1,000 Conversations Across Political Differences

Last week’s local elections were a breath of fresh air. For the most part, they were contested on the issues, and many of us saw more qualified, engaged people on the ballot than we could vote for.

National political debate – not so positive. We don’t have to tell you how hard it has become for people of different political affiliations to trust each other. Real hate directed against groups has seeped into “regular” political disagreement between conservatives and liberals. It’s become all about which offensive figure the other side seems to tolerate or excuse.

Is this the best way to go about improving our society and building our community? Sure, the First Amendment absolutely guarantees that we will all hear things that offend us and drive us crazy. But it’s not enough for people to be in their own corners, respecting the right of others to hold different views, ready to compete in the next round of elections. It’s not good enough, even if you think you are right – even if you know you are right.

A number of us within the Nashua Area Interfaith Council have challenged ourselves to spark in our community 1,000 conversations between people with different political perspectives. We are convinced that by flooding the zone between now and the new year with a different kind of conversation and disagreement, we can drive the rawness and the hate to the sidelines.

The kind of conversations we are talking about are between people who are passionate about their different political outlooks, and also curious about others. It’s going to take both ingredients. Two people have to agree, for an hour, to set aside the goal of persuading and debating. Instead, the focus is on understanding what the other person values in society, and where they learned the political values they hold.

We did not invent this idea. Speakers like Elizabeth Lesser and Celeste Headlee have been promoting this kind of conversation for individuals and families. What’s unique is our goal: a tipping point in our local community. This being New Hampshire, what happens here could even resonate through our nation.

A short and simple guide to these conversations is at 1000conversations.us. Essentially, two of you would find a comfortable place to talk, and give yourselves an hour. Ask each other questions like: What experiences when you were younger had an influence on your political outlook? On your morality, how you view the world?

Who is a person who influenced your views early on? What is an issue you really care about, and how have you come to care about it? What is the best community you have ever lived in, and what made it so?

Maybe you’ll discover common ground, or maybe not. But the first step, what we need right now, is to break down stereotypes and create trust. People have interesting stories behind their beliefs. We need to hear how we sound when we slow down and explain our beliefs – to hear the questions someone else has, to figure out what’s incomplete in our own picture or to help someone else figure out the same.

We came to this as a Christian and a Jew. Our religions are committed in an absolute way to principles about society – compassion, justice and freedom. But our faiths also recognize that there is more than one way to interpret these values and to implement them in the world. And our spirituality is grounded in the imperative of relationships, with those who are like us and those who are unlike us.

You certainly don’t have to be religious to recognize or share this perspective.

These conversations are not a substitute for acting on your political convictions. In fact, we are persuaded that you will become a better partisan. You’ll hear where your arguments don’t resonate – and where, to your surprise, they do. You’ll learn about concerns you have been overlooking, or groups you have been neglecting to consider.

And you’ll find yourself enjoying political conversation a lot more.

Find someone you know and like, who is your political opposite – or go on our website and ask us to make you a match. If you’re willing, after you talk, drop us a note via our website. Post something about the conversation in social media, with the hashtag #1000conversations.

Our kickoff is this coming Thursday at the Riverwalk Cafe. If you come between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., mention that you’re having one of the 1000 conversations, and you’ll each get $2 off your order. Stay tuned on the web and on Facebook for more meet-ups and “deals.”

We already have pledges of nearly 200 conversations encouraged by organizations in our community – congregations, nonprofits, Rotary organizations.

As the next year of campaigning for federal office begins, let’s make this the political story of the hour. One thousand conversations, leading to more and better ones.

Michael Reinke is the executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett leads Temple Beth Abraham.