When I finally hit “send,” I felt a sense of relief. For the past eight months, I had been feeling guilty for not doing more to follow up with the folks we brought together in Sherman County, Oregon in March. (To catch you up: We gathered a group of Seattleites and drove down to Sherman County, the geographically closest zip code that voted exactly opposite of King County in the 2016 election, to talk politics). By the end of our short but fruitful conversations that day, everyone seemed excited to stay in touch and to set up another time to get together. But, as we all know, life gets busy.
A year later, we checked in with a few other Seattleites who started projects in response to the election, which is why it felt like a good time for us to check in with our folks. So I emailed everyone and asked if their lives had changed at all, how they felt about their vote and the future of our country, and what questions they had for someone who lived in the county opposite of them. I sent the e-mail with no expectations, unsure of what I’d receive in return.
Of the 25 people I emailed, I heard back from six – four who live in King County and two from Sherman County.
Sam was the first to respond. He lives in Seattle, voted for Clinton, and wanted to ask a person from Sherman County: “What are you doing to educate yourself about perspectives of those who see structural racism, sexism, and other inequality in our national discourse?”
Then Cathy emailed. She lives in Seattle, too, and said a year later, she feels somewhat ashamed to be an American. One of her questions was, “Are you at all concerned about our safety and security, with a President who does not know how to be circumspect in his tweets regarding other world leaders?”
Then the next email landed in my inbox.
Sandy MacNab helped us organize the Sherman County trip. He was an incredible advocate on our behalf, convincing many of his fellow neighbors that we weren’t a bunch of self-important urbanites coming to rural Oregon to gawk and judge – that we were interested in genuine, thoughtful conversation. I hadn’t talked to Sandy in a while, and while I disagreed with the political opinions he shared in his email, I was glad to hear from him.
He told me that he feels good about his vote for Trump – he’s “doing what I voted for him to do. Too bad the others in the swamp and the media don’t/won’t see that.” Trump was elected because he won 85 percent of the counties in our country, Sandy said. “These are people, my neighbors who are totally unknown to the media and their minions, the democrats.” Trump is trying to rebuild, Sandy said, but “the media and dems” are standing in the way because they are “so afraid of change and that alone can derail progress.”
He ended his email by saying he too had thought about getting everyone on the Sherman County trip back together again for another round of conversations. But he wonders what would be accomplished.
I agreed. And realized then why it’s been so hard for me to call our trip a clear success.
We didn’t go into these conversations to change anyone’s minds – we went to listen. I still deeply believe that I can’t have a meaningful conversation with someone I disagree with if I don’t start by understanding who they are and where they’re coming from.
That being said, when conversation alone is the desired outcome, it’s very difficult to feel like we’ve achieved something.
And that’s the feeling I’m left to struggle with now. Did those conversations help me better understand a handful of people from a different part of the country and how they voted? Yes. Did those conversations make me feel hopeful that our next presidential election won’t be as toxic as the one we just endured? Honestly, no.
Which leads me to the email I received from Bill, another Seattleite who went down to Sherman County with us. Referring to our project, he wrote: “It was a noble effort, you did more than your part, and it’s time to move on. As a friend of mine says, ‘bless and release.’”
I’ll always be grateful that the group of folks we brought together were willing to take a very important step toward better dialogue with us – but it was just one step of many, many more steps all of us can take. There’s still so much work to do, but I’m not quite sure what our next move should be.
What I do know is this: Whether we’re talking about Trump’s most recent tweet, Seattle’s newest plan to make housing affordable, or locals’ disagreement over whether to call it “Puget Sound” versus “the Puget Sound” – we all can get better at understanding each other’s different perspectives and learning how to disagree in thoughtful, productive ways. Even here in Seattle.
Our work in Sherman County may be done, but our efforts to build community and understanding through thoughtful disagreement in Seattle are just getting started. If you have ideas on how we can do that, we’d love to hear them – shoot us an email at [email protected].