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Two schools of thought: Penn/Cairn try to bridge political divide

Cynthia Page and Allison Fried were political opposites, or so they thought, sitting across from each other at a ballroom-style table at Cairn University in Langhorne last week.

Then Page, 23, of Bensalem, started explaining her vote for president, motivated in part by a desire to help the homeless and the working class.

"We need to be focused on that, rebuilding America," she said. "We need to get help for the ones who are working every day in 9-to-5 jobs, working and getting nothing back in return."

Fried, 26, of Philadelphia, nodded and smiled.

"It's just funny," Fried said, "because I completely agree with that. It's interesting that we both want the same thing."

Yet, Page, a senior social-work major at Cairn, voted for Donald Trump, and Fried, a student in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, voted for Hillary Clinton.

"That's why it's good that we're talking about it," Page said.

Page and Fried were among about 80 students from Cairn and Penn who signed up to participate in the discussion Tuesday evening: "Politics in the Age of Trump: Speaking Across Our Differences."

The Penn students were largely Democratic-leaning and mostly enrolled in the Graduate School of Education. Most students from Cairn, formerly Philadelphia Biblical University, were conservative.

The civil political interchange — an attempt to get people to "leave their cocoons of the like-minded" and broker "bipartisan dialogue," according to the event flier — could serve as a microcosm for a nation of people still bitterly divided over the election and more likely to try to crush their political foes than listen to them.

The idea came from Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at Penn, who reached out to Cairn and set up two forums, the first last week and the second scheduled for Penn's campus Feb. 21. He knew of only one other similar event, a virtual discussion in December between students at Macomb Community College in an area of Michigan where Trump dominated and students 2,400 miles away at the University of California, Berkeley, which is heavily liberal.

"One of the things that inspired this on my part," said Zimmerman, who joined Penn in August after 20 years at New York University, "was the shame I felt after the election. I was so isolated from Trump voters that I never imagined that Trump would win. I had no understanding why he did because I hadn't been in communication with Trump voters."

He also took a cue from Barack Obama.

"If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet," the former president advised in his farewell address last month, "try talking with one of them in real life."

The two-hour event saw no arguments or name-calling, no bitter exchanges. Some students interviewed afterward said that they were surprised to find commonalities with those who voted differently from them and that the encounter gave them a better feeling about their political opposites.

"I didn't think Trump supporters were all racist. This allowed me to put a face on that belief," said Penn panelist Ilan Gold, 20, a junior math major from New York who supported Bernie Sanders.

But others felt the event lacked depth, skirting issues such as racism, marriage inequality, and abortion. They said that they didn't hear from enough Trump voters and that the questions weren't explicit enough to draw out where participants stood.

"It didn't go as in-depth as I wanted," said Penn student Bintou Diallo, 23.

Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, a black woman and a Muslim, said she has viewed Trump supporters as "questioning some part of my humanity, some part of me, my existence."

But Diallo, who became a citizen in 2014, said she wanted to understand them better — and left the forum feeling she didn't. More direct questions to panelists would help, she said.

"Who did you vote for and why and has your decision positively or negatively affected anybody who is close to you?" she said, offering an example.

But Zimmerman said that given the volatile nature of the election, such a question outright could cause people to go into an "aggressive or defensive crouch."

Civic dialogue experts Chris Satullo and Harris Sokoloff, who moderated the event, instead started off by asking the six-student panel: "As you were growing up, how were politics and political discussion handled?" Next came: "Since the election, what is one question you've been dying to ask someone who voted for the other candidate?"

Those same questions then were thrown out to the audience, where a mix of Cairn and Penn students around each table held their own discussions. "Be honest but not cruel," Satullo advised.

One limiting factor was that only about half of the Cairn students were Trump voters, and at least two of them in the audience shared with those at their tables that they regretted their votes.

Of the three Cairn panelists, only one, Eric Blacksten, 22, said he was a Trump voter. One, Chrislee Butcher, 22, declined to reveal her vote. And the third, Moses DeHart, 21, a junior majoring in music and biblical studies, voted for a write-in, Evan McMullin, a former Republican staffer and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah.

"I had to choose to vote for someone who I could back more ethically and morally," DeHart, of Cheltenham, explained to the audience.

Several students said they got what they were looking for at the forum.

"Overall, there was a really good level of understanding that people walked away with," said Blacksten, of Maryland.

Sarah Murphy, 24, hopes political adversaries elsewhere take a hint.

"Things would be a lot better in general if more people had this sort of discourse, where people felt comfortable sharing, and [where] listening became more important than proving your point," said Murphy, a Penn student panelist and Clinton voter from Roanoke, Va.

Lisette Enumah, 30, a Penn student panelist from Georgia, was less satisfied. She said there was too much emphasis on civility.

"When you are willing to be emotional in a way that may come across as 'uncivil,' you are able to take a political conversation to a deeper and more honest place, and I don't think we were able to do that," she said.

Enumah said the room's lack of diversity also limited the discussion, saying she was one of only four black people.

Zimmerman said the event was a start and like any process will need to be tweaked.

"We will meet and talk about ways that we possibly can get a little bit more dialogue going," he said, "perhaps even a little bit more contention of a civil kind."