Living Room Conversations with Dr. Joan Blades
By Flannery Winchester
Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.
The guest speaker for March 2018 was Dr. Joan Blades, the co-founder of MoveOn.org. Dr. Blades joined our March call to discuss an initiative called Living Room Conversations, which brings people together from across political divides.
She began by reminding listeners that MoveOn.org began in 1998, in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “We wrote a one-sentence petition,” Dr. Blades recalled, which read, “Congress must immediately censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.” It was written so that a huge number of Americans could agree with it, no matter their politics—whatever someone believed, Dr. Blades said, there was plenty of common ground that Congress should address the issue and then move on.
“I’m a mediator by origin and inclination,” Dr. Blades said, and she grew up in Berkeley, Calif. She wanted to know why people saw things so differently from each other, so back in 2004, she began working with a group called Reuniting America. This work allowed her to talk with and befriend many leaders on the political right.
In particular, she wanted to better understand conservatives’ perspectives on climate change. “In 2005, I was able to have some really good conversations about climate with people that were conservative,” Dr. Blades said. “But by 2008 and 2009, it was actually harder to have that kind of conversation.” That inspired an effort called Living Room Conversations.
Discovering common ground
Living Room Conversations is a “very simple, common-sense opportunity for people to really hear each other,” Dr. Blades said. It starts with two friends who have different political views. Each of those people invites two more friends to participate in a structured conversation. There are some conversation guidelines that everyone agrees to: take turns, be respectful, own your part of the conversation, and be curious. The conversation begins with each person sharing a little about himself or herself and talking about their deeper values—and therein lies the magic of this model. Dr. Blades said, “By the time you’re talking about the topic at hand, you have the sense that you kind of like these people.” The conversation closes with some reflections: has anything changed for you? Did you see some common ground? Are there things you want to do together going forward?
Living Room Conversations was first piloted back in 2010 and 2011 and started off with a joint focus on energy and climate. Dr. Blades said they quickly adjusted it to be a conversation about energy because otherwise, people that didn’t believe in climate change were less likely to show up to the conversation. “It comes up naturally enough,” Dr. Blades said, which is a much better way to approach the topic. “We don’t really start listening to each other until we’re in relationship with each other,” she said. “Just having a relationship is profoundly powerful.” She shared a story of a good friend of hers in Utah. When they first met, climate change wasn’t high on his list of concerns, but over time, that changed. “He’s more interested in climate now because he cares about me,” Dr. Blades said.
Finding new connections
Living Room Conversations has over 60 suggested topics to choose from. You can even conduct a conversation by video, which lets you overcome barriers of geography and connect with your fellow Americans. Dr. Blades herself hosted a conversation with the founder of Tea Party Patriots. “It was amazing,” she said. “I really learned about some places where we can work together.” And if you don’t have a friend with different political views, Living Room Conversations will soon be able to connect with someone.
“I want these relationships to begin to bring us back to a space where we can care about each other and we’re trying to meet everyone’s needs,” Dr. Blades said. She’s beginning to see faith communities adopt this model and host Living Room Conversations on a regular basis. Dr. Blades called that local community building “beautiful” and said it and paves the way for weaving our national community back together.