Sherman County, Oregon, sits just south of the Washington border, east of the Cascades. Fewer than 2,000 people live in its 831 square miles. Stand on one of the hills near Moro, the county seat, and you’ll see wheat fields all around — and maybe some tall wind turbines.
Sherman County has very little in common with Seattle and King County. And yet, we’re connected: It’s the nearest county to ours that voted exactly opposite us in the presidential election. While 74 percent of King County voters went for Clinton, 74 percent of Sherman County voters went for Trump.
So on Saturday, about 20 of us King County residents took a 10-hour road trip to pay the people of Sherman County a visit.
We called the trip “Melting Mountains: An Urban-Rural Gathering.” Sandy Macnab, a just-retired Sherman and Wasco County agricultural agent who planned the event with us, came up with the name. It refers to the snowmelt that runs down the mountains dividing the eastern and western parts of our states, nourishing the land below.
We like the metaphor. And though we know we can’t melt the political and cultural “mountains” that divide our two counties in an afternoon — red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative, rural vs. urban — we figured we might help people take a first step.
We pulled up to Oregon State University’s Sherman County Extension Office a little after 11 a.m. About four hours, one meal, and many conversations later, we said goodbye to the 16 Sherman County residents we’d met to start the long drive back home.
The people who took part in the discussions told each other whom they’d voted for, revealed their stance on some big issues, talked about the hopes and concerns they had about their country over the next few years, and practiced listening to each other for minutes at a time (with instructions to not interrupt one another).
Here’s how they thought it went.
‘WE’RE LOOKING FOR THE SAME THING’
“I wasn’t sure what to expect.” said Jennifer Zimmerlee, who’s from Sherman County. “I can’t lie — there was a little trepidation.”
In one exercise, people from Sherman and King Counties paired off for a series of one-on-one conversations. In each of those, one person asked the other about his or her political hopes, concerns, and values and listened to the response. Then, they switched.
“I was afraid it’d be a lot more Clinton/Trump stuff,” said Jennifer, who voted for third-party candidate Gary Johnson. “Instead what we got was some really nice guided discussions on the fact that even though how we approach problems is very different, in the end we truly are looking for the same thing.”
The group came to that shared purpose early in the event, when everyone took turns introducing themselves. People in both counties agreed our divides had turned ugly, that they wanted to learn from each other, that this could be a start. “There’s a lot I don’t know about my own country,” one person said.
There’s a lot that has to happen before people unfamiliar with someone else’s lifestyle can really understand it. Knowing that left Darren Padget, a fourth-generation Sherman County wheat farmer, a little disappointed.
“No one went out in the street and protested or had a baseball bat and did bad things,” said Darren, who serves as chair of the Oregon Wheat Commission. “That was the positive of the day — having a civil conversation.”
The negative, he said, is that he didn’t get an opportunity to connect that deeply with city dwellers about how he lives his life. When he introduced himself, he pointed to the sandwiches people were eating for lunch. “If you knew what it took to get that simple sandwich on your plate…” he’d said then, to murmurs of thoughtful agreement from residents of both Sherman and King counties in the room.
“I would have appreciated a better opportunity to explain to them what we do and why we do it,” he said.
Darren said his health care costs jumped 426 percent in the last few years and regulations like the “Waters of the United States” rule, which President Trump ordered the EPA to remove last month, are hurting his business.
“That’s why I support Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton,” Darren said. “I didn’t think either of them was a very good candidate, to be honest with you.”
‘IT WAS JUST DIFFICULT TO HEAR THAT’
Jordan Goldwarg came from King County with his husband, Sam, and would have voted for Clinton if he could have. Jordan, who grew up in Canada, became a U.S. citizen just a few weeks ago.
At one point during the one-on-one discussions, Jordan heard the person he was paired with from Sherman County share a viewpoint on LGBTQ rights that made him uncomfortable.
The person made it clear, he said, that she had no problem with gay people. “But for me, as someone who is gay, the general tone of the conversations and the things she was saying that affect my life and the lives of a lot of people that I know — it was just difficult to hear that,” Jordan said.
Jordan wished he’d had more time to unpack the divisions that turned up. But he didn’t want to stop listening.
“I really value the opportunity to have conversations with people who seem very different from me, to be able to understand their experiences more and develop empathy with them,” said Jordan, who is the regional director for a nonprofit that brings together people of different faiths.
“It seems this is exactly the kind of experience I’d been wanting to have, and didn’t know how to find.”
NO MORE EASY ANSWERS
Like many people around Seattle, Leah Greenbaum woke up shocked Nov. 9. For weeks she consumed online and social media, trying to make sense of the election results through news articles and the explanations they laid out.
“Going to Sherman County and being in person, I think, I was surprised by the complexity of the stories I heard,” she said. They made sense to her in a way that the online stories she’d read could not.
“To stand in front of someone and hear them speak with passion and feeling about what they believe, you sort of can’t help but expand your own sense of empathy and humanity,” Leah said.
Leah is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. When she heard people from Sherman County talk about how certain regulations and policies affected them, she asked herself how she could make sure the policies she works on are always informed by people’s actual experiences.
“I want to get out there and talk to primary sources from now on,” she said. “I love the media, my best friends are journalists… but I’m not going to look for easy answers anymore.”
Others came away with things they wanted to do next:
- Jennifer said she planned to email every person who came from King County and shared their contact info to thank them for coming down.
- Darren said he’s going to follow up with a couple he met from King County, and send them photos and material to continue a conversation they started on the Waters of the U.S. rule. “We [farmers] need to tell our story as much as we can,” he said.
- Jordan said he wants to think about more ways to bridge urban and rural communities in his interfaith work.
And for us at The Evergrey? We’re going to look for ways to help keep these conversations going. Tomorrow, we’ll be sharing a few more perspectives, in their own words, from people who took part in “Melting Mountains.”
And we want to find more ways to facilitate conversations among people who disagree.
“I know that when people pay attention to how they’re speaking and listening to one another and really make an attempt to understand, remarkable things can happen,” said Bob Stains, a conversation facilitator who advised us on this event.
On that, we agree.
We’re beyond grateful to everyone who welcomed us in Sherman County, especially Sandy Macnab, our amazing planning partner and tour guide; Sherry Kaseberg, who publishes the Sherman County e-News and didn’t hesitate for a second when we first contacted her with the idea for a visit; and Cindy Brown, who helped with the event setup and cleanup. To everyone from around the county who hung out with us: it was great to get to know you. As for everyone from King County who gave their entire Saturday (a total of 13 and a half hours) to meet a different community: we’re honored to have helped. And to the folks at Crosscut, who provided support that helped make this trip possible, thanks a ton for everything.
Here’s an illuminating piece on the event from Crosscut columnist Knute Berger.
Any feedback or questions on the event? You can always reach us at [email protected].