A Red American and a Blue American Walk Into a Zoom...
MTTR's Mia Quagliarello comes face-to-face with her own biases, thanks to Braver Angels' "1x1 Conversations" program.
As soon as it was placed on the calendar, I knew that talking to Steve Saltwick was going to be a highlight of my week. I love meeting new people and learning about them, and frankly my chances of talking to a “red” in the wild are about as likely as Daft Punk playing at the trash fence at Burning Man. (Back when there was such hope.)
Just by that analogy you can probably tell I am a “blue.” I’m a San Francisco dweller whose idea of fun is cavorting in the desert to techno music with semi-clothed strangers. “Blue” is not a label I would ever declare as part of my identity, but it is a shorthand for what I believe in and how I vote, and for the purposes of this meeting I needed it to complete my part of the conversation equation.
Steve and I were participants in Braver Angels’ “1x1 Conversations,” a highly structured program bringing people together despite their differences. Braver Angels — a nonprofit uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America — does a lot more than this program, but it’s the piece I was most curious about, as a framework and as an experience. I was also testing it out for MTTR, which has a similar mission. If this went well, I wanted every employee to try it.
Based in Austin, TX, Steve is a full-time volunteer with Braver Angels, so this was not his first rodeo. I was grateful for his guidance throughout the two-part series because at first it struck me as eye-rollingly rigid. For example, before we got started, we each took turns reading aloud goals and guide rules. Then, each portion of the conversation was strictly scripted and time-bound (with a timer and no cross-talk!), and the flow was almost always like so:
a) respond uninterrupted to a question and let the other person do the same
b) reflect on what you each learned about what was important to the speaker
c) share what you noted in common from the responses.
Easy peasy. 😅
Steve told me that this formula is actually part of Braver Angels’ special sauce and is critical to keeping conversations moving and productive. After going through it, I appreciate how it kept us focused — and focused on the positives, aka our areas of common ground.
We started by getting to know each other. It was cool to learn that our ancestors both came through Ellis Island — his from Norway, mine from Italy. From there, our histories diverged: he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in the segregated South, and I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in multicultural Manhattan. We shared our favorite meals as kids. The answers — steak cooked straight on charcoal (his) and sushi (mine) — pretty much summed up our different lives.
Next, we got to the meat of it: where we are politically and what life experiences got us here. After sharing our journeys, we realized that actually we both appreciated a lot about this country, despite its flaws. We both believed in the promise and potential of the American Dream, which lured our ancestors here and buoyed our own paths. And it turned out we were both really concerned about how to achieve the greatest good for the most Americans; we just had different ideas on how to get there.
Steve’s definition of conservatism was another surprise for me. For some reason, I always equated “conservative” with “Republican,” but he explained to me that, to him, it boils down to literally conserving what is good about the U.S.A, even the land. This was a lightbulb moment for me because, to be honest, I always thought conservatives were all for pillaging the land in favor of capitalism. Steve laid bare a gross generalization in my own thinking.
We closed out conversation No. 1 with each of us reflecting on which of our side’s values and policies are good for the country and which could be subject to justifiable criticisms. We found overlap in how much we cared about Americans overall, a sadness over the loss of community in this country, and a sense that each side plays to extremes and rewards the loudest voices, to their detriment.
“Wow, you’re so reasonable!” I blurted out once session one was over, putting more of my own judgment and bias on full, embarrassing display. Steve laughed it off, made a well-did-you-think-I-would-be-Archie-Bunker type joke, and agreed to continue with part two the following week.
This time, our chat centered around an issue we care a lot about. Each person spent up to four minutes talking, uninterrupted. I discussed why I thought people should be able to determine their own gender, and Steve addressed personal responsibility among the homeless. He admitted that my issue completely perplexed him, and he found it even weirder that out of all the things plaguing our society right now, I would choose something that to him seemed non-negotiable.
As a San Francisco resident, I could relate to Steve’s concerns about getting the homeless crisis under control — it’s a huge problem here, too — but I had a hard time seeing how you could ask someone in the throes of addiction and/or mental illness to take more “personal responsibility.” We didn’t necessarily “get” each other on these issues, but we at least acknowledged that we understood where the other person was coming from. And that was the point.
We closed out on an uplifting note: our hopes for America and how we, as individuals and as a collective, might make a positive impact. It was inspiring to be given the space to dream about these topics and brainstorm solutions together. At the end of it, we both said we gained new perspectives from the other that would stay with us for some time. Steve liked my comment that we should think of America itself as a community that needs tending, and I got chills when he said:
“Even one voice can make a difference. We think you have to have a huge megaphone, but that’s not the case.”
And as I learned from this experience, even one conversation can make a difference, too.
If you resonate with MTTR’s mission and purpose — to come together around what divides us to create understanding and common ground — please join our new Slack Community. In it, you’ll see channels for the Collections we’re working on; discussions about current events; books, music and podcasts that inspire us; events we’re tuning into; things that we’re rethinking and unlearning; opportunities, announcements, and more. It’ll also be a way for you to have the first look at MTTR's platform as it comes to life.