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Difference Maker

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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Measuring impact is difficult, says Alison Streit Baron, manager of training and evaluation at Public Conversations Project, the partner on Laoudji's April gun program. "We call it the 'so what?' question: Does understanding each other make a difference other than in that moment?" Over time, she says, as more connections are made, there is a shift toward more peaceable conversations between groups that don't typically engage with each other. Perhaps it eventually influences policy.

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But in the short term, she says, Laoudji's project may change conversations around the dinner table, at town-hall meetings, and in letters to the editor: "People [who have attended the program] are still advocating for issues they believe in, but they are doing so in a way that is less demonizing and less polarizing."

Before she started helping Laoudji recruit storytellers for the gun event, Ms. Baron was afraid of guns and people who like them.

"I thought, 'Am I taking my life in my hands by going to a gun range?' " she says.

Changing dinner-table conversations

After talking with gun owners, she sensed how demonized they feel to be linked with mass killers: "I'll now be having a different conversation around my dinner table."

For Laoudji, creating opportunities for dialogue is the first step to engaging. At a gun show in West Springfield, Mass., one gun owner told him that the US is a "Balkanized society." He felt disconnected from gun violence; yet to stop that violence, gun-control forces are encroaching on his lifestyle and ability to own guns.

"The fact that our communities are separated and not engaging in a way [that would solve problems] is a point that a lot of people would agree with, no matter where you sit on the gun-control issue," Laoudji says.

He'd like to rewrite that story.

PARTICIPATE in leavening the gun debate. Register to attend a free Mantle Project storytelling program about guns.

 

 

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