The United States of America just threw up.
At least, that’s how Laura Ellsworth described the state of the country after this divisive election as a panelist at a Friday event at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh dedicated to restoring civil conversations about the future of the United States.
“You know how when you have an upset stomach and you get sicker and sicker and sicker and then after you throw up, you feel better?” said Ellsworth, a partner at Jones Day Global Community Services Initiatives, eliciting laughs from the audience at the annual meeting of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership.
And now, after the widely unexpected election of Donald Trump to the presidency, many Americans face the treacherous prospect of talking politics at the Thanksgiving table.
The event aimed to equip attendees with advice and perspectives to start productive conversations and move forward together, now that we’ve overcome the figurative sickness.
The four-expert panel, moderated by the board president of PublicSource, Jim Crutchfield, acknowledged that contentious events like the presidential election often cause like-minded people to coalesce and shun opposing viewpoints.
“I think we have to challenge ourselves to seek out people who aren’t part of our choir,” said panelist Michelle Figlar, the Vice President of Learning at The Heinz Endowments.* “It gets really easy and comfortable to talk to people who think the same things that we think, and it’s really hard to challenge ourselves to try to find new people to be part of the choir, or who may even be singing a different song.”
Not only did the panelists urge the audience to embrace compromise and show up ready to listen before speaking, they also honed in on the issue of race relations in the country.
Addressing the wounds of the post-election divide, particularly among racial groups, will require forums that invite people to talk honestly, without the concept of winners and losers, said Larry Davis, director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh
“I think we really need to have forums for people to really talk about this topic, not skirt this topic, no longer be afraid to address this topic,” he said. “It is a big problem throughout the country, and it’s gonna be one for a while.”
For John Allison, editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial page, a critical part of ensuring people have these tough conversations is by holding elected officials accountable. He acknowledged that a scourge of “fake news” is plaguing the Internet, and said that he aims to combat the reality of the “low-information voter” with vital reporting.
“The First Amendment calls for more speech, not the suppression of speech,” he said.
Lisa Perry, associate executive director of the Pittsburgh’s nonprofit crisis nursery Jeremiah’s Place, said the discussion reminded her that the country is “healing” after a brutal campaign.
Perry noted that people who are hurting tend to hurt other people. “What I discovered in this election is that there was a lot of pain in our country from people who we have not heard from,” she said.
The election sharpened fault lines for many people, but for Quincy Kofi Swatson, executive director of The Door Campaign, it had the opposite effect.
“I make it a point to reach out to people who don’t look like me, aren’t from where I’m from, not in the same age range, just to get a different perspective,” he said. “…[I reach] out to people and [say], ‘I understand this is how you think, let’s talk about that. Let me understand this.’”
*The Heinz Endowments has provided funding to PublicSource.