Written in collaboration with Laura Brewer, Wendy Colmus, Whitney Hanna, Jarell Lee, Kate Merrill, Khushali Narechania, Sarah Schlessinger, Amy Tondreau
As a child, I dreamed of changing the world one intricately worded, dramatically delivered scolding at a time. Changing the world meant changing people’s minds, and changing people’s minds meant arranging a lot of words just so and delivering them with pomp and cadence. By doing this, I could prove just how ignorant, just how morally inferior, just how wrong my opponent had been. It was a dream inspired by Julia Sugarbaker, the protagonist of the 90s sitcom Designing Women.
I aspired to be like Julia, a high-minded, big-hearted, liberal white woman given to speaking her mind to the unprincipled white people around her. Julia delivered her scoldings with unrestrained virtuosity, pausing every so often only to bathe in the studio audience’s roaring approval.
That’s how I imagined it would be, changing the world. Conveniently, we never heard her opponent’s response. We were left to assume he had been transformed, educated. We also never saw her later that night, long after the high of the moment had worn off, turning in bed, unable to sleep, agonizing over her wording, tone, delivery, her unintended audiences, or the relationships she had damaged in speaking so.
Needless to say, we don’t have to chase such glory for long to realize how empty, how false it is. Changing people’s minds is quiet, disciplined work. It’s the work of asking questions, listening, responding only to what has been said, and saying something new. Last week, Donald Trump took office with a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress and a constituency that we’ve been told is more divided than ever. We know we all have work to do. White people like me, who have greater access than our friends of color to those who support this administration, have even more work to do. I propose that we have to change the world by changing people’s minds.
Lacking both principles and strategies for doing this work, I gathered my colleagues in education—teachers, teachers of teachers, scholars, and school leaders—to figure out how to enter into, manage, and shape these conversations. As educators, we are, in one way or another, in the business of changing people’s minds. And that’s what we’ve set out to do here.
We’re not naïve to the fact that no one takes kindly to participating in conversations designed to change their minds. Trying to educate a loved one, say, over a holiday dinner is presumptuous and condescending. Actually educating? That seems impossible. But not wanting to be thought of as condescending is not a good enough reason to avoid these conversations. Neither is presuming that Trump supporters are either too ignorant or too evil to learn. Our imperative is to speak and act on behalf of those of us who are most in peril under the new presidency: people of color, women, those living in poverty, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and immigrants. Today, a week into the new administration, we write to share our recommendations for entering into, managing, and shaping conversations with Trump supporters toward the goal of changing hearts and minds.
We draw on a large body of psychological research—as well as stores of personal experience—to recommend approaching these conversations with empathy. Yet, empathy is not just difficult in these conversations; it’s fraught with moral contradiction. For example, how do we empathize with a person who doesn’t recognize the humanity of a great deal of other people? In an essay written for The New Yorker after the election, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, “Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just.” Indeed, while empathy is effective as a means of communication, we cannot allow it to extend such boundaries. We empathize with the individual in front of us but never at the expense of our empathy for those who are most vulnerable. How do we do this? We prioritize tapping into others’ reserves of empathy over expressing empathy.
But we can, and should, do both. In these conversations, we can do both by decentering the who in favor of the what and the so what. The conversation cannot be about you, me, Clinton, or even Trump. It cannot be about who or what we are, what labels we apply to ourselves or others. It cannot be about the adjectives we use to describe our character or the character of others. When we follow our instincts into discussions of who—who is right and wrong, who is superior and inferior, who is a real American and who isn’t—we suppress the very real issues that are at stake. We must, with great diligence, maintain our focus on the what and the so what. What is at stake under this administration, and why does it matter?
Finally, we prioritize tapping into others’ reserves of empathy by identifying mutual interests. When we fail to find mutuality on a micro level, we reach ever higher for more encompassing, longer term goals we as Americans might share. We might disagree on the policies that will put more Americans to work, for example, but we can agree on the need for greater economic opportunity. We actively identify our mutual hopes and struggles, but we don’t stop there. We use these moments of convergence to illustrate how and why the people we care about are vulnerable.
Not all questions are asked out of genuine curiosity. We’ve all experienced the effect of leading questions, of disingenuous questions, of questions from folks who didn’t care what our response was or flat-out didn’t listen. So we have to begin by asking real questions. No bait, no trap, no lead, no rhetoric, no pre-judgment or omniscience. When we ask real questions, we seek to understand another’s experiences, thought processes, and beliefs. The intention behind the question is as important as the question itself. Real questions mean we’re open to hearing something that challenges our own understandings, feelings, and worldview. Real questions reflect a value of care and consideration, and they create a space that promotes mutual learning.
And we ask real follow-up questions, inviting elaboration. We focus on revealing rather than arguing or trapping someone in bad logic. We find out what compels him, what has convinced him of his beliefs and what, if anything, could shift his view. If we expect those with whom we speak to reveal their thinking to us in this way, we need to enter into the conversation with a commitment to taking what they say at face value. We start by assuming that people rightfully act and speak out of care for themselves and the people closest to them. We don’t rummage for malice in their words. When words trigger, as inevitably they do, we slow the conversation down to mutually explore our understandings of those words and what led us to those understandings. The language we use to ask questions will always expose our reason for asking—whether it’s to ambush or to learn.
It’s tempting to dwell in empathy and curiosity. These are spaces of relative peace. But, if we are to change minds, we must also, simply put, say something. As we have throughout our conversations, we direct our attention to the what and the so what: what is at stake under a Trump presidency, and why does it matter? We take issues one by one, prioritizing those that matter most to us and to our loved ones, and we tell stories that illustrate (make visible) and animate (put into motion) these issues.
Compelling stories are dense with observable and therefore verifiable facts of everyday experience. Compelling stories are concrete, rather than abstract. We frame stories in terms of interests—what is wanted—rather than in terms of power or rights. In this way, we can use stories to tap into others’ reserves of empathy. We can make it possible for others to recognize commonalities with those who not only are quite different in identity, culture, or circumstance but also have been politically positioned as their enemies.
The language we use to tell stories matters. We’re wise to tell stories using tentative language, language that exposes, rather than conceals, the way experiences and stories have shaped our own thinking. We are also wise to use concrete language: material nouns (people, places, and things) and active verbs. We avoid nominalizations that create distance—abstract nouns such as heteronormativity or intersectionality that carry traces of academia and what can be perceived as elitist discourse. These stories don’t need to dazzle. They need to communicate concretely, specifically, and explicitly, and they need to be offered when permission is granted.
We can, and should, feel angry about the outcome of the election and the new administration’s downpour of executive actions. For many of us, the election revealed a toxicity in American culture that the Obama administration made it easy to ignore. We can, and should, channel those feelings into productive action: marching, promoting fact-based reporting, calling and writing our representatives. But, as tempting as it is, we can’t disengage from the rest of the country, the large and varied constituencies that support this president. We'll try our best to talk, to say something. We'll succeed, and we'll fail. Above all, if out of nothing but a sense of moral imperative, we will believe that there is goodness and wisdom in all people, however dormant those qualities might seem.