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‘I want to stay curious’ and other takeaways from a trip across the political divide

Dozens of people from King County, Washington, and Sherman County, Oregon, spent Saturday afternoon getting to know each other. Why? While 74 percent of King County voters went for Clinton, 74 percent of Sherman County voters went for Trump — and that seemed like a divide worth exploring.

Here’s more about the trip from The Evergrey’s Mónica Guzmán and Crosscut’s Knute Berger.

And below, we’ve rounded up answers to two questions we asked participants: What was one thing you took away from Saturday’s event and what’s one thing you want to do as a result?

Here’s what some of them said.

Leah Greenbaum (right) speaks with someone from Sherman County.

Leah Greenbaum (Seattle, WA)

What’s one thing you took away from Saturday’s event?
“As we drove back to Seattle through those snow-capped mountains, I was still replaying many of the stories our Sherman County friends shared. I, being human, tend to take shortcuts when it comes to other people. I paint unfamiliar groups in broad brush strokes, I categorize, I generalize, I simplify, I dismiss and stereotype. I seek out those tidy, easy-to-understand narratives that I can tweet about and use in debates with my friends. Everything about our culture invites us to do just that right now. But our afternoon in Sherman County reminded me that listening expands our sense of humanity and deepens our grasp of reality. It’s such a radical act. Hearing our friends tell their own stories surprised me, it challenged me, and it really moved me to feel deeply empathetic. I’m incredibly grateful that the Sherman County folks were willing to do this. I remember how I felt after 2008 and 2012 when Obama won; I was gleefully wearing my party hat, too busy celebrating to think about how the other side felt, much less how we could find common ground.”

What’s one thing you want to do next as a result of Saturday’s event?
“I want to stay curious. I heard about environmental policies that had always seemed like no-brainer, save-the-planet, common sense items to me. But to the members of this rural farming community, some of these policies hurt them in tangible ways—undercut their bottom line, their sense of autonomy, their faith in government. I want to avoid making assumptions about policy consensus like that again and really do that hard, messy work of finding out who is affected and how.”

Sandy Macnab (center) speaks with two people from King County.

Sandy Macnab (Sherman County/Dufur County, OR)

What’s one thing you took away from Saturday’s event?
“One thing I thought I picked up was that the Seattle folks were more concerned about details and watching what they say so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings while the Sherman County folk seemed less reserved and just said what they felt. But then most of the rural crowd knew most of their neighbors while a lot of urbans were meeting each other for the first time. Familiarity breeds like thinking and ease of expression. We might disagree, but I know you will be here for me tomorrow as I will be for you. Carrying a grudge over hurt feelings or disagreements is too big a burden for any man to carry.”

What’s one thing you want to do next as a result of Saturday’s event?
“I plan to follow up and learn more about some of the participants, get to know them better as individuals rather nameless faces on the street. People are interesting and I am a curious learner/student.

I was also impressed by the diversity of people from both areas that felt it was important enough to invest the time and travel to participate in something so different and being so open to learn and listen. It was a very good day. It seemed when the session broke up so Seattle travels could board their van, people were mixing and talking and saying genuine goodbyes, kind of like leaving from a class reunion where one hasn’t seen old friends and classmates for 25 years. It was a very good investment and one I believe will pay dividends.”

Laura Miller (left) high fives Fred Justesen from Sherman County.

Laura Miller (Seattle, WA)

What’s one thing you took away from Saturday’s event?
“Besides how great Fred’s cowboy hat is… My biggest takeaway didn’t have to do with specific issues or experiences, it was about the concept of ‘free speech with manners’ that I discussed with Jen. We shared the idea that people are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, and can share them publicly, however, as Jen said, “somewhere along the line we lost our manners.” There is nothing inherently wrong with disagreeing, but how we talk about our beliefs, both publicly and personally, must at least reflect respect, if not compassion, for those who are listening, even if they believe differently. One of my biggest fears for the next few years is that hate becomes acceptable and that acting upon that hate becomes acceptable. I don’t believe that anyone in the room on Saturday would disagree with me on that, regardless of their political leanings.”

What’s one thing you want to do next as a result of Saturday’s event?
“I want to learn more about the policies and issues affecting rural communities, particularly in terms of land use and ownership of resources. I am also interested in examining policies that are contentious in terms of whether they should be determined at the federal, state or county level. I personally tend to focus on social issues and as a result of this trip, realized how little I know about the issues affecting rural communities, especially in terms those that directly affect peoples’ livelihood.”

Bill Boyd (right) talks with someone from Sherman County.

Bill Boyd (Auburn, WA)

“The headline: I’m glad I went. Here’s what I think we accomplished: We ventured into a corner of the world where I would never have gone otherwise. We saw that wind power is second only to wheat in their economy. We learned how educated, well-traveled and sincere the people in the room were. We got to talk with folks who voted for Donald Trump (whether or not they’d consider themselves ‘supporters’) and hear why they pulled the lever for him.

And why was that? I didn’t sense any great love for Trump the man. If I understood correctly, they were really voting for a conservative agenda. They’re especially opposed to giveaways. They see people who have moved into their community — some of them intending to work — who are now receiving food stamps and welfare payments. They worry about the disintegration of families, believing (correctly, in my opinion) that stable families are vital to a healthy society. Hillary represented more of what they don’t like about America. They consider themselves conservationists and good stewards of the land, yet believe that federal regulations have become so onerous that it’s difficult to be an efficient farmer.

That’s a lot to extract from 12 minutes of listening one-on-one to people’s concerns about their community and country.

We could have learned more still if we’d had more time to probe more deeply. I know that the two of you wanted to minimize — if not outright eliminate — the opportunities for confrontation. However, the general nature of the questions we could ask, and the “listen only” mode requirement, meant we didn’t get more than a superficial understanding of our new friends’ deeply held convictions. I would have liked to know exactly why they voted for Donald Trump and whether he’s living up to their expectations. If they’re worried about the threat he poses to our constitutional democracy. And if they really believe that communities like theirs will be economically uplifted by an abundance of newly created jobs.

Nevertheless, at a time when many of us are hoping for greater national unity, our visit represents a small step toward breaking down walls and forging relationships. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build on that. And it would be better still if our trip inspires others to do something similar.”

Jennifer Butte-Dahl (right) speaks with someone from Sherman County.

Jennifer Butte-Dahl (Seattle, WA)

What’s one thing you took away from Saturday’s event?
“There is more that unites us than divides us. And as I said in the session, we all have a role to play in the rebuilding of our civic health. Rather than blaming our representatives and elected officials for being ineffective, as citizens we need to figure out how to make space for our representatives to compromise. Absolutes, blocking the agenda of the other side, shutting down government…these are not solutions. Common grounds exists and we need to give our elected officials the space and encouragement to find it.”  

What’s one thing you want to do next as a result of Saturday’s event?
“I would like to find a way to make this type of experience available to young people everywhere. They too need to find common ground with “the other side” and learn how to engage across difference in a respectful and effective manner. The silver lining of this election is the fact that young people across this country are now energized to participate in this great democracy. I feel it is incredibly important that they are solutions-oriented, inspired and hopeful, not simply indignant and outraged.”

Julie Pham (right) talks with someone from Sherman County.

Julie Pham (Seattle, WA)

“After the election, I realized I lived in a bubble. I really appreciated this trip to Sherman County because I got to see a part of America lives that is very different from the one I live in.  The total population of the county is smaller than that of the high school I attended. But the people aren’t fundamentally different. The people in Sherman County care about their families, their local community and the community-at-large along with their businesses, which happened to be mostly farms.

I was impressed by what a community can do when they come together, like build a track and field worth $7 million for $2 million and a lot of volunteer labor.”

Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler (Sherman County, OR)

What’s one thing you took away from Saturday’s event?
“In talking with two different visitors from Seattle, I heard them mention the importance of having discussions like this, because otherwise you don’t know where you stand. It can be a powerful experience to step out of your own echo chamber, to challenge your views and strengthen your ideas.”

What’s one thing you want to do next as a result of Saturday’s event?
“I’d love to see another get together, a deeper discussion now that introductions are out of the way. I’d also like to be in touch with some of the folks I met this weekend in the hopes of interviewing them for a book on this topic, to get a closer look at the great political divide in America.”

Jessica also wrote more about her experience here.