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Maine initiative teaches high school students how to 'agree-to-disagree' on political issues

High school students from schools across Maine gathered on December 14 to take part in civil discourse as part of The Can We Project? organized by Waynflete School.
Nick Song
Maine Public
High school students from schools across Maine gathered on December 14 to take part in civil discourse as part of The Can We Project?.

The Augusta Civic Center was aptly named as some 250 high school students from more than a dozen schools across Maine gathered on Dec. 14. They came prepared to discuss some of the political issues they cared most about at the latest session of The Can We? Project.

"Something that I think is really important is gun violence," said Georgia, a student from Marshwood High in South Berwick. "Especially with what happened recently in Lewiston and what has been happening in this country. I think this really needs to change, and I’m really hoping that I’ll be able to hear some other people’s thoughts on gun violence.”

Her classmate Sophia wanted to talk about abortion rights and garnering help for people in Palestine: “I think that those are really, really major things we need to be discussing. And I think that they do get uncomfortable for many people, so being able to discuss those in a safer space would be amazing.”

As Maine prepares to enter the 2024 election cycle, the call for civil discourse once again grows louder. The Can We? Project looks to do just that by teaching Maine high school students how to have respectful political discussions with peers, and to create spaces for that discourse. The day-long session at the Civics Center gathered students from over a dozen high schools across the Northern and Southern parts of Maine.

"[As organizers,] we’re not bringing our views into the space," said John Holdridge, the director of Waynflete School’s Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement. "Our job is to create the container, the container and to create the conditions where students feel safe sharing their viewpoints in a respectful way."

Nick Song
Maine Public
Discussion leaders gave out these sheets of papers for the second discussion, allowing the students to select they'd like to discuss within their groups.

Can We? organizers divided the students into discussion groups of fifteen or so people, with no group having more than two students from the same school. For the first half, each group discussed their takes on personal liberty and how freedom operates within American democracy. Afterwards, students chose topics to discuss next from a list that included social and political issues such as gun policy, gender and sexuality, housing, race, education, and the environment.

Students were given a slip of paper listing various issues and asked to highlight the five that were most important to them. Topics included issues like firearms, abortion, gender, sexuality, racism, as well as a couple blank spaces to write their own.

Teachers and students previously trained by Can We? acted as discussion leaders. Among them were Yarmouth High students, Katya and Djino. Both say they relied on certain tools to maintain a healthy exchange within their groups.

“Asking questions is so helpful," said Katya. "Not only does it help you understand a person’s perspective, it makes them rethink about their perspective. It adds like a kind of second layer to conversations, which I think we got a lot of today."

"Yeah," agreed Djino. "Another strategy for me is humor. To break the ice [and] just make a joke or something like that. And people will feel welcome to talk about anything.”

The project is the brainchild of Waynflete School, a private PreK-12 in Portland’s West End. When developing the project, Waynlete reached out to partner with the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative political advocacy group which runs the Maine Wire.

"It’s not necessarily about “let’s get students who might identify more left wing and expose them to right wing ideas,' and vice versa,” said Jake Posik, the institute’s policy director and a co-leader for The Can We? Project. "It’s about how do we seek out somebody who we think is different than us and have a meaningful conversation with them?”

As most of the Waynflete organizers involved identified as liberal, they decided to involve the Maine Policy Institute in order to invite another perspective to the table.

“I’m told that many told that many people with who think conservatively see the word 'dialogue' as kind of a liberal trap," said Lowell Libby, co-founder of the Third Thought Initiative and recently retired as the Upper School director at Waynflete. "So the question is, 'how do you use language that doesn’t shy away from the concepts without sliding into some sort of divisive language?' "

Students from all over Maine listened to Third Thought Initiative's director John Holdridge deliver opening remarks on Dec. 14 before breaking off into their discussion groups.
Nick Song
Maine Public
Students from all over Maine listened to Third Thought Initiative's director John Holdridge deliver opening remarks on Dec. 14 before breaking off into their discussion groups.

Libby says Can We? also shies away from using language they perceive as being too politically liberal — including terms like intersectionality.

"There is nothing inherently liberal in a term like 'dialogue,' but language is always coded in various ways," said Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a leading scholar in the field of civic education. Though dialogue and intersectionality may be seen as partisan, Levinson says civic education programs like Can We? should still incorporate the concepts in their discussions.

"I’m totally sympathetic to trying to use language that will feel inclusive," Levinson said. "I [just] hope that this kind of inclusivity is not accompanied by leaving certain concepts or conversations just off to the side and not having those because they are perceived as being politically divisive. That seems to run against the aims of an initiative like this."

Concentrating the array of perspectives and backgrounds found across the state by holding the conference, The Can We? Project provides a safe and accessible place for the students to deploy the program's core tenets — personal inquiry and respectful listening.

But outside the Civic Center, it’s not always easy in Maine to find spaces as equally diverse. Madison from Cape Elizabeth High School wonders if these exercises in civil discourse will actually lead to tangible change.

"People probably talk like this a lot, [although] maybe not on such a large scale," said Madison. "I think that if things were going to change [from political dialogue alone], then they would have already. But maybe that’s just pessimistic.”

The next part of The Can We? Project series will be held on a school-to-school basis in the upcoming months. Students will be put into mock committees, discuss and propose actual bills, and decide whether they should be passed into law.

Corrected: January 26, 2024 at 10:27 AM EST
Quotes given by Sophia and Georgia are now correctly attributed.
Nick Song is Maine Public's inaugural Emerging Voices Fellowship Reporter.

Originally from Southern California, Nick got his start in radio when he served as the programming director for his high school's radio station. He graduated with a degree in Journalism and History from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University -- where he was Co-News Director for WNUR 89.3 FM, the campus station.