life that is different from a developmental standpoint or a brain standpoint or emotional/social development standpoint?
Gretchen: Yeah in terms of thinking about adolescence as a unique developmental period, I think there are several things about adolescence that make it very unique. One is that we know from brain science that adolescence is a sensitive period in which the brain is growing and pruning in particular unique ways, ways that really only are equaled by early childhood. And so because of that adolescents are growing and thinking very rapidly and their brains are changing very rapidly, and it’s a period of time in which the experiences they have can be particularly influential into how they think in the future. And so one thing I often notice is that because adolescents are thinking a lot about who they want to be in the world, they are particularly attuned to making observations about the ways in which other people are, and the ways in which structures are set up to support or inhibit people from being their full selves. And I think that’s also one reason why it’s a particularly powerful moment in which to capture their perspectives.
Neil: I’m curious to know what your perspective is on the sort of ability of teens to bring their perspective and the freshness, and their particular moment in sort of social and brain development, to the idea of engaging in conflict in new ways and in ways that are constructive and valuable and different, maybe, of what many of us are used to seeing at a national level where there is acrimony and people retreating into separate bubbles and a real inability to see and hear each other. And what you’re describing I think among teens is is the is the 180 degree opposite of that.
Gretchen: So in terms of how young people themselves, what young people bring to the table in terms of conflict resolution, I think there are several really important perspective-taking skills that many young people have that I don’t see as readily in adults. One thing that’s really important to note that I haven’t said yet is that adolescence is a time when peers become particularly important and connections and relationships to other people outside of the immediate family often increase. And I think part of the reason why young people are more open to learning from and connecting to each other is because they are hyper aware of relationships and connection as important, in a way that many adults may have shrugged off by the time they’re as old as we are. So you often see, for example, I often see, young people who are willing to sit and talk to each other across life experiences in part because just being in a room with people who have different life experiences is really interesting, and connecting with those people and learning about their life experiences is something that many adolescents haven’t had a chance to do. So there is a newness about the opportunity to get outside of your own context and into someone else’s context and to understand someone else’s perspective that I think is interesting to adolescents in a way that it may not be interesting to adults. One piece of research from the field of social/emotional learning that I think is very relevant in this context is this notion that in order for young people to develop social and emotional competencies that they can then draw on later in life to engage in dialogue or problem solving or covering conflict resolution, young people need three things. They need an opportunity to see those competencies modeled by adults. They need direct instruction about the kind of tools and skills that they can use when they need to draw on those competencies. And they need opportunities to practice those competencies. And when I talk about social/emotional competencies I’m talking about things like the ability to recognize your own emotions and manage our emotions. Or the ability to take perspectives and solve conflicts with by perspective-taking. Or the ability to switch your thinking about certain topics or hold multiple truths. All of those are skills we develop in childhood through adolescence that really are critical social/emotional building blocks for conflict resolution and dialogue later in life. So one thing I think is really important for educators in particular to know is that when we regulate for children and adolescents, when we tell them what to do and how to behave and we don’t give them opportunities to practice those skills, oftentimes it is very hard for them to do those things later in life in the context of the real world.
Neil: Your observation about the importance of combining this skill, the tools, the emotional/social competencies, but also the opportunity to practice those skills, feeds right into what’s at the heart of today’s episode, which is a project called The “Can We?” Project. A friend of ours named Deb Bicknell in southern Maine put together a weekend involving 30 teenagers from all over southern Maine. They came from different backgrounds and perspectives, and they were able to engage in dialogue in a facilitated setting on issues of deep public importance, but also a meaningful subject for the teens themselves. And then there was a second component to it, which was to have them articulate some policy proposals to take and present to the Maine gubernatorial candidates. It was all done during this past most recent election cycle. And so there was, with that setup for you, what is it about that particular project that you think actually is important for us or interesting for us to look at from a sort of a teen development standpoint?
Gretchen: So in the case of “Can We?” all of those kinds of opportunities fit very nicely into the field of positive youth development and would suggest that those young people would then start to gather a set of skills, particularly if they were able to do this over time, that allowed them to communicate more effectively across lines of difference, to better understand their own perspectives, to be more open to other people’s perspectives, and even potentially to better understand how you change someone’s perspective or you engage in an action around something with someone who has a different perspective.
Neil: Right. And all of these skills that can translate into adulthood as well.
Gretchen: Exactly and all of these skills translate into the kinds of things we would hope adults can do in our society, but often we don’t see right now, politically at least. At the same time I think it’s really critical that that project brought the young people to the gubernatorial candidates and actually allowed them to try to influence the adults. Too often we give young people opportunities to do the first part of what that project did, to talk and to connect and to express themselves. All of which are great things to do. But when we give young people the tools to actually act on those, that wisdom and that learning, then I think we start to move into a zone where young people can feel more empowered and uplifted and they can start to see the pathways through which, as adults or even as youth, they can actually change those systems.
Neil: So Gretchen this has really just been tremendous. I really appreciate you being here today and taking the time to share your perspective and insight and your wisdom and some some really helpful context for the show today. And it just was great to have you. Thank you so much.
Gretchen: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve loved talking with you.
Neil: You know, Sara, I’m so glad that we got to sit down and talk to Dr. Brion-Meisels because, well for one thing the question we asked to start this off was what would happen if you started teaching younger people how to engage constructively? And she offered some really great framing around the psychological development, the social development, that’s going on for teenagers that makes them so uniquely able to learn those skills and to build them in ways that maybe is harder for adults. And then not only to build them but to be able to retain them into adulthood so that as adults they’re better able to constructively engage in discussion and debate and dialogue around important political issues, in ways that when you look around today you see adults, you know, not particularly, not doing a particularly good job.
Sara: Yeah, so we’re gonna spend the rest of our time today with folks from a community that really took these ideas to heart and tested them out. The “Can We?” Project was the brainchild of a group of educators in Maine and it was essentially a project that was an experiment. Can we bring together young people across political divides, you know, different political views, to come up with real policy ideas that they developed jointly about challenging political and social issues? In the segments we’ve capture for this podcast you’ll hear several voices. Huy, originally from Vietnam, is a high school senior in Portland. Coutia, who’s from Berundi originally, is also a senior at a Portland high school. And Jacob was born and raised just outside Portland, where he’s also in his senior year. You also hear Deb Bicknell, another Mainer, who was instrumental in designing and implementing The “Can We?” Project.
Huy: This is Huy. I actually came in The “Can We?” Project, like, kind of almost fully understanding my identity. I Identify as liberal. And it was very hard for me to have conversations with conservatives and, like, be okay with it. I just had this prejudice in my mind and kind of just said, “Oh yeah all conservatives are racist, all of them just want money,” and that’s all they were. And they were what’s making America a terrible place to live. But after my experience with “Can We?” I was fortunate enough to have to have to get to sit down with someone who sees, like, the economy and society and a conservative viewpoint and trying to understand that was very difficult for me. But I’m still growing. And this “Can We?” Project has been a big aspect of me growing because I do now understand the importance of communication between liberals and conservatives for this nation to progress.
Coutia: This is Coutia. For me personally, I’ve been part of, like, many, many dialogues and what really drew me to The “Can We?” Project was the vast diversity of mind. Like, I had never been in a dialogue where there were so many different perspectives and viewpoints. So that was really cool. And coming in I considered myself a liberal and by the time I left I would consider myself more moderate, because I was able to sit down and listen to people from their point of view and, like, their firsthand experiences, which was really, really awesome.
Jacob: So . . . this is Jacob by the way . . . I was I was selected to come to this project partially because of my political opinion, I would say, but also because I had founded the political debate caucus at Cape Elizabeth High School, as well as co-founded the Cape Conservatives Club. So I kind of, I went into it thinking it was going to be pretty much the exact same thing that I’d already been doing. I didn’t know that it was going to be so much of a, so much of a philosophical journey, more than just people talking at each other to expand our minds. And I was really relieved to find that it was a real fresh, you know, a real breath of fresh air from, you know, talking heads on TV and, you know, a little five second soundbites.
Deb Bicknell: This is Deb. One of the most important components to transformation, in my opinion, is it is a delicate balance of comfort and discomfort. You can’t stay at home in your own house and eat the food you love and drink your favorite coffee or tea or what have you and talk to just the people that you like and have a different experience. You know we created a lot of opportunity for knowing oneself. Who are you? Why do you believe what you believe? I think Jacob called it philosophical—this sense of we’re not just here as talking heads to have a conversation. We’re whole people with multiple stories inside of us so we’re trying to have a sense of who am I. And then also learn the skills of figuring out who are you? Listening to, you know, what the other perspective is. And then doing, I think, the hard work of democracy to find places of agreement and disagreement and then areas of moving forward. So it’s really a balance of comfort and discomfort—times when people could feel like they were with people who thought like them and then other times where they needed to pair up and have difficult conversations.
Neil: Yeah so it does sound like hard work, but also fascinating work. I’m just wondering sort of as a practical matter what the program looked like. Maybe you can tell us a little bit from your perspective about what it took to create an environment where the students could actually do this, you know, the hard work of democracy, as you called it.
Deb: The “Can We?” Project is a three event program. So it started with, it’s a retreat model. So a three-day retreat followed by a two-day retreat and then an event in which students presented to gubernatorial candidates in Maine, their policy recommendations. The project itself is built on a framework that has to do with self-awareness, perspective-taking, and creative problem solving. The activities are activities that are small and large group activities in which young people, from multiple perspectives, either get into pairs or small groups, think about their relationship to democracy and how they define that. They think about their belief systems and do activities that propose, yeah, just question. It’s inquiry-based learning. It’s experiential learning. So there are activities that ask them to work in groups. Sometimes we did activities that were about pairing up with another person with an opposing view, both to be able to articulate, to learn, to practice, the skill of articulating what you believe, listening to another person’s belief, and then thirdly being able to find common ground. We also did a lot with the creative arts. So we introduced an art project through the process that also was really important for, I think, all humans, but in particular young people, finding ways that are using different parts of the brain to express and integrate. So for example people would have a partner and they had to outline each other’s silhouettes and they had to ask each other curious questions, so to get to know each other as human beings, and what matters to you, and different questions such as this. It’s using the skills of narrative theory, being able to tell your story. It’s teaching communication skills, while also giving an opportunity to remove yourself from your regular environment.
Sara: So it’s so interesting to hear how you created an environment to teach the skills of dialogue, and perspective-taking more broadly, and we’re also fascinated by the policy aspect of The “Can We?” Project, right. So you broke this larger group of 30 students into four smaller groups to discuss policy issues and actually design proposals to present to the Maine gubernatorial candidates. And they were big issues that these groups were discussing—guns, drug policy, education, race. Huy and Jacob, we understand you two were in the same small group dealing with issues around race. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you?
Huy: This is Huy, and our group was, we just had a lot of disagreement on what policies we should take because we had a discussion of what white privilege is and what white privilege isn’t. And there were just lots of disagreements within that to the point where we struggled. All the other groups had their policies but our group was still trying to kind of, like, unravel, like, something we agree and disagree on. And I think that’s just difficult because race has such a big history in this nation that it was just hard. Everyone comes from their core beliefs of with their family and friends and just, like, individually which made it hard for us to all sit down and be, like, these are some policies we can change because even the gubernatorial candidates might disagree with us which is very tricky. But through, like, conversation and just, like, being, like, “Hey this where we don’t disagree, this is what we disagree on, this is what we agree on. I think we made it work and we had an excellent performance to the gubernatorial candidate.
Jacob: I agree entirely. We were notorious for, you know, taking the difficult angles on the difficult topics and, you know, using brute force to talk about it through our entire time. One of the activities that you wanted to hear about, we used a fishbowl style to present our small group’s progress to the other groups. So you’d have a group of chairs in the middle with all of the people from the group in the chairs, short of one empty seat, and then all the other three groups in a circle around it. And then our small group would present to the other three groups and then they would be able to send in one person at a time to ask questions to us. That was really kind of the peak of difficulty at that point because we had a whole bunch of people who had a whole bunch of, you know, specific ties from their identity to this topic and none of them really could, or even should, give any common ground. It’s like one of those things where you have to be polarized on. And struggles went in and we came out stronger and we presented a little bit of a different presentation to the gubernatorial candidates. Like, we told them about our struggles and how that was necessary and how it had to happen to have this conversation.
Coutia: As, like, to kind of speak upon what Jacob was talking about when we did those fish bowls, I have to agree with him. That was probably one of the most intense moments while we were at “Can We?” because the conversation was, in a sense to me being an outsider, I sat inside the circle once, but I took that time to kind of observe a lot. Like, being on the outside, it just became a conversation that was running in circles. But sitting there I realized that if you yell at someone and you keep telling them the same thing over and over again, it’s not going to change anything. And I think that was the moment when I was like, this conversation isn’t going anywhere. It’s not going to help me learn. It’s not going to help anybody else in the room learn. So how can we do this better? How can we change this so that every single person in here leaves learning something new?
For me being one of the people of color in the room, hearing the conversation, it was very difficult. But it was a lesson I needed to learn because conversations are going to go like that. And I also had to learn not to take it personally because these people weren’t saying these things out of malice. At least I think they weren’t. It wasn’t them trying to attack me and people who look like me. It was them trying to grasp the concept of race or talk about race from their perspective if they weren’t people of color. And I shouldn’t have expected them to understand what I go through because I don’t understand what they go through. So who am I to sit there and think “Oh you should be saying ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘c,’ because you should know what it’s like to be me.” That was a huge lesson, that not every conversation has a conclusion. I think that was a very big lesson I learned while at “Can We?” from that one conversation.
Deb Bicknell: I have to say there’s so many things that this experience gave to me. One was to watch this generation, this group of young people, not give up and not collapse. So while there was some real, there were really difficult moments, they came back to it and the task at hand. So when they came back the second or third time what I remember the group saying is, we’re going to focus on what we can agree on and what we can agree on is that the gubernatorial candidate in Maine, whoever that new governor is, will need to address and will need to have some sort of racial consciousness, right. You all said, we agree as a group that they’ll need to know how to talk and think about topics of race. And there was a laundry list of things that related to race and racial equity that the group did not agree on. And I thought that was a particularly poignant moment. And maybe an element of democracy that we’ve sort of let go of a bit, which is there’s a lot we disagree on. And maybe it’s also worth a little extra look at what we can agree on even if it’s a small amount.
Neil: And maybe even sometimes it’s okay that we don’t all agree on everything.
Deb Bicknell: Absolutely.
Neil: And we don’t need to make the goal agreeing on everything. I don’t know, was that a sense that you guys had in your group ultimately?
Jacob: Yeah. This is Jacob. That exact sentiment was kind of the big breaking point that kind of broke the dam down, we were able to move past. One kid named John who, you know, pretty much hadn’t been saying very much the entire time, spoke up and said, you know, it kind of clicked in his head that we don’t need to be at the same place here to make this thing. A whole bunch of people we’re trying to, you know, all drag each other around. But then John spoke and he said, you know, exactly what you just said. And from there on we all took that exactly, we took that as sacrosanct and we were able to form presentation. We were able to do everything else we needed to do.
Sara: Why do you think that was so freeing for the group?
Jacob: I think it was impactful because it is, it was just such a sentiment that you don’t ever hear, that you don’t ever, you don’t ever hear that you just can disagree with people and that can be the end of it.
Neil: It’s funny it does seem like a simple, but also a really profound, idea and really comforting to embrace it. But it doesn’t always come so naturally. I mean I wonder, Coutia or Huy, did either of you have a sort of light bulb moment on the question of having to actually confront and figure out, you know, what to do about being in disagreement.
Coutia: Yes most definitely. I gained a lot of skills of how to articulate myself, on how to stand up for myself, and also how to know when to leave a conversation. When to know that I’m not going to change the . . . also that the point of going into a dialogue or a conversation is not to change the other person’s mind but to kind of gain their perspective and listen to them so that they take the time to listen to you. And I think that is just something I’m going to take with me everywhere I go for the rest of my life. I think going in I thought I was, like, very headstrong in my ideas. I was very open to other people teaching me new things, but I was kind of like “I know these things and I’m good. I’m here to listen. Maybe teach other people stuff.” But once getting there and having that huge diversity of mind and also having students who were also very strong in their beliefs, who were willing to challenge me. It was kind of like the first time someone sat there and was, like, “Why? Why?” And getting stumbled and being, like, “I don’t know!” Like, it taught you, “Wait maybe I’m not so strong in these beliefs. Maybe I need to take a moment and think about what I’m saying before I say it.” And I think that that was a big lesson too. And I’m glad I had it.
Neil: What would you students have said about your, sort of, the level of your inherent belief in democracy going into this project? Had you guys thought about, I don’t know, cracks, or fissures, or weaknesses in sort of the whole democratic experience or experiment before you got to this project?
Jacob: I definitely had faith in people to make the right decisions. Over time, enough of the bad ideas are filtered out naturally, impassively that it would be not too terrible. Like we have moved in a positive direction over time, I felt.
Coutia: Me, I had never really thought about it deeply, to be honest. So I think that after “Can We?” I think I did think about it more deeply and kind of paid more attention to that, like, the policy aspect. Because I think that a lot of the times I was engaging in conversations about what was happening, but never about what could be done. And I think “Can We?” taught me with, like, going through all the dialogues we did, but then also having that component of presenting to the to the gubernatorial candidates, having something that we, like, you know, what we had all these conversations. We spent all this time. Now let’s do something about it. I think that was an important lesson I learned about. You can talk about something all you want and constantly. But if you never do anything about it then sometimes those conversations are just leading you nowhere.
Neil: I love that point about the importance of the the policy piece of the work that you guys did and I’m curious, I guess, from the perspective, your perspective Huy, and yours too Jacob, how did that piece play a role in your overall experience of the project? This . . . and how important was that to include as part of The “Can We?” Project?
Jacob: It’s definitely, definitely the crux, having the central goal of working towards that because, without that it, would have fallen apart a lot quicker. We all knew that we had to do something to prepare for the presentation in front of the audience, in front of the gubernatorial candidates.
Huy: I think it added a very important component to The “Can We?” Project because once we got together in groups to bring policies up, and agreement and disagreement up to present to the gubernatorial candidates, it couldn’t be a debate anymore. Like, the discussion had to be a democratic decision that we were going to present. So it took away kind of, like, our, like, ideas of debating—like, I’m right you’re wrong—but more, like, what do we all, like, it force us and challenged us to wonder, like, what do we all agree on what can we discuss and what policies can we all agree on? And it also added, like, that component of being, like, this means something. It’s not just like a bunch of kids getting together for a conversation. And that’s important within itself, but, like, it’s also, like, we’re going to do something, we’re going to talk to some pretty important people on this stage and they’re gonna hear us. And it just added those two important components. And I thought it meant a lot.
Sara: I want to come back to something that Coutia mentioned a little bit earlier, which is the challenge of being asked about the “why” behind your beliefs. I just want to give you a chance to weigh in on that as well, Huy and Jacob, since that seems like a really key and different part of this program.
Huy: Well I go to a very liberal school. So when I was asked this question it was always a fear in my mind, like, what if I just believe everything because it’s like a popular trend at my school to believe very liberal things. And it really challenged, especially when I was talking to, like, conservatives and they were challenging, like, why I thought the way I thought. And it’s just, like, I never had, like, someone challenge that I because I go to all liberal school. Anything I say that have liberal tendencies was correct to everyone else. So to be challenged by, like, our facilitators and other conservatives, it was a very beneficial thing. And it really got me thinking, like, “Are these my own beliefs or are these beliefs I adapted from my environment?”
Jacob: I think the reason why people don’t really want to hear the “why,” like you were saying, is because they think they already know the “why.” Like, they very clearly know someone’s intent behind something even you know just by their own assertion. So when someone hears me say, for example, that I think police brutality is an overstated problem and they think, well that must be because you don’t care about blacks, or you think police are OK, or you this and this and this. But you break it down into, it is just, you know, over-statements from the media, for example. A position that they never would have thought one could have. And that goes both ways obviously.
Sara: Even going back to some of the broadest labels like liberal/conservative. Sometimes when we hear that we think, “I know exactly your story, I know exactly who you are as a character.” And I think what I’m hearing you say is that there, what you experienced in “Can We?” was a lot of complexity around where people’s stories came from, or beliefs came from, I should say.
Jacob: Kind of my biggest personal growth coming out of this, I think, I don’t really think I mentioned earlier, was that I went in expecting a lot of cookie cutter opinions, like a lot of things that everyone that was left-minded could all say with no really tangents and personal experiences that could alter what they were saying. But when I went in I was really lucky to hear how once you just break the surface level of, you know, what they think they’re supposed to say, then you get down to really how interesting everyone is individually and how every single person has, you know, very much different opinions on things ranging from, well, lots things that we talked about. And you just have to break down that surface area. You have to break down the barriers to entry to get them to talk about it and you’ll find that they’re very interesting.
Deb Bicknell: I think that’s the thing is that we’re all so complex and there’s a thousand stories or maybe even a million stories inside one person. And I know for me I do this work alongside these students to almost let my take that deep breath, but also, yeah, to try to have my feelings and then also be willing to see the thousand or million stories inside of that person and not just stop at my disconnect or my lack of agreement. But it’s messy territory. It’s not for the faint of heart. You sort of have to be willing to, I don’t know I guess in Maine we’d say put on your big, like, muck boots and you have to be brave you know? It is not easy emotional territory. I don’t know what you guys would say but I think it’s pretty challenging. But I think you asked a question earlier about what are the benefits. Like why should we do this? Maybe it’s not even just can we, but should we? You know I’m curious like what you guys would say and why should we?
Neil: That’s the perfect question. Why? Why do this at all?
Jacob: That’s kind of what my parents say. It’s like they used the example of the risk being attached to speaking out about politics, like, this as evidence to show that, you know, you’re just causing upset and you’re just getting people riled up and you shouldn’t do it. But then if we didn’t do it, well everyone just goes and goes into their little islands and then they form little echo chambers and they never talk to each other and now we’re just left in the same problem again. So the reason that we do need to do this and talk to each other is to bring everyone back into the middle so we can put policies forward rather than just having you know the political flip flop system that we have right now where parties switch in and out of politics and power over and over and over again.
Huy: I already said this before but it’s kind of, like, the fact that we are the next generation. We’re going to be the next. Like I said the next teachers, the next advocates and, like, the next people taking on the roles of Senator and House of Representative. And I think it’s just I don’t believe our society can progress as quickly as we would like it to unless we all sit down and have a discussion about policy and about, like, what we agree on what we disagree on. And I think that’s so important because we can’t just, like, I was talking to a friend about this and they’re, like, why even do this? Let’s just create bills and, like, outvote them or something that. At then at first I was, like, “That sounds like a wonderful idea. I’ll vote the, I’ll vote the Conservatives and Liberals win.” And, like, their next step is to over, in 2020, overrun the Senate again and then take the presidency too. But what good does that do when we have the other half of the population trying to fight back and trying to reverse all that and maybe in 2024. And it’s kind of, like, we’re just gonna have this ongoing battle back and forth until we can all sit down and demographically, like, what this nation believes in, agree to progress as one rather than just agree as, like, to progress one half and then the other half progresses and I think that’s so important.
Coutia: Yeah. I would just probably echo everything that’s been said and also, like, if we’re not, I think we have to be the start. We have to be the ones who are, we’re going to have these conversations because we, like, we said, we’re next up and we need to have these conversations in order to move forward and I think coming back after, “Can We?” and, like, kind of talk to my friends about politics, it kind of showed me a huge difference in the way I look get things compared to the way they look at things. Because I think some of them are still stuck in the mindset of like conservatives are bad and we need to get rid of them instead of being like, “Hey we should probably sit down talk about this, really see where this is coming from, and perhaps come to some common ground or just really educate ourselves.” And I think that’s the biggest problem is that when you’re so stuck in your ideas you think I’m right everybody else is wrong. I’m not even going to take that step to maybe learn a little more about the other side. So I’m happy that we were all brave enough and strong enough to be, like, you know what maybe some ideas are wrong and I need to learn better.
Sara: I’m just so struck by what each of you have said—a real vision for a better way of doing politics and a better system and better interactions than what we’re seeing now or what the status quo has. And imagining that you, that you do have a platform to communicate some of what you learned to adults who are our leaders, what would be the thing that you would tell them, based on your experience? What would be your advice or your sort of a nugget of reflection that you’d want to share based on your experience?
Coutia: I think that going through The “Can We?” Project I realized that I didn’t know everything and if I didn’t know any everything and that the adults around me didn’t know everything. I think that the problem I see with a lot of like the older generation is that they’re so stuck in their ideas and they think they know what’s best that they stopped learning and they stopped listening. And I think that’s a huge problem of once you shut yourself off nothing can ever change. So I think that we need to keep learning, keep listening to new perspectives, and really give others a chance.
Huy: Yeah, like, everything I’m about to say just kind of echoes of Coutia and I just I won’t repeat it, just because the idea’s already out, but also to adults, like, don’t count out young people. And I think Deb touched on this before, like, yes we’re young but our circle has we’re still exploring new ideas and new feelings and our identities. But that doesn’t make us incapable of having meaningful conversations to help progress this progress this society. And I just I do believe the younger generation now is intelligent enough to be the next change in our nation. And I think that if adults and young like young adults and we all work together, I think we can do a lot of great things for this country and even the world.
Neil: Is what you’re talking about the fundamental question? Can we? I mean is that what gets at? Can we overcome where we are right now so that it doesn’t look like this in 2020 or 2024 or 2028, whatever it is. Is that the question in part that you guys are trying to answer in this project? Can we do differently than we’re doing right now?
Huy: And I believe we can.
Coutia: Yes we can.
Huy: We definitely can.
Coutia: Yes we can.
Jacob: I mean seeing just how we’ve done it amongst ourselves. I think we can if there’s people out there like us groups of students that are willing to do it then I think it’ll happen.
Neil: Well, all right Sara, that does bring us to the end of the time we got to spend with the students from The “Can We?” Project, and Deb Bicknell. And what an impressive group it was, you know, when you stop to think that a group of ideologically diverse teens were able to come together not only to build some of the skills to engage with each other through their differences and see each other as people instead of caricatures, but also to devise, you know, really important joint policy proposals. It gives us a lot of hope for what the next generation can accomplish.
Sara: Yeah, that gets a lot of hope, a lot of inspiration. And I know for it, for us, a lot of motivation. And we hope that you felt that as well as you as you’re listening. We also hope that you’ll come to join us on our next episode. We’re going to visit with some really courageous people who are working to help a community in Minnesota forge through some incredibly painful and incredibly challenging issues related to race and policing. So stay tuned for our next episode on that. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the American Arbitration Association’s International Center for Dispute Resolution Foundation.
Neil: Thanks so much also to our editor Kate Ellis and to the folks at the Harvard Media Production Center where we do our recording. Theme music is made available to us courtesy of Blue Dot sessions.
Sara: And we want to thank our colleague, Tracy Blanchard, for her indispensable help.
Neil: If you’d like to hear more about anything that we spoke about on today’s show, please take a look at our website: hnmcp.law.harvard.edu/podcast. And there you’ll find a transcript of today’s show and many other resources that relate to what we talked about.
Sara: Thanks for listening.
Neil: As always thanks for listening.