The polarization of American politics has made its mark in all corners of our society, including schools. In an effort to teach high school students how to engage in civil discourse, and to find common ground on important issues, the organizers of a new project in southern Maine brought together 29 students with diverse backgrounds and points of view.
They first gathered several months ago for a weekend at a camp on Sebago Lake and reconvened last night at a candidates’ forum in Westbrook, and some students discovered a new perspective on the art of compromise.
29 students are seated in a large semicircle on the stage of the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Next to them are nine gubernatorial candidates, all Democrats and independents. Organizers say the lack of Republicans was due only to scheduling conflicts.
The discussion between students and candidates covers a wide range of issues, including drug policy and mental health education in Maine schools.
"I feel like we teach mental illnesses," said Poland Regional High School senior Jordan Gregory. "But we don't teach how to find help, and how to help others with that. So I think those are things we want to talk about and address."
The seeds for Thursday's student-candidate dialogue were planted by Lowell Libby, an administrator at Portland's private Waynflete School. Libby says he had become frustrated by the divisiveness and gridlock that have come to shape modern politics. About four months ago, he decided to work with other schools and interest groups, including the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center, to test an idea.
"It's learning to view differences as assets, rather than liabilities," Libby says. "Something to be tapped, rather than something to be feared. Something to listen to, rather than defeat."
Libby’s idea led to the weekend gathering of 29 students at Camp Sunshine, on Sebago Lake. The students represented schools from all over southern Maine. Some described their views as conservative, some as liberal; some identified as Democrats or Republicans. They were present to listen to each other and see what policies they could agree on.
"I'm not going to lie, it was very difficult," says Deering High School Sophomore Selam Desta.
Desta recalls that even with facilitation from adults, it was tough to find common ground.
"The first conversation we had – on race, especially – it got very intense and emotional," Desta says. "A lot of people had very strong opinions on it. And at first, I believe we weren't listening to each other. We were just talking at each other."
Desta says they fought for hours, but at one point, they decided to move on and identify policies that they could support – policies concerning gun reform, education and drug policy.
"So, maybe instead of focusing on what we disagree on, focusing on what we agree on, and taking advantage of that, and making the most of it," she says.
In Westbrook on Thursday night, the group outlined a detailed, consensus plan for the candidates on what policies they support. The plan includes a proposal for gun control featuring universal background checks, licensing and mental health exams.
Westbrook High Senior Daniel Sanborn says they also wanted to know what the gubernatorial hopefuls would do to assure school safety.
"What will you do if you're elected, for us students going to school?" Sanborn asked. "What will you do to protect from events such as a school shootings or other dangerous things like that?"
Virtually all of the candidates who answered supported parts of the student positions.
Democratic candidate Mark Dion, a former county sheriff, said he opposes excessive school security, which he believes could make school buildings feel more like jails, but he supported many of their ideas.
"I need you to go home and convince your parents, right?" Dion asked them. "Because as we get older, our thinking gets more rigid, and we need to be challenged."
In fact, project organizers hope that these students do find ways to communicate their political beliefs in a more productive way. Westbrook High School Junior Sebastian Johns, who describes himself as a conservative activist, admits that he has, at times, characterized those with differing views as "idiots."
"We didn't like each other without even having a discussion," Johns says. "Just based off political views. And after coming here and talking to other people, I think it's a lot more important now to not be so polar about it. And to actually learn what people are coming from, and not just calling them an idiot for being a Democrat."
The students do acknowledge, though, that any transformation that might be taking place in the school lunchroom will be harder to realize in the highly polarized American culture.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
This story originally aired May 11, 2018 at 5:21 p.m. ET.