Breaking Down Stereotypes in Ithaca

“You’re not demons after all”

BY Jenni Prisk

ITHACA, NY — Invite Seven Republicans and seven Democrats to a community hall, add food, focus and fun and what develops? A civilized and intelligent conversation about the polarization in our country and how to bridge the dangerous divide that has formed in our nation.

I had the opportunity to observe a Better Angels Daylong Dialogue in Ithaca, NY on July 15, and the outcome was quite extraordinary.

The participants (who volunteered to partake) entered the hall diffidently. However, after a warm welcome, receipt of a blue or red nametag that represented the party they voted for, and some good coffee, they started to relax.

Bill and David kick off the gathering

Lead by two masterful facilitators, Bill Doherty and David Blankenhorn (founder of Better Angels) and assisted by a third, David Lapp, the whole group was invited to share in a welcoming exercise.

Subsequently, the red and blue groups met separately to identify stereotypes that they believe they have been affixed by “the other side.” They also discussed whether any of the stereotypes had a kernel of truth. When the groups came together to share their discoveries that’s when defenses started to dissipate.

The reds list out the stereotypes they feel are given to them by the other side

“I’m really surprised that you (Blue) would think that we (Red) consider you disloyal citizens.”

“I was surprised to see how you (Reds) were willing to be critical of yourselves.”

The blues list out the stereotypes they feel are given to them by the other side

The day proceeded. The exercises and conversations became more intense. The laughter continued. The changes in each person manifested clearly and distinctly.

No one was asked to change their party politics; the goal of the dialogue was to bridge the divide and foster openness between people from both sides speaking with civility and understanding.

Near the close of the meeting, both groups were invited to develop questions for the other group on current policies that distress them. The surprising outcome? Both Red and Blue groups created almost identical questions!

(Red) “We want clean water and air just like you do.”

(Blue) “We have much more in common than we thought.”

So, after seven hours together, 14 citizens who had spoken their minds about a myriad of civic issues, left with a very different view of “the other side.”

“I’m so used to demonizing the other side,” joked one, “but you’re not demons at all!”

They saw themselves now as similar, not different. They were eager to share the day with friends, family and those who voted differently.

And a final comment that expressed the views of all: “Better Angels are lighting a candle.”

Jenni Prisk is on the Leadership Council of Better Angels

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