Students from Seven Universities Gather at Penn for Political Dialogue

In what was characterized as a path-breaking experiment at the University of Pennsylvania, nearly 100 students from seven universities came to discuss politics with each other, despite their differing perspectives.

In groups of 10, they tackled tough questions posed by Penn faculty during the two-hour event, “Can We Talk? Political Dialogue in Donald Trump’s America.”

Organized by Penn Graduate School of Education’s Harris Sokoloff and Jonathan Zimmerman, the dialogue series is in partnership with Cairn University, formerly Philadelphia Biblical University, in Langhorne, Pa.

​​​​​​​The series, which began last spring with discussions between Penn and Cairn students, has grown to include students from Drexel, Eastern, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova universities. The series will continue on Nov. 15 at Cairn.

“I do think we are making history today,” GSE Professor Zimmerman said during the introduction. “We are changing how we approach political discourse.”

To expand and diversify the discussion groups, organizers reached out to faculty at the other universities, who then invited and brought their students.

“Democracy depends upon an educated citizenry, and part of the role of education in a democracy is to support reasoned dialogue across many kinds of differences, including political differences,” said GSE Dean Pamela Grossman, who attended the dialogue. “I hope that these conversations can jump-start much-needed dialogue on our campus communities to bridge the political divide."

Greg Schaller, assistant professor at Cairn, brought 16 students, half of them John Jay Fellows who have completed their bachelor’s degree and are spending a semester focusing on issues of faith, politics, culture and the Constitution.

“The students I brought were grateful for this opportunity to speak with people who don’t share the same worldview,” he said. “The discussion seemed to be a very effective approach to bridging the ideological divide.”

The hope is that the pilot program they are creating will eventually go to other campuses.

“Political dialogue is not a natural skill,” Zimmerman said. “You need to learn how to do it. You need to practice it. There is no model. It’s all learned behavior. The solution to problems is not to get everybody to agree. The solution is mediums and venues to disagree in a mutually respectful manner.”

The invitation for the event laid out the challenge. “The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has exposed enormous fault lines in American politics. But citizens of different perspectives rarely engage in real conversation; instead they shout past each other. In such a polarized environment, how can we talk across our differences?”

First, five ground rules as a foundation for civil discussion:

·      Listen. It is as important as talking. “Lean in thoughtfully with a willingness to be changed by what you hear.”

·      Make room for everyone to speak: “Everyone’s value is important and we want to hear everyone’s views.”

·      Be honest, but not mean or cruel. “You can be direct, but make room for others. Don’t try to shut others down.”

·      Ask questions, to understand. “Not to corner people or rebut what they said, but with genuine curiosity.”

·      Don’t feel the need to resolve a disagreement. “Instead explore it. And don’t disengage.”

The people at each table got to know each other through a “multiple identities” exercise, describing themselves.

“When the participants first spent time learning about others at the table, absent their political beliefs,” said Cairn’s Schaller,” a rapport developed which allowed everyone to appreciate each other as individuals. Once this foundation was established, the introduction of political issues, which often were points of contention, were less volatile.”

Co-moderator Chris Satullo, who partners with Sokoloff in GSE’s Penn Project for Civic Engagement, asked the questions that framed the conversation.

A panel of four students from Cairn, Eastern, Penn and Villanova took on the questions first, and the participants at the tables then spoke with each other.

·      In your family growing up, how were politics and political discussion handled?

·      Think of one issue in politics or society in which the events of this year have really bothered you or pleased you. What is that event and why did that issue have such an effect on you? What would you like to see happen? If you have a difference in opinion, explore that difference.

·      Is there any part of your own position or view that as a result of this discussion causes you doubt or uneasiness, that troubles you?

·      Based on experience here tonight, can imagine making changes on campus, online, or with family?

Topics discussed included racism, immigration, heath care, same-sex marriage, climate change, income disparity, violence, political campaign spending and kneeling during the national anthem at public events.

“One of the things that struck me was the connection between politics and religion,” Sokoloff said about halfway through the evening. “In a couple of cases, questioning one often led to questioning the other.”

Jared Eckert, a John Jay Fellow at Cairn who was on the student panel, described himself as conservative and Christian. The students on the panel discussed same-sex marriage, and the four had different points of view on the topic. 

“Everything they said makes sense for the reasons they brought up, and I can see how got to their conclusions, even if I disagreed,” Eckert said. 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Asked to share with the group, Penn senior Jana Korn, an urban studies major from Washington, D.C., said those at her table had a “heated” discussion about gun control.

“I’ve been frustrated by our failure as a country to challenge the status quo, to come up with solutions for how many guns are on our streets,” Korn said. “It was interesting to hear the spectrum about how people responded to that.”

Afterwards, Korn, who describes herself as “very political” and who is a former president of Penn Democrats, said she appreciated the opportunity to speak with students from other schools. The “very civilized” conversations, she said, made her think about why people form their opinions.

“I’m definitely going to try to think about how to challenge myself and the people around me to think about not only where people are now, but where they came from, in forming their opinions,” she said.

​​​​​​​Esther Glasgow, a Penn GSE master’s student in education policy, was one of the four on the panel. She explained that she decided to go to graduate school because of the achievement gap for underserved and minority communities and the choice of the current administration’s education secretary.

“I found that as young adults, the values that we are just beginning to adopt are shaping our political views,” she said in an interview afterwards. “The most important reminder was that our most precious values are more important than politics, and if we can identify those values in each other, we'd find more bipartisanship in society.”

Alice Wang is a first-year graduate student in both Penn’s GSE and School of Social Policy & Practice.

“I originally signed up because I was curious if it would even be possible to engage thoughtfully and honestly in political dialogue given today's political context. We certainly did that. We were able to focus on understanding and listening rather than being heard,” Wang said afterwards. “Although my views did not shift, it forced me to clarify my own beliefs and truly consider other perspectives. I believe this is essential to finding a path forward.”

Organizers said they hope many of the students who participated at Penn will travel to Cairn for the dialogue in November, and that more students from other universities will attend as well.

“We do not think that attending one session is the end of this process. Dialogue across the partisan divide needs to be ongoing,” Schaller said. “Young people need to learn that engaging in civil dialogue, despite significant political differences is a good thing.”

​​​​​​​Photos by Jeff Frantz and Louisa Shepard

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