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In Lower Merion, Democrats and Republicans try something new: Listening to each other

Neighbors came together to air their differences over "Hate Has No Home Here" signs.

“Hate Has No Home Here” signs have appeared since Election Day, and one community had a discussion about their impact.
“Hate Has No Home Here” signs have appeared since Election Day, and one community had a discussion about their impact.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

On Aug. 13, I joined hundreds of my neighbors at a rally in response to the events in Charlottesville. Several members of the crowd held signs reading, "Hate Has No Home Here." One side of the sign is red and the other is blue. The phrase is repeated in six languages. I had put the same sign on my lawn just before the presidential inauguration, and I watched as more and more appeared in the yards of my neighbors.

Disagreements over these lawn signs is why, six months later, I found myself sitting at a table of 16 people with alternating red and blue name tags and surrounded by a ring of 20-plus observers and members of the nonpartisan group Better Angels.

This disagreement was a symptom of a much bigger issue facing Americans. Somehow our politics became so contentious that we often can't even speak to each other, and recognizing the "opposition's" position has become equated with surrendering our own.

A few weeks ago, the two sides came together for a dialogue convened by Better Angels, a group that helps Democrats and Republicans talk and, more important, listen and better understand each other's perspectives. Better Angels is bringing these dialogues to communities across the country to defuse the partisan anger that prevents us from moving our nation forward together.

We sat in two concentric circles; the Democrats in the outer ring listening as Republicans shared their experience in the township after the election. Then we switched roles. The rules are simple, the inner ring speaks and the outer ring listens. Those in the outer ring are not to respond: no sighs, no eye rolls, and definitely no rebuttals.

With the possibility of directly responding removed, I found my ability to listen greatly improved. I heard my Republican neighbors talk about how their Trump sign had been stolen or defaced, how their kids were bullied for being Trump supporters, how neighbors stopped speaking with them after the election. Their pain was clear.

It was a struggle at times to just sit and listen, but it was also an odd relief to know that it was the only option. My defenses were lowered, and I could focus and genuinely hear all of what my neighbors and community members were saying. I could finally look through their eyes and understand that when the signs began popping up after the election, they didn't see a nonpartisan red-and-blue sign. To them, the signs said, "Trump supporters are hateful" — in other words, "Republicans, you are hateful." When given the framework of their experience, I could finally understand where their interpretation came from.

Then it was the Democrats' turn to speak about why we had put up the signs. People of color spoke about being harassed as they walked down the street or even in their own driveways since the election. I shared that my 8-year-old son worried for his friends, who were taunted at school that they would be deported. Another Democrat shared her dismay at the increase in hate-fueled speech and actions nationwide since Election Day. The Democrats were in agreement: We posted the signs to support members of our community who are experiencing hate and fear.

The evening was never meant to be a debate with a winning side, and we certainly didn't resolve the issue in one evening. This was the start of a dialogue, a chance for both sides to be heard.

While some of the Republicans felt better about the signs, most still wanted them taken down. And though some Democrats were moved to rethink their signs, most agreed they would keep them up. Several Republicans and Democrats were disappointed they hadn't swayed the other side to their position. Regardless, both sides left with a better understanding of the other and less rancor. Two weeks later, that Aug. 13 rally in Ardmore was called "Stand Up for Love" in the hope that all would feel welcome.

Our nation was founded on differing viewpoints, and our diversity is our strength. Mutual understanding does not require unanimity, and we can respectfully recognize another point of view without conceding our own. We need that balance of different voices in our communities and our government. If we can learn to listen and understand the other side, then maybe we can move forward together rather than continuing to pull our nation further apart.

Ashley Best-Raiten is a former U.S. history and government teacher and a co-leader of Indivisible Lower Merion.