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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.

By Staff writer / March 25, 2013

Nabil Laoudji’s Mantle Project got supporters of the tea party and the ‘Occupy’ movement to talk onstage about what shaped their views.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff

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Cambridge, Mass.

When Tammy Weitzman stood onstage to tell her story, she was afraid that the audience full of strangers would shout obscenities at her. She was describing what it had been like to move to Israel when she was 8 years old, a Jewish-Canadian kid in a foreign land full of conflict and animosity. She was taught to fear people not like herself – particularly Palestinians and Arabs.

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She recalled a day in third grade: Two men shot up a bus, and one escaped from the scene, a fugitive in her Tel Aviv neighborhood. Her school closed. While running home, seized by panic, she refused to speak to an Arab man who asked her for the time. She gradually recognized that she values peace and longs for the human connections her fear has prevented: "I don't want to hate them. And I don't want them to hate me."

Sharing her story seemed like a way to break through her fears and to help others understand. And Nabil Laoudji's Mantle Project offers a unique way to do it: Put storytelling and civic sensibilities together to heal polarization. Mr. Laoudji does this by focusing on a controversial issue and producing performances by average citizens of diverse backgrounds who talk – entertainingly – about the experiences that have shaped their perspective on that issue. 

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His goal is to help communities understand themselves and solve intractable problems.

Last October Laoudji invited Ms. Weitzman to join three other storytellers at the Cambridge, Mass., YMCA theater, bringing together people from diverse political ideologies – from tea party to "Occupy" supporters and one in between. None of them were professional speakers, but he coached them on how to weave compelling eight-minute stories from the intimate personal experiences that shaped their values. Then they told their tales to an audience of about 35.

When a more political conversation developed within the audience, Laoudji says, "We started from a very different place because we had already been open and listening, and understanding each other."

Weitzman says the process taught her that "everybody's story matters." Despite polarization, people can still find common ground and work together, she says: "That is what I wanted the audience to know."

Public debate typically isn't structured to include why people believe what they do about divisive issues. Civic dialogue would be more productive if this engagement gap were bridged, Laoudji says.

So he created The Mantle Project, combining the lure of a well-told story with his desire for deeper dialogue. The project's ethos is based on a quote from pioneering psychotherapist Carl Rogers: "What is most personal is most universal."

The program, named after the layer beneath Earth's crust, Laoudji says, is meant "to create a space for people to have a deeper conversation, to dive beneath the surface."

Laoudji's story about learning to accept his own identity explains his passion for reconciling opposing beliefs. He was born in Tunisia to a Muslim father and Polish Roman Catholic mother. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and he moved to the United States with his mother and sister.

Because his parents had fought about religion, he's always had an adverse reaction to people pushing their beliefs on him. "They say that you are most drawn to the work that you need to do yourself," he says. "Ideas of self-worth are ideas that I've struggled with; and in [helping people identify their values], I'm also doing some of this work for myself as well."

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