Exiting the Echo Chamber

by Kathleen Nay

Many of us were unexpectedly blindsided by the results of the 2016 Presidential Election, but maybe we shouldn’t have been. Four Friedman students saw a need for greater diversity in our political discourse, and decided to do something about it. They piloted Let’s Talk, a four-week program designed to help fellow students engage in more respectful, tolerant, and empathetic dialogue with people of diverse political perspectives.

On November 9 of last year, I woke up reeling. I had truly not expected the results of the previous evening. In the days and weeks leading up to the election I had felt lighthearted. I was sure that someone as awful as Donald Trump couldn’t win the presidency. I felt optimistic that we’d soon have our first female president. I believed, generally, in the goodness of America.

So to wake up to a Trump presidency was, for me, devastating. I felt utterly blindsided. Looking around at the somber faces of my fellow Boston commuters that morning, I recognized that I wasn’t alone in my stupefaction.

It seems painfully, unnervingly obvious now, but at the time I wondered, how did we not see this coming? What did we miss? In the days and weeks immediately following the election, the answer surfaced in the form of two words: “echo chamber.” Apparently, these exist and we—or at least, I—live in one. Worse, it’s an echo chamber of my own making, thanks to my liberally curated social media feeds and preferred news outlets.

Shortly after Election Day I attended a presentation given by J.J. Bartlett, President of Fishing Partnership Support Services, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the health and wellbeing of fishermen and their families. In his talk, he said something that felt like a punch to the gut: “We ignore the primal scream of blue-collar workers at our own peril.” The words cut so deeply that I wrote them down. I knew that, as a student studying agriculture policy and hoping to someday work among and advocate for farmers and ranchers—the rural working class—I could no longer afford to ignore the primal scream that elected Donald J. Trump.

Fellow Friedman students Eva Greenthal, Kelly Kundratic, Hannah Kitchel, and Laura Barley had been awakened to the same realization—and decided to do something about it. “I did not personally know a single person who voted for Trump, and I really wanted to understand their motivations,” wrote Eva, in an email to me. “Frustrated by the lack of ‘opinion diversity’ at Friedman, I knew I would have to look beyond our university to gain this insight.” So she made a plan, joined forces with Kelly, Hannah, and Laura, and applied for funding from the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement to pilot Let’s Talk, a research study designed to help students of diverse political leanings “exit the echo chamber.”

They partnered with Kelly’s alma mater, the West Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design. While several school names were tossed around, WVU’s Davis College was an ideal candidate because, similar to the Friedman School, they offer graduate degrees in both agriculture and human nutrition. The program would work like this: Participants at both schools would dedicate 90 minutes per week over four weeks to ‘meet’ virtually and discuss the future of food, nutrition and agriculture over the course of the new administration, with the intent to identify common goals across party lines. The organizers would administer pre- and post-surveys, to assess whether participants’ perspectives on political topics changed after hearing the perspectives, hopes, and fears of their peers. Key objectives of the program were to promote mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding, and to challenge political stereotypes. Eva connected with Ask Big Questions (ABQ), an organization that provides dialogue facilitation training, so that the team could learn to lead positive and productive conversations.

The ABQ format is simple. It’s predicated on the idea that “big questions” are those that matter to everyone, anyone can answer, and invite people to share from their own experiences. By contrast, “hard questions” are those that matter to some people and require a level of expertise to answer; they tend to close conversational spaces and lead to debates about who is right and wrong. (Political arguments are often framed by these types of questions, appealing to people’s certainties of “right” and “wrong,” “truth” and “alternative truth.”)

Big Questions vs. Hard Questions. AskBigQuestions.org

Big Questions vs. Hard Questions. AskBigQuestions.org

Using the ABQ model, the Let’s Talk team devised big questions that, while tied to political issues, they felt everyone could relate to. These included “How do we connect?,” “What do we assume?,” and “Who are we responsible for?” By design, these questions are broad and ambiguous. But Eva, Kelly, Hannah and Laura, along with the facilitators at WVU, coupled the questions with media clips—PSA videos, TED Talks, and news media addressing food-and-agriculture issues—to give them context and guide more in-depth conversation.

“I like that this format for conversation allows me to speak from my experiences to explain why I feel the way I do about difficult topics,” writes Kelly. “Too often we see others engaging in conversation that can be either very defensive or offensive, and no one leaves…feeling accomplished. When you learn to speak with your experiences, it’s easier to see others as culminations of experience, and have a better understanding of the topic and the speakers.”

Laura added that keeping communication lines open with certain family members that voted for Trump has, for her, been of utmost importance in preserving those relationships since the election. She wanted to help facilitate that for others through Let’s Talk. To ensure respectful dialogue throughout the course of the project, participants brainstormed an “Agreement of Mutual Responsibility” designed to hold one another accountable. Among the things participants were mutually responsible for were directives to use “I” statements, to speak from personal experience as often as possible, and to listen with intent to understand.

Let's Talk Project Goals and Agreement of Mutual Understanding. Photos: Kathleen Nay

Let’s Talk Project Goals and Agreement of Mutual Responsibility. Photos: Kathleen Nay

When asked why they feel Let’s Talk is an important endeavor for the Friedman School to take on, all four organizers agreed that while interdisciplinary work is a cornerstone of the Friedman agenda, there’s a level of political diversity missing from our education. “We need more interdisciplinary work that also crosses state lines and regions,” says Hannah. Laura adds that Let’s Talk “feels like a much-needed expansion of our essential coursework, and delivers us from circulating the same policy discussions that we have in class.” They hope that Let’s Talk can serve as a replicable model that other schools might use to facilitate dialogue among students of varying political persuasions.

As a Let’s Talk participant, I was eager to engage in political discourse with the students at WVU, but I frequently felt frustrated when our 90-minute sessions ended just as the conversation was getting deep. Eva acknowledges that time has been a challenge from the beginning—the time needed to adequately develop the project since the idea formed in November, the time that each organizer was able to commit to planning and preparation, and the amount of time they felt they could fairly ask participants to dedicate each week. But the fact that so many students signed up to participate, despite adding an extra 90 minutes per week to everyone’s already-busy schedules, speaks volumes: Friedman students value opportunities for cross-political dialogue.

Although I’ve been disappointed that the time constraints have capped the length and depth of our Let’s Talk sessions, I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged by the initiative of my Friedman colleagues and inspired by their clear-eyed vision for political discourse that is respectful, tolerant, and empathetic. I’m hopeful, too, that although Let’s Talk has now ended, our conversations won’t; one component of the program has been to match participants with email “pen pals” at the partner school for future correspondence.

While I was disappointed that our discussions didn’t go deeper, I feel that even after only four weeks, I am better equipped to confront my own assumptions and to listen to why, not just what, people believe. Let’s Talk introduced me to a toolbox of conversation techniques that will make me more receptive to diversified political dialogue. It’s an important first step toward shattering our personally- and artificially-crafted echo chambers. The Friedman School has work to do. And I do, too.

Kathleen Nay is an AFE/UEP student in her second year. Eva Greenthal is a first year FPAN MS/MPH student. Kelly Kundratic, Hannah Kitchel and Laura Barley are first year AFE students. Let’s Talk was funded by the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement, the Friedman School, Friedman Student Council, and three generous individual donors.