Oles seek to understand each other through Red/Blue Workshop

Sixteen St. Olaf students spent a recent Saturday participating in a three-hour “Red/Blue Workshop” offered by Better Angels, an organization that aims to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

— Abraham Lincoln, 1861

In early October, 16 St. Olaf College students — eight conservative-leaning, or “Reds,” and eight progressive-leaning, or “Blues” — came together for moderated activities and discussions to clarify disagreements, reduce stereotyped thinking, and begin building the relationships needed to find common ground.

The event was a Better Angels workshop organized by the Institute for Freedom & Community, the college’s Student Life Division, and the Office of Academic Civic Engagement. It was funded in part through a mini-grant from the Minnesota Campus Compact Constitution Day Dialogue Initiative.

Launched in 2016, 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 to understand each other beyond stereotypes.

Emily Albrecht ’21 takes notes while Better Angels trained facilitator Bruce MacKenzie ’72 leads a brainstorming session with a group of “Reds” about common stereotypes the other political side may have about them.

The Institute for Freedom & Community, which was established at St. Olaf in 2014 and aims to foster constructive dialogue among diverse points of view on important issues, was eager to include the Better Angels workshop in this year’s programming.

“Not just at St. Olaf but across the country, people are finding it harder and harder to have civil conversations with friends, family, coworkers, and fellow citizens who might disagree about a particular policy or have a different perspective on politics generally,” says Institute for Freedom & Community Assistant Director Greg Siems. “It may be easier to just avoid those conversations altogether, but we think it’s important to encourage students, as an integral part of their liberal arts education, to seek out and engage with people who don’t share the same beliefs or values.”  

“We think it’s important to encourage students, as an integral part of their liberal arts education, to seek out and engage with people who don’t share the same beliefs or values.” — Greg Siems  

The signature three-hour “Red/Blue Workshop” that Better Angels offers began with trained facilitators Bruce MacKenzie ’72 and Annika Fjelstad ’85 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 through 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?

Better Angels trained facilitator Annika Fjelstad ’85 leads a group of “Blues” through an exercise to identify stereotypes the other political side may have about them.

Emily Albrecht ’21 says the activity helped her recognize the historical struggles and flaws of Red political policies. “I felt able to better empathize with and understand how and why some Blues may paint Reds in a negative light, and thus identify areas of improvement for the Red movement in the future,” Albrecht says.

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.

Jonah Schmitz ’20 had started the afternoon with some apprehension. “I went in with my guard up — I am passionate about American politics, but my personal anxieties about disagreeing or creating conflict with others often limit my ability to have political conversations with peers. However, as we shared, I came to realize that despite the polarization that many of us feel around the country, we tend to have more common ground in our beliefs than we think. This isn’t to say there aren’t key differences in ideas or proposed solutions between the two sides, but I walked away with the understanding that many of us are concerned about the same things,” he says. “I hope to become a better listener as a result of the workshop, and I think I’ve gained some courage to start the tough conversations I’ve previously avoided.”

“I came to realize that despite the polarization that many of us feel around the country, we tend to have more common ground in our beliefs than we think.” — Jonah Schmitz ’20

William Beimers ’20 shared similar insights. Although each side’s policy goals are often at odds with each other, “everyone wants the U.S. to be the best it can be, everyone thinks family is important, and we all value community, equality, freedom, and loyalty as well as honesty.” On a number of issues, “the difference between the two sides occurred in how to effectively fix the problems our country faces, not in the existence of the problems themselves,” explains Albrecht.

In addition to understanding the other side better, Beimers found that the format of the workshop helped him understand and analyze his own views. “They see us in a certain way and we see ourselves in a different way that they didn’t necessarily know about or acknowledge before. When we shared how we think about ourselves, I think they really started to understand more about our point of view. And the same goes for when they shared their stereotypes.”

“I went in with my guard up,” Jonah Schmitz ’20 admits about participating in the workshop. “However, as we shared, I came to realize that despite the polarization that many of us feel around the country, we tend to have more common ground in our beliefs than we think.”

For Siems, this period for reflection is the essence of the workshop. “Our biggest hope is for students to walk away with a better sense of their own values and an expanded view of how others’ values inform their approach to political questions. It’s not about changing anybody’s mind, but understanding that it’s possible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you about health care, or immigration, or whatever, and not think of them as an enemy. For students to succeed in their careers and communities, they need to know how to engage with a diverse range of perspectives, and hopefully Better Angels helped them gain some valuable practice and skills in that sense.”

“The Better Angels workshop was an inspiring reminder of the importance of genuine dialogue,” says Albrecht. “In order to make these dialogues truly effective, we must focus on listening actively to what the opposing side has to say. Rather than thinking about how ridiculous someone’s view is or brainstorming how you are going to defeat their argument as soon as you can respond, we must work to understand what exactly someone’s view is, and, most importantly, why they hold that view. Whether Blue or Red, it is crucial that we seek out this common ground if we ever hope to facilitate positive change in our world.”