PIN in person: Building relationships across the divides

Melody Ng
Analyst
Public Insight Network
After the group discussion, PIN sources Erik Shetney (left), Bradley Johannsen and Mic Tienken, all of whom identify themselves as conservatives, continued to chat. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

After the group discussion, PIN sources Erik Shetney (left), Bradley Johannsen and Mic Tienken continued to chat. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

How do political differences affect relationships? They build them!

At least, that’s what happened recently when we invited two dozen people to join us and talk about politics, relationships and how their lives have changed as the election season wears on.

[Full coverage: "We're Red and Blue All Over"]

Back in September, APM’s Public Insight Network collaborated with This American Life to ask people across the nation how political divisions are affecting their relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. More than 500 people responded, many of them sharing moving, enlightening stories. We’ll hear a few of those voices in This American Life’s upcoming Red State Blue State episode. In the meantime, we mapped a couple hundred stories and talked to lots of other people along the way. But we also wanted to create a space where people could discuss their experiences and learn from one another.

So we invited two dozen PIN sources to get together and talk.

We contacted people living in and around the Twin Cities who shared compelling stories on our query and some previous Minnesota Public Radio queries on similar topics. We also invited some PIN sources who are politically active, or who are campaigning for or against the two constitutional amendments on Minnesota’s ballot this year.

Participants sat in a wide circle, joined by event hosts and experts. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

Participants sat in a wide circle, joined by event hosts and experts. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

Our group was evenly divided between people who identified themselves as liberals and conservatives — along with a few independents — and participants ranged in age from 17 to 89.

Age mattered, because one of our forum hosts, Chris Farrell, APM’s in-house economics guru and a Marketplace contributor, has been studying the world through a 25/65 lens, comparing the experiences of Millennials with those of the Baby Boomer generation. He’s interested in seeing if politics play out differently in relationships now than they might have in the past. We also invited political psychologist Henriet Hendricks, a professor at nearby St. Olaf College, to help frame and make sense of the discussion, as well. And Stephanie Curtis, an editor with our local morning call-in show, moderated the discussion.

Public Insight Network reporter Samara Freemark (left) presented a live radio story at the event. Engagement Editor Jeff Jones assisted with the audio.  (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

Public Insight Network reporter Samara Freemark (left) presented a live radio story at the event. Engagement Editor Jeff Jones assisted with the audio. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

We started the event with a live rendition of a radio story produced by PIN reporter Samara Freemark, and short intros from the evening’s hosts. Then we turned to one of our guests, who shared with us a story about conflict with a coworker. (We’d asked him ahead of time to help us start the conversation, as we’d read about his conflict through our earlier querying.)

After that, hands kept going up, and the stories flowed.

There were no lulls, no breaks, and no hesitation among the crowd when we asked if we might prolong the discussion a few minutes past the 90-minute mark that we’d planned to end on. There was also no conflict. We saw people whose politics were diametrically opposed to each other nodding in agreement as they shared stories of the difficulties they’d encountered as they navigated the challenges of political conflict elsewhere in their lives.

People spoke candidly about their prejudices and pain, unafraid to make themselves vulnerable in a room full of strangers. And they spoke to one another, not addressing questions or comments to our hosts in the circle.

But what made this forum exceptional was that afterwards, rather than rushing to the front of the room to talk with our radio-star hosts or the college professor, people rushed across the room to talk to each other.

When the event ended, nearly everyone -- including Jackie Gulbranson (left), a self-described moderate and Marilyn Matheny, who identifies herself as liberal -- crossed the room to chat with other participants.  (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

When the event ended, nearly everyone — including Jackie Gulbranson (left) and Marilyn Matheny — crossed the room to chat with other participants. (Photo by Meg Martin | PIN)

By the end of the night, our group had formed a new community that bridged political, social and generational divides: The guy who’s working 18-hour days to defeat the voter ID amendment here in Minnesota wants to hug the woman who’s spent the past five years trying to get the amendment passed, because she’s broken up about her church not supporting her stance.

People lingered in the room and in the parking lot after the doors closed — talking, sharing, swapping business cards, not wanting to let go of these new relationships they’d just formed.

If you want to find our more about the event and how we prepared for it, contact Melody Ng (mng@americanpublicmedia.org) or Jeff Jones (jjones@americanpublicmedia.org).

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Melody Ng Analyst
Public Insight Network

As a Public Insight analyst, Melody Ng's job is all about finding out what people know, and then putting their experience and expertise to work making great news stories. She's particularly interested in getting diverse perspectives and voices into the news. So if you don’t hear people who think or sound like you in the news, then: Tell us what you know here. And come on into our newsroom!

Melody got into journalism through an internship with documentary unit American RadioWorks when looking for a different way to use the skills she had learned through doing science.