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.

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

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.

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. 

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.



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