Within a week of election night, Seattleite Bo Zhang — who voted for Hillary Clinton — decided she wanted to understand the side she disagreed with, and reading articles about people who voted for Donald Trump just wasn’t cutting it.
“I didn’t want to take someone else’s word for what they had observed,” she said.
So she spent two months finding a group of 24 people — 12 Hillary voters and 12 Trump voters — who agreed to be part of a yearlong private online discussion that would culminate in a public art installation of their conversations and what they had learned.
She chose the project participants based on demographics from exit polls related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and military experience. She also wanted geographic diversity, so the 24 American voters live across the world, from Seattle to South Dakota to Saudi Arabia, and include two who identify as LGBTQ, two Muslims, and eight people of color (including one Trump voter).
The project, which she’s calling Between Americans, got started in January. The first order of business? Breaking the ice to help people get comfortable talking with each other.
“The online format is a challenge,” she said. “In general … it is easier to turn up the heat than to cool it down. So I have erred on the side of keeping it cooled down, so we can slowly ratchet things up if we want to.”
The participants are part of a private WordPress page where Bo posts two questions each month for them to discuss, like: “Talk about a childhood friend who was different from you in some way and how did you view their differences” and “When’s a time you have held a different view than the majority of your peers and how easy or difficult was it for you?”
Bo says one of the biggest challenges so far is encouraging people who are excited to share their opinions, but ensuring they’re sharing them in a thoughtful way.
“I think of the analogy of being a winding river,” she said. “You don’t want to be a stagnant pond, which is in my mind people being stuck and not wanting to talk or engage. But you don’t want to be a rushing current, emotions spearing forth unchecked.”
Later this fall, she’ll interview participants about what they got out of the project and work with them to select a handful of excerpts from their posts in the discussion forum that “best tell the story of how the year has evolved for them,” according to the project page. That content, plus the participants’ photos, will be part of a physical installation funded in part by the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, and open to the public at the end of the project. (You can sign up for Between Americans to get an alert about when the exhibit goes live).
“My takeaway from this whole experience so far is that it’s a huge difference getting to know Trump voters personally versus reading about them. … It’s the difference between going to China versus just reading about China,” she said.
And now that she has more Facebook friends who voted for Trump, she’s become more thoughtful about what she posts.
“I’m mindful of making sure it’s about me and my experience, and not about projecting about the experiences of people I don’t know.”
So what’s the end goal? At this point, Bo just wants people to feel like they got something out of the experience — and she’s clear that this isn’t about convincing people to change their minds.
“But if there’s a little lightbulb that says, ‘I think I see the value of having these relationships and connections with people who I don’t agree with,’ then I’d say that’s a success.”