With the political battles for the White House and Congress already heating up months ahead of 2020, so is the partisan bickering. A new training program in Dayton aims to help people avoid such political disagreements in their own lives.
It was inspired by a documentary film called American Creed featuring people from the left and the right sitting down together to discuss what it means to be an American today. Dayton organizers hope to spark the same sort of conversations around the Miami Valley this election season.
The training has drawn a handful of participants to a conference room in the back of Wright Memorial Library, where Reference Librarian Elizabeth Schmidt is teaching the art of hosting conversations that can sometimes ... get a little sticky.
The library has held a lot of these community conversations recently. So far, they’ve covered issues such as voting, technology, racism, and Islamophobia.
Wright Memorial is one of 50 libraries across the country teaching community members to moderate similar talks in their own homes.
Schmidt says organizers call them “living room conversations.”
"Getting together with another person who perhaps is across the aisle from you, thinks differently. You each invite two friends to come and have a conversation. The goal of the conversation is to connect with other people who think differently than you," Schmidt says.
So-called living room conversations are also featured in the documentary American Creed, screening in Dayton as part of a partnership between Wright Memorial Library and ThinkTV.
The film's website describes living room conversations as, "a conversational bridge across issues that divide and separate us."
"The idea for American Creed grew out of conversations between two Stanford University professors: political scientist and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and David M. Kennedy, who became a historian in large part to determine whether the United States has a “national character” — what defines it and how it changes over time," the film's description reads.
The film features political power players from the left and right of the political spectrum sitting down together to discuss what they feel it means to be an American today.
One scene features a conversation between Mark Meckler, who founded the Tea Party, and Joan Blades, who founded MoveOn.org, talking about how they learned to communicate and later became friends:
"BLADES: There are some things that we are just so far apart on. There’s some discomfort there, but I recognize him as a friend.
MECKLER: You could say Joan Blades, founder of MoveOn.org, an organization that I don’t really like politically speaking, but when you put the human to the organization, it changes everything."
Participants at the Wright Memorial Library event say they don’t see a lot of Americans with opposing political opinions talking in their own communities about issues they might disagree on, at least not nicely.
Training participant Laurel Kerr says she’d like to see more civil discourse happening in the real world.
"I think that the discourse in general has become so divisive that many people have stopped feeling like they can talk to people in their own family, their friends, their neighbors," she says, "and that’s isolating.
Kerr says she came to the library hoping to learn how to navigate political conversations in her own life, and that focusing on the core values many Americans do share can connect us beyond the red and blue divide.
"I do believe we need to stand up for what we believe, but I don’t need to insist that everybody else believe it with me," Kerr says. "And even though we have different political beliefs or opinions, we can still care about each other."
Kerr’s sense of urgency and empathy is echoed by many others at the library.
But the folks here are self-selecting: they chose to participate.
What happens when they try these new skills on their own?
Can these sorts of living room conversations work in the real, and really divided, world?
"Absolutely," says Joe Valenzano from the University of Dayton.
He designed a communication class that features conversations very similar to living room conversations, and he wrote the textbook for it. It’s a class every student at UD is required to take.
Valenzano says it ideally teaches young people how to, “disagree without being disagreeable,” and how to dialogue.
"Dialogue is speaking in a way that invites other people to listen and listening in a way that invites people to speak," he says.
Valenzano says small-group discussions like the ones being taught at Wright Memorial, and featured in the American Creed documentary are vital to our democracy.
"If you can get six or seven people in a room to learn how to do this, and then each of them goes and gets six or seven to do this. In a couple years, you really have built a foundation in a community that is open, that is democratic, that isn’t afraid to engage different ideas and can do so without making people feel unwelcome," he says.
Participant David Chesar says he wants to be one of those six or seven people who gets another six or seven people talking.
"I would like to host one of these, maybe for some of the parents in my neighborhood or along the street, and learn more about each other and still feel free to have differing opinions," Chesar says. "Because I really think that everyone is a resource for each other. When you lose a differing opinion or close your ears to even hearing it, you’ve kind of lost something yourself."
That’s exactly the kind of thing librarian Elizabeth Schmidt was hoping to hear at the training, and she says she hopes more Daytonians will try these sort of talks as the country approaches the 2020 elections.
"People can make this happen on their block or in their neighborhood," she says.
With politicians and pundits already arguing and attacking each other in advance of 2020, there may be no better time for the people to put some polite back into American politics.
Wright Library will be screening the film American Creed on Saturday, May 11, at 1 p.m., with an audience conversation after.
To register for this free event, visit wrightlibrary.org