NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, August 30th, 2021

Practicing civil discourse in polarized times isn’t easy, but it can bring people together

The year was 2009. Barack Oba­ma had just been elect­ed Pres­i­dent. I very clear­ly remem­ber hear­ing from Repub­li­can mem­bers of Con­gress (like Ken­tuck­y’s Mitch McConnell) that they were going to make it impos­si­ble for him to get any­thing done. They were going to say no to every­thing he put forward.

I was not involved in any way in pol­i­tics at the time. I was a moth­er to three mid­dle school chil­dren, a wife, and an educator.

In 2008, I had earned recog­ni­tion as Wash­ing­ton state’s Milken Edu­ca­tor of the Year and was invit­ed to serve as the Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Improve­ment of Stu­dent Learn­ing, a leg­is­la­­tive­­ly-cre­at­ed depart­ment with­in the Office of the Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion devot­ed to help­ing pub­lic schools move towards equi­ty and more effec­tive fam­i­ly engage­ment practices.

Though I had been told schools were not polit­i­cal and that the Office of Super­in­ten­dent was a non­par­ti­san role, I quick­ly dis­cov­ered this was not true. Schools were incred­i­bly polit­i­cal. Writ­ing pol­i­cy for schools was far from non­par­ti­san. As a recent class­room teacher, I found myself invit­ed to tes­ti­fy at Olympia’s Capi­tol cam­pus on a reg­u­lar basis.

Although I def­i­nite­ly lean Demo­c­ra­t­ic in my polit­i­cal out­look and phi­los­o­phy, I have spent a life­time in very mixed spaces, in com­mu­ni­ties that were more “pur­ple” than either “red” or “blue.” As a class­room teacher, I was com­mit­ted to serv­ing all of my stu­dents well, regard­less of whether their fam­i­lies tend­ed to vote Repub­li­can or Demo­c­ra­t­ic… or whether they vot­ed at all.

I had learned to cre­ate spaces in my class­room, espe­cial­ly once I moved up to high school, where stu­dents could share their thoughts and beliefs freely.

I was espe­cial­ly proud that at lunch time my class­room was a space in which stu­dents from very diverse back­grounds felt safe to share meals and con­ver­sa­tions with one another.

I some­times think about my last class­room in Spokane, where I spent almost every lunch peri­od with a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian girl whose fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed from the Ukraine in the late 1990s; a Mus­lim girl (the only one in our school to wear hijab) whose fam­i­ly had emi­grat­ed from Dubai; a half-Native Amer­i­can, half-Black girl; a half-Hon­­du­ran, half-White Amer­i­can girl; and the only open­ly gay boy in our large school. Oth­er stu­dents end­ed up in my class­room at dif­fer­ent times, but these stu­dents were reg­u­lars. They did not always agree with each oth­er, but they learned to appre­ci­ate and val­ue the oth­ers’ company.

When I could feel ten­sion in a con­ver­sa­tion, I learned to ask ques­tions, to invite stu­dents to get curi­ous about one anoth­er by mod­el­ing my own curiosity.

All these skills I devel­oped in my class­room helped me engage lob­by­ists and leg­is­la­tors as I sought to advo­cate for stu­dents and edu­ca­tors at our state’s Capi­tol cam­pus. I learned quick­ly that most deci­­sion-mak­ers want­ed to do good work for their con­stituents. Some­times, how­ev­er, they just had very lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence with those who were dif­fer­ent from them, so they made assump­tions about what “all stu­dents” need­ed. I real­ized quick­ly that I had to “trans­late” my requests into lan­guage they could hear or share per­son­al sto­ries about real stu­dents and fam­i­lies to help leg­is­la­tors see from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point.

Although I did not always get the results I hoped for, over­all I did good work in our state­house, and that work pre­pared me well for the next chap­ter of my life, which was as the Direc­tor of Equi­ty for a large urban school district.

That expe­ri­ence pre­pared me to run for statewide office.

Although I did not win that elec­tion (I lost by less than 1%), the process con­nect­ed me to law­mak­ers at the local and state lev­el from both sides of the aisle and sev­er­al who would describe them­selves as “inde­pen­dent” thinkers.

Those con­nec­tions have allowed me to engage in crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions and pol­i­cy­mak­ing that most cit­i­zens do not have the priv­i­lege to do.

In many ways, the last four and a half years since my unsuc­cess­ful cam­paign have result­ed in some of my best work, along with some of the most con­crete changes in edu­ca­tion at the dis­trict and state level.

At the same time, being able to see the leg­isla­tive process from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point has also been terrifying.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the last cou­ple years, start­ing just before the pan­dem­ic, I began to see even greater polar­iza­tion of elect­ed offi­cials and indi­vid­ual citizens.

“Us” against “them” was the com­mon refrain in every deci­­sion-mak­ing space, from our state House to the fed­er­al government.

Dur­ing the most recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, I heard Demo­c­ra­t­ic friends insist that any­one who vot­ed Repub­li­can must be a racist and a misog­y­nist. On the oth­er side, I heard Repub­li­can friends call any­one who vot­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic a baby-killer.

On a dai­ly basis, sweep­ing judge­ments were being made on social media about any­one who asso­ci­at­ed them­selves with either polit­i­cal par­ty. We seemed to have lost the abil­i­ty to talk to one anoth­er, to see one anoth­er as fel­low Amer­i­cans, which became all-the-more appar­ent as COVID-19 forced us com­plete­ly online.

And then the Jan­u­ary 6th insur­rec­tion took place — both in our nation’s cap­i­tal at the Capi­tol and right here in Olympia at the gov­er­nor’s mansion.

On that dis­turb­ing day, I was doing my reg­u­lar walk­ing work­out, hop­ing to get four to five miles in around the Capi­tol cam­pus. The first per­son I saw as I entered the area was a friend who serves on the Olympia City Council.

He did not make eye con­tact as I passed him. A look of ter­ror cov­ered his face. As I passed him a sec­ond time, he was just get­ting off the phone. He apol­o­gized for hav­ing not spo­ken before and asked if I knew what was happening.

I had no idea. I had been teach­ing all morn­ing and had decid­ed that I need­ed to get away from my house for a cou­ple hours to just walk and clear my head.

The city coun­cilmem­ber explained that he had been on the phone hop­ing to con­vince the Nation­al Guard to send troops imme­di­ate­ly to pro­tect our streets.

As he walked me through what he knew, I was acute­ly aware of the poten­tial for the kind of divi­sion that could lead to mas­sive, nation­wide civ­il unrest.

I had wit­nessed that kind of unrest in oth­er coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a young per­son attend­ing the Amer­i­can School of The Hague in the 1980s.

I had been feel­ing dis­com­fort as I watched the news and watched peo­ple on my social media engage in antag­o­nis­tic ways that esca­lat­ed dur­ing and fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Biden. I was instant­ly fear­ful and strug­gled to imag­ine a future in the Unit­ed States that would allow true democ­ra­cy to thrive — a polit­i­cal process that invit­ed all peo­ple to engage.

We as a nation had clear­ly lost our abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in civ­il discourse.

And then I won­dered: have we ever had that abil­i­ty in my lifetime?

In that moment, at the height of our great­est angst as a nation in my fifty years of life, I decid­ed to write a book that I hoped would I invite peo­ple into con­ver­sa­tions about hard things. I con­clud­ed that maybe we had just not devel­oped the atti­tudes and habits nec­es­sary to engage in civ­il discourse.

As a for­ev­er-teacher, I made the deci­sion to use my teach­ing skills and my unique sto­ry to invite peo­ple on a jour­ney with me — Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats, Chris­tians and Mus­lims, athe­ists and agnos­tics, youth and adults — to learn and prac­tice the skills I believe are required to get us to a healthy place, to help us live up to the ideals of the great exper­i­ment called the Unit­ed States.

I do not pre­tend to have all the answers.

In fact, I do not pre­tend to have most of them. What I do have are some sto­ries and strate­gies I can rec­om­mend to help you engage in more pro­duc­tive exchanges with your neigh­bors, espe­cial­ly those who think dif­fer­ent­ly than you.

There are many books out right now devot­ed to our present sit­u­a­tion. Mine is just one of many, but I hope that Bridges to Heal US will pro­vide hope and prac­ti­cal strate­gies to any­one who choos­es to take up the challenge.

I remain firm in my belief that Amer­i­ca is a great nation. How­ev­er, we have not arrived at a place where every cit­i­zen and every res­i­dent is able to flourish.

Until we get to that point, we would be well served by devot­ing our­selves to con­ver­sa­tions and actions that lead us to a more per­fect union.

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