After the big snow this week, I looked out the window to see my partner and my next-door neighbor shoveling the sidewalk together. They stopped to talk and it occurred to me that this was the first time either of us had talked to this particular neighbor since the election. My 6-year-old daughter—snow-suited and booted—was on her way out the door to help her Dad. I said, “Wait—take some of these homemade cookies to share with George.”
“George?” she implored. “But Mom, he voted for Trump!”
I said, “I know he did. We don’t agree on politics. But there are a lot of other things we agree on—like being a good neighbor.” And my daughter added, “And vegetables!” She skipped out the door with the bag of cookies.
We don’t actually know our neighbor George very well. We moved in two years ago this summer. But for the first many months that we lived here, he let us tour his elaborate garden, gave us basketsful of wacky shaped eggplants, tomatoes, and squash. He gave us permission to pick the blackberries and basil from his garden that grew on our side of the fence. We connected amicably. It was back in the days before there were two sides in this country: pro-Trump and anti-Trump, or pro-Hillary and anti-Hillary.
Then one day, he put up a sign in his yard: Trump/Pence. My daughter started to cry. “Mom, George likes Trump!!” She had heard Trump say so many negative things that she felt afraid to be close to someone who voted for him. I tried to tell her that he probably has complicated reasons for liking Trump, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean he agrees with everything Trump says. This is our next door neighbor, and she needs to be able to live without fear of him. This requires that we see him as more than the sign in his yard.
In this most recent election, I voted for Hillary. But I was not a “Hillary person,” any more than George might have been a “Trump person.” I’ve always been clear that a vote for Hillary was not a statement about the entirety of my political opinions. But it’s harder to give the same openness to “the other side,” especially given how polarized my social circles and media feed are. It’s much easier to see people as one dimensional caricatures, rather than the complex human beings that they are. But one conversation changed that for me.
After the election, I started my own dialogue project with a Trump supporter named Bill. I had written a blog post on how to talk to children about the election, and it included these lines:
…(N)ot everyone who voted for Donald Trump did so because they believe the bigoted things that he has said this year. Many of them voted for him because they feel frustrated with the economy, they feel socially left behind, and they are exercising the one power they have. We need to challenge Trump and his supporters to differentiate between their fears and the bigotry catalyzed by those fears.
It was these lines that prompted Bill to reach out to me. He said that he had friends and family who wouldn’t talk to him because he voted for Trump. He asked, “Would you be interested in a conversation?”
Since that day, we have been talking monthly—about 30 minutes a month. We take turns, talking and listening. The goal isn’t to change one another’s minds. It isn’t even to understand one another. It’s just to hear one another. And something electric happens in those minutes we spend together, in which my image of a “Trump supporter” changes from a giant mass of undifferentiated people, to a man with a name, a face, feelings, fears, concerns, and values—many values just like my own. And in the time we spend together, I am reminded again and again, how complex we are. How neither of us really fits into the boxes that were created for us in the 2016 election. How good it feels to see and be seen accurately. And how this skill—of listening to and talking with people who are different from us—is critical to the great American experiment of democracy.
It’s striking to me that I can do this with a stranger, who lives 300 miles away, but not with my next-door neighbor. And yet, my conversations with Bill are partly what prompt me to assume that there’s more to George than the sign in his yard. It is this belief that drives my work for the American Dialogue Project.