Oles come together across the political divide to discuss and listen
Twenty-four St. Olaf College students signed up to participate in the “Red/Blue Workshop” with Better Angels over Interim. This three-hour workshop, sponsored by the Institute for Freedom and Community, focused on bringing together students with differing political beliefs for moderated activities and discussions to clarify disagreements, reduce stereotyped thinking, and begin building the relationships needed to find common ground. Participants included an equal number of conservative-leaning students, or “Reds,” and progressive-leaning students, or “Blues,” as well as 12 student observers.
A national program launched in 2016 and offered for the first time at St. Olaf last year, Better Angels derives its name from Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. “Better angels” represents the belief that we can discover areas of commonality in addition to differences — even in moments of fierce conflict. The mission of the organization is to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together not to compromise but to understand each other beyond stereotypes.
Emily Albrecht ’21I believe that it is good and necessary for citizens to differ in their political views, and for these disagreements to guide us to examine other opinions and meld the best practices of various ideologies together in order to better our world.
Emily Albrecht ‘21 participated in the Better Angels workshop last year and was the head of the student committee (made up of student associates from the Institute for Freedom and Community Director’s Council) that organized the event this year.
“I believe that it is good and necessary for citizens to differ in their political views, and for these disagreements to guide us to examine other opinions and meld the best practices of various ideologies together in order to better our world,” says Albrecht. “However, this can only occur if we learn to work with each other, seeing one another and our ideas as worthy of dignity and respect. Better Angels helps its participants to see through stereotypes and understand the stories of those whose politics differ from their own.”
The workshop began with trained facilitators Bruce MacKenzie ‘72 and Kim Martinson setting the ground rules. The expectations ranged from avoiding cross talk to agreeing that “we’re here to understand each other and to explain our views, not to convince anyone to change their mind.”
Next, the Reds and Blues headed to separate rooms to participate in a stereotyping activity. Students were asked to brainstorm common stereotypes that the other political side has about them and why those stereotypes are false or misrepresentative. Afterward, facilitators challenged students to find the “kernel of truth” in each stereotype. In other words, even though you believe this stereotype to be untrue, is there a small element of the stereotype that has some truth to it? How did the other side come to believe this stereotype?
When the Reds and Blues came back together for the next exercise, each side had a chance to present what they had brainstormed during the stereotyping activity. As students listened, they were asked to think about how the other side sees themselves and reflect on what they saw as common ground.
Meredith Maloley ‘21 participated in the workshop and particularly enjoyed the stereotyping activity. “The stereotypes exercise was great because it gave each group a chance to respond to negative perceptions of their party and reflect on where the stereotype originates,” says Maloley. “I especially appreciated the last reflection we shared. The common theme among Blues and Reds was that we all care about people, but we just disagree on the best way to care for them. I think we can have much healthier conversations about politics and even make progress if we take the time to first realize our common values.”
Markian Romanyshyn ‘23, another student participant, felt similarly. “Frankly, I think both the ‘Reds’ and the ‘Blues’ were surprised by the extent to which the other side wanted to understand their perspective and find common ground,” says Romanyshyn.
Meredith Maloley ’21The common theme among Blues and Reds was that we all care about people, but we just disagree on the best way to care for them. I think we can have much healthier conversations about politics and even make progress if we take the time to first realize our common values.
The Institute for Freedom & Community, which sponsored the Better Angels event, was established at St. Olaf in 2014 to support free inquiry where students with diverse points of view and values can study, discuss, and debate political and social issues in a respectful environment. As such, Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri readily included the Better Angels workshop in this year’s programming for the second year in a row.
“Better Angels has as its central purpose the facilitation of such respectful conversation across partisan divides. Its format of bringing together ‘Blues’ and ‘Reds’ with the aim of mutual understanding is a remarkably effective instrument for fulfilling an important dimension of the Institute’s mission,” says Santurri.
Former Assistant Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Tanya Charlick-Paley, who helped organize the workshop, also appreciated how well the Better Angels philosophy aligns with the goals of the Institute for Freedom and Community. “Every day people tell me that they are afraid to talk about policy or politics, especially with those we know hold different views. If we do not talk and listen to each other, we will miss an opportunity to learn and move forward as Oles and as Americans,” she says. “This is precisely the mission of the Institute.”
Albrecht was eager to help promote the event after her experience last year. “One of the most important themes that has stuck with me from last year’s Better Angels workshop is the amount of common ground between Blue and Red-leaning students,” explains Albrecht. “Many of us share common goals for our country, community, and the world; we simply advocate for different methods to reach these goals. Essentially, we want the same things, but we disagree on the best way to achieve them.”
According to Charlick-Paley, one of the most inspiring parts of the workshop was how it created an environment where students really listened to each other and sought to understand views that are different than their own. “The magic of this workshop is that at the end students identified areas of common ground and felt hope,” says Charlick-Paley. “It was uplifting to witness.”
Markian Romanyshyn ’23While after this particular workshop, I can’t say my ballot is going to look any different, I now have a greater appreciation for the breadth of political perspective in our country and a better understanding of where my own views fit in.
The Better Angels workshop helped Romanyshyn understand his own views better in relation to those of his peers.
“I have found that I grow the most when I am exposed to new ideas,” explains Romanyshyn. “Through earnestly considering the thoughts of those with whom I disagree most fundamentally, I am forced to consider precisely why I hold the views that I do. The beauty of the experience, I think, lies in sometimes having my mind changed. While after this particular workshop, I can’t say my ballot is going to look any different, I now have a greater appreciation for the breadth of political perspective in our country and a better understanding of where my own views fit in.”
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