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Let’s Talk America: Framing Questions and Starting Conversations

Let’s Talk America (LTA), a 2004 project that encouraged conversations that bridge across political difference, provided a resource to help conversation hosts frame questions in a way that is not polarizing. LTA recommended starting with a question that invites a personal story from people, in order to create a context in which they feel invited to speak. They suggested the question “What about the invitation to this conversation moved and inspired you? What led you to come?” Here are some other ideas…

The personal is political, the political is personal

We all have a story about our relationship with America, democracy, freedom, politics and power. Whether we are “made in America” or came here, the myths of this continent and the history of our times are woven into our personal stories. Once we know one another as people, it is more natural to listen to one another’s ideas, whether we agree or not.

  • Think of a time when you had a conversation with someone whose perspective was substantially different from yours in which the exchange taught you something about yourself and about the other person? What was that like for you? What did you and the other person contribute to the exchange?
  • Think of a time when you recognized a problem in your community and responded with some kind of action? What did you do? What was that like for you? Who else was involved? How did it affect your view of yourself, the other person, and your relationship to your community?
  • hink of a time when you felt empowered as a citizen? What happened? What did you do? What made this possible? How do you feel about it now?

What is America?

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written by people – America was invented, and we are still inventing it. Its meaning and course are shaped by our choices to an extraordinary degree compared to most cultures and countries with much longer histories.

  • What do you cherish about America, and being an American? Which of your values does this reflect?
  • During your middle school years (ages 11-14), [or when you were young] what did you understand about what it meant to be an American?
  • What does it mean to you to be an American now?
  • When you think about America, what aspects of America’s hope and promise resonate most with you? Why do you think they are important to you?

Looking for more questions?

Perhaps you plan to hold a series of conversations -or you haven’t found a question yet that really inspires you. So we offer a number of additional questions that explore various aspects of our civic life.

Speaking and listening to people who disagree: moving beneath conflict

In many ways America seems increasingly fragmented and polarized. The old caution, “Don’t talk about religion or politics,” speaks volumes – it can feel unsafe to disagree! To avoid conflict, we stick to our own kind – people who think the way we do – and then, come voting time, fight for our point of view and resent losing. Conversations like LTA are intended to offer an alternative to these limiting conversations by making it possible to speak and listen to people who differ from you. Imagine that you are sitting with people you don’t agree with on some issues.

  • What questions would you like to ask them to help you understand better how they came to their views? What would you like to understand about the life experiences that contribute to the values or beliefs that are important to them?
  • What questions might they ask you that would allow you to feel safe speaking about the values, passions and experiences that make your ideas dear to you?

Power and politics – can we do it better?

Winners take all. Polarization. Stalemate in so many areas where no one is getting what s/he wants. Voting is down. Why? How often do we feel powerless and conclude, “Democracy, why bother?” Are there times when we think “Democracy, what’s it to me?” What changes – in ourselves or in our system – would need to happen for us to feel like we are citizens participating in a democracy?

  • In theory, opposing views in a democratic system lead to better decisions – ones everyone can live with. When is it most difficult for you to live with decisions not of your choosing? What issues close to your heart are not expressed in the decisions of our leaders? Could we do democracy better?
  • When have you been part of a group with diverse opinions – in the family, workplace, or faith community – and participated in making a decision that worked for everyone over time? What helped your group make such a wise decision? What did people do that accounted for the success?
  • Is there a belief or value you hold that’s not reflected or represented clearly by the language of the party or political group you’re most aligned with? What is it? Why is it important to you?
  • Can you imagine one change in our political system that we could make to improve our democracy? How might each of us contribute to that change?
  • What are some of the ways you have found to participate in the decisions that affect your life and the life of your country? that you feel good about and why?

The land of the free and the home of the brave?

We fight for freedom. We represent freedom to the rest of the world. We also kill and die for freedom – and have waged wars where many perished for this thing called “freedom.” What kind of “bravery” or courage actually defends freedom? When do we most feel a sense of freedom in America? How can we secure our freedoms – and freedom for all?

  • In what ways do you experience freedom as an American? In what ways do you not feel free? Has that changed for you during your lifetime?
  • What does “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” mean to you? Can you give an example?
  • When do you think it is important for individual freedom to be limited to allow the greatest freedom for all?
  • Think of someone you admire for their courage in defending freedom. What about the person do you admire?

For discussion around a particular issue:

Imagine you are sitting next to someone who has a very different view and takes an opposing position on this issue. Now, with an intention to truly understand, and resisting any impulse to persuade, provoke or judge or attack, consider:

  • What are your views, hopes and fears regarding this issue? What is at the ‘heart of the matter’ for you?
  • Have you experienced any mixed feelings, value conflicts, and/or areas of confusion or uncertainty about this issue that you are willing to describe?
  • What questions do you think we need to ask ourselves about this issue -as individuals, as members of various groups and organizations, and as citizens? What is important about these questions?

Let’s Talk America (2004)

Let’s Talk America was a joint project of the Utne Institute, Conversation Cafe, World Cafe, and NCDD run in/around 2004.  The project strove to bring Americans from all points on the political spectrum together in cafes, bookstores, churches and living rooms for lively, open-hearted dialogue to consider questions essential to the future of our democracy. LTA reconnected with the “town hall” meeting spirit that’s the lifeblood of our democracy, providing opportunities for everyone to talk about America’s promise, about what freedom, democracy, unity and equality mean to us — to “we the people.” Let’s Talk America is a meeting ground where we can come together to listen, speak, ask and learn — without being forced to agree, change or bite our tongues.

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