SIPA Students Seek to Bridge the Gap Between Academic and Small-Town America

Frederik Vitting Hermann | SIPA Class of 2017

On Saturday April 8th, 15 SIPA students found themselves far away from home court as they tried to talk politics with unwitting shoppers in Destiny Mall – the country’s fifth largest, located just outside Syracuse, NY. The event was part of a full weekend of political conversations far away from the liberal base in Uptown Manhattan organized by the new student society Policy::dialogue.

The idea of a dialogue trip and dialogue student society was born in the wake of this fall’s election. In November, the organization’s founders realized that there is a large gap between their understanding of politics and Donald Trump voters’ understanding of politics – at a very basic level. Across many news outlets, the election has been portrayed as a backlash against liberal, city-dwelling elites like that around SIPA. This argument has resonated with enough SIPA students to form momentum behind Policy::dialogue and its mission. of bringing public policy students out of campus and into an understanding of everyday small-town, conservative America and its political thinking.

“I see Policy::dialogue taking discussions outside of our liberal academia bubble” says Divya Sundaram, one of the founders. “It’s about becoming more receptive to diverse viewpoints and reflective of the different realities that people across the country are actually living. By taking us outside of the city, sometimes literally sometimes figuratively, I think we’ll become better policy makers.”

The group traveled to Syracuse and its surrounding smaller towns to try and talk politics with people that do not spend their every waking hour thinking about public policy and that might have different opinions than your average SIPA student. They met with local business leaders, a religious community, they met with the (albeit Democratic) mayor of Syracuse and they canvassed at the mall. All the while, the main idea was to listen and understand – not to debate or persuade.

Andrea Cristina Ruiz tells that “Not sharing my opinions and focusing on listening and understanding the other person’s point of view without judging them made them feel safer and share more. Ultimately, I was able to connect with the most conservative of voters on a personal level, despite their affiliations.” Another trip participant, Ana Gabriela Gonzalez Gonzalez, joined in saying: “Grass root efforts are hard! Speaking to strangers is challenging, but once you start it is worth it!”

Policy::dialogue is founded on the idea that political discussion too often end up in an endless restatement of ingrained arguments. It takes an effort to understand the opposing side’s reasoning and their motivations. It takes an even bigger effort to find some common ground. The trip participants spent the previous weekend trying to get out of their regular argumentative frameworks of mind and get better at listening. They held a training session with David Blankenhorn whose organization, Better Angels, have some of the same goals as Policy::dialogue and specializes in making people of opposite opinions come together in conversation.

Policy::dialogue is in its infancy but the organizers are looking to do more. “Next year, we hope to do a combination of off-campus and on-campus programming in which we do an off-campus dialogue trip similar to the one we did this weekend and host dialogues at SIPA between people who share a variety of different perspectives on key public policy issues” says Tabatha Thompson, another member of the founding team behind Policy::dialogue.

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