By Amanda Kathryn Roman & Joan Blades ~ On December 4th we co-hosted our first public Living Room Conversation at the 6th Annual Engaging the Other Conference. While this was not the recommended intimate setting for a Living Room Conversation, what with an audience watching us and a camera filming our interactions, the core guidelines for our conversation coupled with six participants who wanted to expand their worldview proved to be perfect for a thoughtful and respectful conversation. We had invited friends & friends of friends who had never met before to talk about the topic of money in politics. Well, we got a whole lot more than just that!
Bringing individuals together to talk to others who they know have a different worldview about a topic of concern and importance often causes some anxiousness, but once the engagement happens, so does the magic. Linda, one of the ‘conservative’ participants cited her “curiosity and desire to engage others to reach common ground on issues facing all of us” as a strong motivation for joining us. Linda is currently the mayor of Foster City, CA in the bay area. Elisa, an award winning Latina blogger and MomsRising campaigner had co-hosted a living room conversation in New Hampshire & she was ready to try out the role of guest. Rodney who teaches literacy and has written a book about happiness commented when the discussion was over - “I don’t get to interact a lot with people that have other points of view, being from Berkeley. It is good to know there are rational, smart, considerate and politically involved people from the conservative side.” Greg who joined us from a local Republican Party Central Committee enjoyed the “oratory with non-Republicans” and said that he thought Living Room Conversations were a good idea and only wished there was more time to talk about the variety of subjects that came up. This variety is where the magic happens…
We touched on the issue of immigration in our Living Room Conversation not through intention or design, but because it was an issue of concern for all the participants.
Our Latina participant, Elisa, respectfully spoke up when another participant used the term “illegals” and explained how derogatory that term was also noting that she did not feel that he was trying to be derogatory. Our group then talked about alternatives to use that would not be offensive, without papers, was suggested by Elisa. Our Italian American participants immediately jumped in and shared the historical origin of the term WOP (without papers). And Greg noted that he is of Irish decent. We found ourselves reflecting upon our immigrant ancestry. The group settled on "undocumented immigrant" as a non-derogatory term.
Because the Living Room Conversations guidelines are designed to be open-ended, we were able to delve into topics outside of our stated reason for coming together. All six participants are interested in finding time to chat again as a group in January. We are excited about navigating the facilitation of a second conversation and are eager to add our experiences and feedback to the open-source community on our recently launched website.
Living Room Conversations are part of a movement to foster conversation across partisan lines. Engaging in this kind of conversation does not require any modification of views or beliefs; it does not ask you to limit other alignments or associations. What it does do is acknowledge the validity of beliefs across a range of political perspectives. In requiring respectful and civil engagement with others – no matter their views or positions - new solutions can emerge. We believe in conversation that moves beyond polarization to find and support decisions made in the general interest. We see Living Room Conversations as a way to empower average Americans to engage in these types of conversations within a structure that allows all voices to be heard.
In the session following our demonstration, with the larger Engaging The Other Conference community, someone who had observed the Living Room Conversation shared how touching it was to see the exchange over the term illegals. How Elisa was assertive but respectful in pointing out the unintended offense and in return how Greg was quick to inquire as to what was the best terminology to use and restating that no offense was intended. The ground rules, which we reviewed at the beginning of the conversation and had everyone agree to, coupled with the good will and clear intent of everyone in the room to listen and learn made what could have been an uncomfortable or angry exchange valuable for all of us.
In feedback, Elisa stated that she found it interesting “that they (others in the group) came from a good place and it dropped my guard.” She also commented, “I thought I knew so much on this topic (money in politics) but I realized that there was room to learn and that I can do so even with a lot of opinions represented.
As we prepare for our second Living Room Conversation as a group, we are also looking for others who want to have this type of experience. Could you see a conversation like this helping in your community? Do you work for an advocacy group that wants to reach out to a typical political opponent to find new solutions to old problems? Is there an issue that is simply not being addressed in your neighborhood and you want to talk about it in a constructive way? Try a Living Room Conversation. Then tell us what you learn. Together we can create a new norm of respectful engagement.