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Council of Elders

Marybeth Webster
On Water (March 2019)

Dear Editor: I am part of the Council of Elders, a volunteer organization in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, committed to promoting civil discourse. We started this organization after hearing about Better Angels (www.better-angels.org), a nation-wide organization that sprang up after the politically polarized  2016 elections. We invited them to do a workshop with us, which inspired my excitement and hope.

We recruited eight philosophically conservative “Reds” and eight philosophically liberal “Blues“ to participate in this workshop, which lasted seven hours. First, we all agreed to basic ground rules of respect, fair air-time, and no arguing or haranguing. The Reds and Blues met separately to list the stereotypes we think the others had of us. A sample from the Reds: “Blues think we’re racist.” A sample from the Blues: “Reds think we’re Communists.” Each group considered the kernels of truth in the stereotypes and where they were wrong.

Later, everyone participated together in a “fishbowl” exercise in which we answered the questions, “Why do you think your side’s policies are good for the country?” and “What concerns or reservations do you have about your side?” Deep differences within each team were revealed, more than between the teams!

Everyone was invited to respond to the question, “What did you learn?” For my part, I had not realized how small businesses have benefited from the Trump tax cuts. I also saw that we all love our country and want it to be better.

Each side had an opportunity to ask the other group questions of curiosity, not “gotcha” questions. I asked, “What issues might we work on together here in Josephine County?” Among the answers were forest fires, dangerous air quality, the housing crisis, homelessness, children’s services, cannabis, and the low graduation rates in our high schools. We agreed that solutions will require getting better balances on City and County committees, forming neighborhood groups, and, eagerly, more workshops with Better Angels.

Suddenly, I was eager to work with these “Reds.” Our shared energy and diversity would further the good works we all desire! No wonder I’m excited! This is the Great American Experiment!

– Marybeth Webster, South Mountain Meeting, Ashland, OR (NPYM)

Conflict Resolution political polarization

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