Forging a Path Forward for America

Forging a Path Forward for America

“Do you think the president is a racist?” There was a collective intake of breath, and some murmurs around the room.

 

Some people laughed nervously. Others glanced at their friends, and then back to the panelists on the stage, rapt with attention to see what the answer would be. I know I was on the edge of my seat, staring intently at the panelist as he visibly pondered the question.


When I woke up that Friday morning, a riveting dialogue on race that would leave the gears turning in my head for days was the last thing I was expecting. I’ll be honest - I dragged myself out of bed that morning fully anticipating a dry, academic conversation that I would spend an hour looking politely interested in before shuffling back to bed. Instead, what I got was an experience that made me reconsider my views on race, society, and America as a country.

 

The Simpson-Mineta Leaders Series is a TWC event that hosts speakers on a range of topics. I learned this weekend that the name is based on two politicians who, despite their differences in opinion over politics, managed to be close friends. The speakers themselves were both fascinating, incredibly intelligent people, and I left the panel wishing I could sit down and have coffee with each of them, and talk for the next five hours about every topic they touched on. Between kneeling for the flag, the protests in Charlottesville, and racial issues spanning all the way back to the founding of the country, both guests touched on numerous hard-hitting issues without skirting or downplaying them.

 

SMLS Speakers

Courtesy of TWC

 

While the content itself certainly engaged me, I was even more impacted by the symbolism of what the conversation meant. Too often today, conversations about issues like race begin with the idea that there is one side or the other. Polarized viewpoints are touted as being normal, and there is no room for compromise, or acknowledging the other side’s perspective. At this event, it was just the opposite. At one point during the panel, the moderator asked the crowd to raise their hands if they believe Confederate monuments should be taken down, and then for those who believe they should remain up to raise their hands as well. There was a mix of responses in the room, and even the two panelists were split on the issue.


Despite this, there was no hostility, and there was no condemnation from the moderator or panelists of either point of view. There was some tension, and some discomfort, but it was followed by explanation and discussion where I believe everyone in the room considered both points of view. I know I certainly did. The panel had created a space where we were allowed and encouraged to step off our usual soapboxes and meet each other on equal footing, ready to truly consider whether or not our positions were correct.


There can be a fine line between encouraging open discussion and pushing people to compromise on beliefs they feel are tied to their moral character, and the SMLS event perfectly struck that balance. While in attendance, I felt like I was truly learning and expanding upon the viewpoint I had, rather than just being asked to abandon it because someone else felt differently. The panelists, while answering questions from the crowd, made an effort to engage and have a true discussion with students instead of talking at or down to them.


You’ll notice that I never mentioned what the answer to the moderator’s question was, from either panelist. Although it was certainly a fascinating answer, I left it out because what each panelist thought wasn’t the point of the event. To me, the takeaway was about the ability to have dialogue that allows for disagreement, debate, and growth. I know how corny that might sound, and trust me, I’m get that the whole ’come-together’ theme sometimes just sounds like a bland excuse to avoid addressing real issues. However, in this case, I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I say that conversations like this are what I believe America so desperately needs right now.


In a time of hyper-partisanship, it can feel as though a divide is growing in our country like a wound, one that gets deeper by the day, and that we’re leading up to a bleak future. However, sitting in a room with people from dozens of different countries and listening to the brainstorming of solutions for today’s problems is the kind of thing that gives me hope. It reminds me that there is a path forward through listening and collaborating with each other, and that there’s still hope just as long as there are people who are willing to walk it.

 

Read Colleen's previous blog posts

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More