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Rewriting the story of polarized debate: He got Tea Party and Occupy to talk

Nabil Laoudji's Mantle Project puts citizens on stage to tell stories of the experiences that led them to their positions on tough issues. That's how he got members of the Tea Party and Occupy movement to speak on the same stage in a civil – and entertaining – exchange.

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Laoudji founded The Mantle Project a year ago, just after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. He has funded the program's two events out of his own pocket, and is working on a third event on guns and gun control.

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Working out of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a collaborative workspace, Laoudji sets up his laptop at one of dozens of communal tables with other young entrepreneurs, researchers, and writers. He recruits participants – calling people and organizations and explaining what his project is about, looking for local events where he can find participants.

'I exist, and I'm worthy ... of your attention'

It's delicate to cold-call people, Laoudji says: "I'm this stranger showing up in their life and asking them to share an intimate part of themselves with me ... in preparation for sharing it with a live audience. That's a big ask."

But, he says, there's dignity in the process: "When one of my storytellers goes onstage and says, 'This is my story,' inherent in that action is this idea that 'I exist, and I'm worthy ... of eight minutes of your undivided attention. My story matters.' "

When Christine Morabito, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, met Laoudji, she jumped at the opportunity to correct misrepresentations of her party. But she discovered that developing her story is just as important as the storytelling event itself. She showed up to her first coaching session with a stump speech written out. Laoudji showed her a video of someone else doing a storytelling event, and it became clear that her speech wasn't a story.

"And I thought, [my stump speech is] not going to work at all," Ms. Morabito says.

During their session, Laoudji kept asking questions, encouraging Morabito to look beneath the surface of her beliefs and identify an experience that helped shape them. When Morabito mentioned she'd attempted suicide in her early 20s, Laoudji probed for its effect. "For a time after [the suicide attempt]," she says, "I was completely dependent on other people, which I hated."

Personal responsibility – a tea party mantra – drove Morabito to reinvent herself, mapping a destiny away from victimhood.

"[He] convinced me [to share my story] because he said, 'It's so powerful ... and there will be no question in anyone's mind about how you came to be the person you are now,' " she says.

And it resonated with at least one listener.

"I can't say that I have a lot in common with tea partyers," says Dayna Cunningham, executive director of MIT's Community Innovators Lab and a mentor to Laoudji. "But I found myself in a room full of them, genuinely interested in their stories and connecting with them.... I felt that they became more human."

During the event, Ms. Cunningham recalls, a man "more aligned with [my] values" stood up on a political rant. "He was out of bounds, and that was immediately apparent," she says. "[Laoudji], in light of such deep disagreement, has the ability to hold a space and make it respectful, honoring all the stories."

As storytellers take risks sharing intimate personal experiences, it's an opportunity for them to challenge their own beliefs – or re-inforce them, Laoudji says. "That's data," he says. "It's nice to have those kind of opinions come from data as opposed to just conjecture."

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