MIDP fellow Patrick Bwire facilitates an exercise at the LPD event

The holiday table is a long-favored tableau for filmmakers scripting interfamily political brawls. But for the past two years, self-help articles about “surviving” these encounters have exploded on the internet.  A group of students from Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State University, and North Carolina Central University are hoping to help local students transform their own approaches to political dialogue, just in time for the season. 

Leaders for Political Dialogue, a student-run group supported by DCID, brought together 36 students from across the Triangle for two days of intense training and workshops aimed at healing political divisions and opening up meaningful dialogue across party lines. Co-leaders and MIDP fellows Allegra Panetto, Rachel Schmidtke, Linda Low, and Patrick Bwire talked to more than one hundred experts —  professional facilitators, heads of student groups, professors, and others– and the concept note went through fifteen revisions before the final plan was decided for the weekend. 

In the end they collaborated with professional trainers who walked the participants through facilitated dialogue, from large group circles to more intimate pairs. The activities helped participants flex their skills in active listening, understanding different views, demonstrating empathy with others’ underlying needs, interpreting information without inserting their own judgment, and communicating their own values effectively. 

Organizers knew that a balance of political perspectives was crucial for meaningful dialogue- at the end they had eight students who identified as Republicans, eight who were unaffiliated, two who identified as Libertarian, and sixteen who identified as Democrats. The group was intentional about their approach for engaging students across the political spectrum, noting that often these sorts of workshops can come across as “lots of hugs” and not a lot of substance. They ensured the framing was professional, engaging, and described as a “forum.” Participants were given shirts, lanyards, and lots of food, and the organizing team worked with professional facilitators and were also trained to facilitate some of the sessions themselves. Still, ensuring the political balance was a challenge, and one they hope to address through a strong collaboration with representative student groups on other campuses. 

In addition to political diversity, 25% of the participants were non-American, lending a cultural diversity angle to the weekend. Although they don’t vote in elections, the international students’ perspectives about local hot topics (like Confederate flags and statues) added depth to the conversations as they drew from analogous experiences and debates in their home countries. 

In the post-event survey, 90% of the participants said they’d approach political dialogue differently in the future, and 100% said they’d recommend the training to a friend. In fact, several participants have already stepped up as coordinators for next year’s program.  For now, the group is hoping to find a permanent institutional home at Duke so it can continue the work and expand its impact. 

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