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Dialogue series aims to bridge political divide

Two three-week series are scheduled in April and May

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
Laura Marshall is the organizer of the "Americans Together: Community Dialogue in a Divided World" series that begins Thursday at San Juan College.
  • Farmington resident Laura Marshall originally came up with the idea for the series in 2008
  • Leadership San Juan has signed on as a sponsor of the series, which is planned for San Juan College
  • Up to 15 participants will be allowed for each series, with facilitators moderating the sessions

FARMINGTON — A series of meetings designed to promote respectful political discussion with the goal of depolarizing the political tension between right and left will get underway this week.

The "Americans Together: Community Dialogue in a Divided World" series starts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at San Juan College, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington, and continues April 20 and 27. The second round in the series begins May 4 and continues May 11 and May 18. Each meeting is scheduled to last 90 minutes and will be moderated by a group of trained facilitators.

The series is the brainchild of Farmington resident Laura Marshall, the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy in Farmington. Marshall came up with the idea for such a series during the 2008 presidential campaign, but the project didn't get off the ground until eight years later, when the 2016 presidential campaign turned out to be even more acrimonious.

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Marshall said she's tired of seeing the divide between people on both sides of the political spectrum grow to the point that it disrupts personal relationships.

"We've all heard stories about people who can't sit down and have dinner with their brother because they get so angry," she said.

Anti-Donald Trump protesters clash with Trump supporters outside then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's election rally event in San Diego, California, on May 27, 2016. A new series of events in Farmington aims to depolarize the tension between the right and the left. Founder Laura Marshall says she's tired of seeing the divide between people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Even so, Marshall believes the differences that divide Americans these days are overemphasized and that the red state-vs.-blue state model that permeates the national consciousness isn't an accurate portrayal of who we are.

"We're not so easily lumped into categories," she said, explaining that even people who see eye to eye on abortion, for instance, may disagree on immigration. "My hope is that people from a wide variety of perspectives will be able to sit down with a group of facilitators and come to understand each other."

When Marshall pitched the idea of the series to her friend Liesl Dees, the Leadership San Juan board member quickly saw the value in it. Dees' organization aims to identify, enlighten and encourage emerging leaders of diverse backgrounds, occupations and cultures with the goal of enhancing the quality of local leadership, according to its web page, and Dees thought the proposed series would dovetail nicely with LSJ's mission.

The organization's board apparently agreed, quickly voting to sponsor the series.

"For me, it's a perfect fit for Leadership San Juan," Dees said. "We're a diverse group, and we're not political. … We're about connecting people with a bigger perspective in our community, and we've been able to bridge differences very well."

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Up to 30 people will be accepted for the program's first two rounds, with 15 in each series. Those interested in participating are asked to register at sanjuancollege.edu/lsj, and all San Juan County residents are eligible.

Both Dees and Marshall said potential participants are not being screened about their political views, although they would like to see both groups have a relatively balanced makeup.

"We're taking anybody," Dees said. "We're not asking people their political allegiances."

Marshall said she and Dees worried that such a line of questioning might alienate some potential participants. Instead, they have decided to simply trust that the series will appeal to people on both sides and that they will respond accordingly.

"And even (among) Democrats and Republicans, there are still going to be differences of opinion," Marshall said. "That's something we can't control."

But organizers are intent on maintaining a high level of civility during the sessions.  Marshall said eight people have been trained as facilitators, with one lead facilitator assigned to each group. In other words, no yelling, no name calling, no belittling anyone else.

The meetings will start with participants identifying the values that underlie their political decisions, she said.

"They'll be talking about what they believe, why they believe it," Marshall said.

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The sessions will employ a technique known as mirroring, a process by which the facilitator will make sure that what a participant has said is being heard by the other members of the group — and heard accurately. That technique has a proven record of success around the world, she said, even among groups where there is much greater enmity than there is between Republicans and Democrats.

"People are going to be encouraged to find something to appreciate in what the person before them said," Marshall said.

Both women think that the residents of San Juan County are no more politically divided than the rest of the nation, and they are eager to see what kind of results the series brings.

"Any effort like this is going to start slowly," Marshall said, explaining that she will wait to see how the first two series of meetings are received before she considers continuing or expanding the program.

"But, who knows? Maybe this will spread to other areas," she said. "I hope it does."

Mike Easterling covers education, health and the environment for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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