“Can We?”

Students discuss gun control at Camp Sunshine in Casco, ME. Source: “The Can We? Project 2019” video from Vimeo

The “Can We?” Project, “an experiment in revitalizing democracy,” as it describes itself, brought around 30 high school students to Casco, ME, in November for a weekend of discourse, disagreement, discomfort and collaboration. The goal was to bring a broad spectrum of students together—with different identities, viewpoints and political affiliations—to reach across the aisle and, eventually, come to agreements. 

In partnership with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a dynamic team of faculty, staff and community members from Waynflete College facilitated the weekend for the second year in a row. On Camp Sunshine’s campus, we ate all our meals together, shared dormitories and returned each day to the same large room to share and deliberate. As Can We? co-creator Lydia Maier said, “If you actually want to go and make change in the world, you have to do more than spend a day together.”

There were students from Maine’s biggest city, Portland, and students from the state’s smaller towns, like Deering and Poland, with populations of around 5,000. There were first-generation immigrants and long-time Mainers. There were Muslims and Christians, gay kids and straight kids and a few of us—including GDS sophomore Leah Fitzpayne and me—from out of state. Most important, there were Republicans and Democrats. The project’s creators believe it is the political divide that is most in need of bridging. 

There are many new statistics—and they are all staggering—about political polarization in America. Fifty-five percent of Republicans say Democrats are immoral, and 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans, a recent Pew Research Center study found. Roughly a quarter of people who Pew identifies as “consistent” conservatives and “consistent” liberals say they would be unhappy if a member of their families married someone from the other party. And around 42 percent of people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” By these numbers, of the 137 million Americans who cast ballots in 2016, around 57 million think the other half has the intentions of the devil. 

But there are also a growing number of Americans who recognize, and dislike, the polarization. Seventy-six percent of voters believe our country is becoming more divided, according to exit polls from the 2018 midterms, and 83 percent, as reported in an Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll, believe that political polarization is “threatening our way of life.” 

So in this nation of partisans disturbed by partisanship, we set out to start mending. On the first day, we told each other stories about our lives. One exercise involved describing a day in your life—your household, family members, community—in enough detail that others could, in a way, feel what it is like to be you. It was an exercise in empathy, a reminder that our identifiers and political affiliations are not all that we are. Through our stories, we can relate to and understand each other. If we listen, we can understand the why—not just the what—of someone’s beliefs.

“The challenge for us as Americans,” says Lowell Libby, another co-creator of the program, “is to realize that people who are different than we are have something to teach us.” 

We learned to ask “curious questions,” a skill we carried throughout the entire weekend. A curious question is not a question with an opinion embedded in it, or asked with inherent antipathy. It is one that genuinely seeks to understand how someone came to their opinion, what molded it. We were encouraged to “stay in the room” during discussions. One might think this is a given for students but, now more than ever, students are told before discussing a challenging or potentially distressing topic that they can leave the room if they need to, something that did not happen the entire weekend.

One of the facilitators led an exercise in which he asked us to choose stickers corresponding to our opinions. Some took red stickers if they believed there should be time in school designated for prayer or some kind of religious observance; some took blue if they disagreed. Orange was chosen by those who thought there should be armed security guards in high schools; green if there should not. 

When we had gone through eight or so of the questions, we were told to look around at the sea of colors. “Try to find someone who has the exact same array of stickers as you.” Almost nobody could. One of the takeaways from the exercise was that not all Republicans and Democrats—of course—think the same on all of the issues, and that a member of one party might, surprisingly, have more policy positions in common with members of the opposing party than their own.

We were forced to face a question raised by the exercise: Is it our opinions on certain issues that determine our political-party affiliation, or does our political-party affiliation determine our stances on the issues? Ideally, students believed, it should be the former—but often, they acknowledged, it is the latter. 

On the last day of the weekend, we divided into issue-based groups—climate change, racial inequality, gun control and immigration—and, using our newly developed skills, worked with those from the opposite party to search for solutions. We then presented our solutions, for which we had to achieve a complete consensus within our groups, to four Maine state legislators before an audience. Two were Democrats; two were Republicans. They asked us questions about our proposed solutions, gave us suggestions, told us when they disagreed. 

In the end, one student from Deering, ME, said, “It felt like actual change-making.”

Nick Penniman ’22