Talking Politics — Still

An update on a cross-national dialogue

In the days after Donald Trump’s election win, with the nation shredded by political and cultural differences, a group of women who supported Trump and women who voted for Hillary Clinton agreed to talk. Ten months later, they still are talking in a closed Facebook group they named Cali-bama Connection. They discuss some of the era’s most charged topics as, more commonly around them, fights rage while civility fades.

The Trump supporters are from Alabama, the Clinton supporters from the San Francisco Bay Area. They were first brought together by AL.com, Alabama’s largest news group, and Spaceship Media, a Bay Area media engagement venture that designed the project, a month-long moderated Facebook conversation named Talking Politics.

That project, designed as a way for AL.com to engage its audience and create a productive dialogue between people of opposite beliefs, gave rise to another in which thirty of the 50 participants formed their own Facebook group, deciding to embark on a self-guided expression of the desire to understand and be understood.

“I’m so thankful I chose to be a part of this experience. I know it is changing my way of thinking about things,” Leah Dicus, a nurse from Alabama, posted in the Cali-bama group this month.

Separated by geography, ideology and experience, but united by months of getting to know one another, the women carry on a dialogue that can be nuanced in a way not often visible elsewhere.

“It is not an argument; it is an attempt to find common ground and possible compromise,” said Jane Walker, a CPA from Alabama. “Our dialogue is more suited to C-Span. It is pretty detailed.”

The group’s activity waxes and wanes. But events have a way of igniting discussion.

After white supremacists marched and clashed with their foes in Charlottesville, Va., and a protester was attacked and killed, Brittany Walker Pettigrew of Oakland asked Cali-bama Connection members to rank on a 1–10 scale how willing they were to talk about what happened in Virginia, and why the topic was so hard to broach.

“My initial post has like a kabillion comments,” Walker Pettigrew said. “Everybody ranking themselves. The post inspired people to talk about what they would need for the conversation to be productive.”

As went the nation, so went the group, the conversation turning quickly to Confederate monuments. But unlike the nation, where there appears very little change in people’s positions, some members of Cali-bama Connection have shifted theirs in response to the continued dialogue.

“I have learned that many were erected during times of civil rights as a reminder of racist beliefs and white power, and to me that changes them in my mind,” Dicus said.

Courtney Hall, an Alabama attorney in the group, added: “After discussing the historical context of many of these statues, most of the Alabama women agreed that some of the confederate statues should be removed. For example, there is a large statue of Jefferson Davis in the front of the Alabama State Capitol, which was commissioned during the Jim Crow era. Many Alabama women agreed that the statue should be removed and possibly moved to the White House of the Confederacy, which is just a block away. Although we could not agree on an Alabamian to replace Jefferson Davis, we all agreed that there were other Alabamians who are more deserving of such a place of prominence.”

Other shifts came after a long discussion of the official holidays celebrating Davis and other confederate leaders — which included screenshots of calendars and some Alabama women contradicting others there who said there were no such holidays.

“I feel like it is important to push Republican lawmakers to move on correcting some of the holdover Dixiecrat holidays … there is certainly some institutional racism that can be fixed without much argument.” said Walker.

Walker Pettigrew, too, has experienced some unexpected changes in opinion after mulling the perspectives offered by the group’s Southern women.

“I really felt that there was no place for the confederate statues and monuments. But I can see how it would be beneficial to save some key pieces and put them in a museum or in an old Civil War battlefield,” she said. “I can also see how the Jefferson Davis statue makes more sense in front of the Confederate White House.”

It has helped, Jane Walker said, that Pettigrew Walker, who is black, broached the topic of Charlottesville, and that another black Bay Area member, Helena Brantley, has also helped steer the discussion.

“Here these two women have participated and expressed their struggles and that of their families without accusing the group of being participants in evil,” Walker said. “And that has made all the difference.”

There is no doubting that Cali-bama is not a worry-free zone; it is often frustrating, sometimes painful. The Charlottesville conversation has been too difficult for many.

“In this case, many have expressed that they are not willing or able to civilly to discuss the events in Charlottesville and have removed themselves from the conversation altogether. In my opinion, these are healthy boundaries essential for the longevity of the group,” said Hall, one of two women the group chose as a co-moderator.

Group members say engaging in this way can at times be a hard slog.

“It’s been hard and discouraging,” Bay Area participant Susannah Prinz said. “Sometimes I want to quit it.”

“But I really think for some reason there is value in it,” she continued. “It is one of the places where we can stick to the conversation long enough to maybe move a teensy bit towards seeing each other. It is the only place I’ve seen productive conversation.”

Andrea Laiacona Dooley of the Bay Area, whom the group chose as its co-moderator, said she sometimes questions the value of the effort because of the intransigence of some participants; she remains active for now, she said, because others find it worthwhile. And, she noted, in Hall, the Alabama attorney, she has made a friend whom she wouldn’t have otherwise.

And others have discovered that they’re not as polarized on some of the issues around Charlottesville as they originally thought.

“I think all of us to some extent are thinking about what happened in Charlottesville; having people to talk with that we know may have different thoughts is key to what makes these dialogues so distinct.” Brantley said. “But the funny thing is, we appear to have more in common about this particular event than some of us may have thought.”

The arc from the original Talking Politics project to the current Cali-bama conversations is a long one, traced by deep frustrations and surprising breakthroughs.

“I know people in the deep south who are showing up for tough conversations about race and politics,” said Brantley. “Race, by the way, was the issue that was almost untouchable eight or nine months ago, and here we are, talking about it.”

“I am actually pretty hopeful about these women,” Walker Pettigrew said. “That we could all come together and talk about things that are difficult and to do so respectfully and with more than just tolerance. I do feel that many of us have been able to achieve acceptance of the other people and our ideas without even necessarily agreeing with each other. When we listen to understand instead of to respond we open ourselves up to find common ground.”

Ian Sumner is California based journalist, filmmaker, and podcaster.

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