While MS and LA were wonderful, yesterday was the start of the true journey. It was unsettling to pack up the car realizing I wouldn’t be home for three months. By 7am, I was on the road striving to beat DC’s rush hour. The radio was blaring the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man and the sun was glistening off the Potomac. With mixed feelings I was off.
The route between DC and Pittsburgh is glorious as you cross the Appalachian Highlands. As I traveled, I tried to slow the torrent of thoughts that swirl through my mind and be more aware / more present in the moment. There are challenges even when you’ve minimized distractions. You can only be aware of one aspect of your environment. I’d be soaking in the scenery and realize my mind had drifted off a podcast; I’d focus on a magnificent outcropping and realize I missed the farmlands below.
I kept most of my attention on an extended interview with Brandon Stanton, the photographer and storyteller behind HONY (Humans of New York). His interviews have a raw authenticity and the podcast offered his tips on how to get strangers to open up. That theme followed me when I arrived in Pittsburgh and joined the Working America team to learn about their door-to-door outreach in working neighborhoods. Like HONY, Working America seeks to engage those that are on the periphery, but it also has a political objective to engage those without a union (it is an offshoot of the AFL-CIO). The canvassers were a small but articulate and passionate group and I went out with the Field Director later that afternoon knocking on doors.
Why – many of you are asking. It actually fell in my lap. A former Pew co-worker sent me their January 2016 Front Porch Focus Group report that distilled 1,700 conversations they had with swing voters in white working class neighborhoods. The report offered insights into Trump’s appeal to Republican and moderate Democrats that I clearly should have paid more attention to last year.
One of my objectives is to listen and HONY and Working America have emboldened me to push past discomfort to seek out conversations with strangers along the road. The experience knocking on doors and Brandon’s tips affirm that most people have a story to tell and want to be asked. You just need to get past their initial protective shields and your own hesitance.
The need to reach out and build bridges seems out of reach in this political climate. According to a recent Pew Research Center report Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life
Partisan animosity has increased substantially. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.
I can’t accept that we should write off our neighbors. Inspired by Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges (reportedly more than any other city in the world), I’ll keep seeking out individuals and groups that are attempting to build bridges.