On Thursday, May 10 in Westbrook, a very unusual thing happened. Thirty students of diverse backgrounds and political perspectives from seven Maine high schools came together to discuss some of the most emotionally-charged political topics of our time: race, gun policy, education, and drug policy. They were joined on stage by nine gubernatorial candidates and a few very experienced facilitators. In the audience were dozens more students, parents, educators and public servants.
The students led the conversation. They explained to the rest of us how they spent the past few months meeting to discuss these very challenging topics, about which they were predisposed to disagree vehemently. They taught us how they learned to listen carefully and respectfully to each other, in order to challenge their own preconceived ideas about the issues and learn from each other.
“We didn’t always agree with each other, but the more I listened to different perspectives, the more aware I became that my opinion isn’t necessarily the most important one,” a junior from Cape Elizabeth High School said with the poise and maturity one might expect from a seasoned professor.
“How did you handle it when things got heated?” one gubernatorial candidate asked.
“We learned to let each other finish, without interrupting,” a student from Portland High School explained. “We didn’t just wait for others to stop talking so we could speak. We actually listened to each other and took time to think about what others were saying.”
The event lasted for two hours, and I dare say I wasn’t the only one in the audience genuinely moved by the opportunity to experience young people teaching adults the value of civility in political discourse. This was not a simple exercise in virtue signaling, which has become all too common in society these days – like when people demonstrate their solidarity with a cause by saying, doing, or (ugh) wearing something that in fact does nothing to impact the issue they want us so badly to know they care about.
This was a meticulously designed process, called “The Can We?” Project, an experiment in revitalizing democracy, which was created by a number of wise and dedicated leaders at the Waynflete School. These people asked the question: “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 our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all?”
I am pleasantly surprised to report to you, having experienced that very unusual thing that happened last Thursday in Westbrook, that the answer is decidedly, YES. Perhaps only temporarily, or intermittently, but it is possible. We can do it. If we try.
A generous and very thoughtful donor joined Lowell Libby, Upper School Director at Waynflete, along with excellent educators to coordinate the event. They hired Deborah Bicknell, an exceptionally talented project designer with deep experience facilitating thorny group dialogue in places like the Middle East and the deep south. The Maine Heritage Policy Center co-sponsored the project and was asked to work with the students and the project designers to share conservative and libertarian perspectives on the issues that aren’t often well-represented in the classroom. Students were recruited to participate in two weekend-long retreats where they engaged in all sorts of intense conversations before sharing their experiences with the public at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.
MHPC CEO Matt Gagnon recently wrote a column in the Bangor Daily News, entitled “We must deny the urge to ruin each other.” He is right. Perhaps we can all get better at doing just that if we recommit to treating each other with courtesy and respect. And listening, really listening, to each other before we speak.