Unifying neighbors through climate conversations
By Steph Zhu
Love thy neighbor. A helpful update to that adage might be “Love thy neighbor, including their political, religious, and other preferences that may differ from your own.” But how do we do that? We’ve all heard the advice to steer clear of discussing sensitive subjects like politics and religion at work or with acquaintances, but that has left us unsure how to navigate those choppy waters at all.
An effort called Living Room Conversations is here to remind us how and to help us practice. The program was pioneered by Joan Blades, who founded MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org, and it promotes a cordial, calm environment to have dialogues about opposing political ideals. By bringing together people who lean more liberal with people who lean more conservative and offering a clear structure, it creates a safe environment to speak about these differing political beliefs. Debates are welcome, but leave any anger or aggression at the front door. Listening is encouraged, without interruptions to allow all a platform to freely speak about their beliefs. Reserve judgment and replace it instead with open minds.
These conversations are happening around the country, and they work. Some of our CCL members in Madison, Wisconsin, conducted two of their own in October 2017 and in May 2018 and had fantastic results. I spoke to Bruce Jamison and Steve Coleman, who conducted and participated in each of the Living Room Conversations.
The October event pioneered this initiative for the Madison CCLers. They focused on attracting conservatives to attend and speak their minds freely and comfortably among CCL members. The CCL members stayed quiet and focused on absorbing these perspectives with an open mind, focusing on understanding. Even though the crowd was more homogenous and reflected those with similar opinions, it was impactful. Attendees became convinced of the effectiveness of carbon fee and dividend, and the welcoming environment was inspiring to some of the attendees. Some began to attend CCL meetings, a wonderful side effect of this powerful and meaningful initiative.
The second event, held in May, was conducted more consistently with the traditional structure for Living Room Conversations. The focus was on bringing neighbors together, no matter what views they held. Inviting people was conducted casually on the streets, with a simple, “Hello, my neighbor and I are into this climate stuff. We’d like to have a conversation among neighbors about it—like over wine and cheese?” Bruce said this may have been more effective than emails or phone calls.
Instead of wine and cheese, they ultimately sat down with pizza and beer—a great place to start. With that basic foundation in place, they began the conversation about climate change. Bruce said that bringing up the topic was the biggest challenge, as everyone was a bit apprehensive and bracing themselves for an explosion to erupt. However, this was not the case. They started with small, friendly greetings, and then Bruce bravely dipped his toe into the polarized political waters. He said, “It is said that climate change is real, caused by us, and is dangerous. What do you think?”
From there, Bruce moderated and made sure everyone had a voice and an opportunity to speak. He said the conversation then organically progressed to, “How did it happen that so many people deny climate change?” and addressed some possible solutions. Bruce said that emotions were uniformly under control—in fact, some people were hoping for more fireworks, and simply didn’t get them. Everyone was consciously diplomatic, with no heated arguments or negativity in sight.
The biggest takeaway and value for those who participated was being open to different perspectives and getting to know neighbors. Despite the differing beliefs and opinions, being able to discuss the controversial topic was a relief to all. Everyone was so engaged that they were eager for the next get together, which included ideas like a movie, a presentation to a larger group, or another conversation. The success of this conversation could possibly blossom into a more regular occurrence that could bridge communities. This is a beautiful thing, and this human connection is what we need to remember and hold onto in an age where everything is becoming digital, where we see political opinions before we see a face and expressions and feelings.
We are all people. Instead of casting aside any opinions that don’t match up with our own, we should listen and be open. This is how we can use empathy and understanding to unite people and make a true, effective, lasting impact. Try out your own Living Room Conversation today!
To learn more about Living Room Conversations, watch this Citizens’ Climate University session with Joan Blades.
Steph Zhu joined CCL in February 2018 and is a volunteer in the San Francisco chapter.