Listening as a radical act: Program aims to promote civil discourse between progressives and conservatives

Patty Goodwin, Cheryl Qamar, Mark Antman, Terry Funk-Antman, Susan Auchincloss and Stuart Auchincloss. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

“What makes, and holds us together, as Americans?” challenges an anonymous participant in Question Bridge: Wichita 2 Woodstock (W2W), a new, web-based, social practice project. “I always thought that what holds us together is a shared hope and belief that whatever our problems were, we would work them out,” responds another participant, in another location, adding, “Now, it feels like we’re fraying apart, so the question is: What will bring us back together?”

W2W hopes do just that by promoting civil discourse between progressives and conservatives. Drawing on the populations of Wichita, Kansas, and Woodstock, the project engages people from both sides of the political divide in an asynchronous question-and-answer dialogue using a video camera to record, and the internet to broadcast, the results. 

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Cheryl Qamar, one of the group’s founders, frequently visits family members living in Wichita, so it seemed like a logical “sister city” to pair with Woodstock, which she and the five other W2W members call home. “I didn’t like not being able to talk about the things that matter to me,” Qamar says of those visits, “to leave a piece of myself behind.”

Besides, Qamar adds, Wichita is home to Koch Industries, champion and bankroller of right-wing causes. W2W’s members presumed the city would represent conservative Republicans, with Woodstock’s demographic supplying the project with plenty of progressive Democrats. 

Soon, however, the group began hearing opinions they didn’t expect given their speakers’ origins. One Wichita male, when asked whether politics has any place in abortion, bluntly shares his belief that birth control should be freely available on-demand, adding: “Let’s not be naive. This is 2018. Premarital sex and sex is going to happen. Grow up, America!”

The project works like this: A W2W member visits your home or office to record you posing one or more direct questions to the camera and responding to at least one other query raised by someone else in another location. The answers are then compiled into categories such as “Abortion,” “Poverty,” and “Domestic Violence,” and uploaded to W2W’s website for anyone to watch, notably, with minimal editing. “That little hesitation or confusion is an important part of the dialogue,” says Mark Antman, who, together with Qamar, conducts the majority of the interviews, some 40 over the past year. 

They are one-third of a group of Woodstockers who identify not as a formal organization, but rather as like-minded people bonding over a shared frustration with the country’s escalating political polarization and a desire to do something to counteract it. Each has notable backgrounds ranging from Antman’s as a photojournalist and archivist, to Qamar’s in clinical social work and psychotherapy. Stuart Auchincloss, former chair and a long-term member of the Woodstock Public Library Board, takes a personal interest in civil dialogue. Patty Goodwin’s experience running a large creative communications company in Manhattan more than qualifies her to edit and compile the video clips into a polished end-result. Susan Auchincloss, a retired Episcopal priest, wrangles website copy, and Terry Funk-Antman, former mediation director of a shelter for battered women, keeps home-baked cookies — along with her considerable experience resolving community conflict — incoming. 

“We are all a kind of container for this idea that there should be and can be civil discourse,” Goodwin says, “and you can change things in at least small and maybe large ways by encouraging that to happen.”

The group cemented their intention to take action by reading two recent bestselling books together: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Then, they met a muse in artist/producer/professor Chris Johnson, who in his 1996 art installation Question Bridge: Black Males in America, devised a video Q&A format to facilitate dialogue in San Diego’s African American community on topics such as family, faith, manhood, and violence. Johnson, an old friend of Antman’s, met with W2W about a year ago and encouraged them to adapt the model to their needs.  

Qamar stresses the primary importance of video in that model. Posing and responding to potentially contentious questions in the presence of another person’s face, she notes, seems to inspire dialogue that is inherently more considerate, even if those faces aren’t in the same room.

Seeing each other’s faces, however, is as far as identification goes. W2W does not disclose participants’ names or political affiliations, nor — since the group quickly realized that geography is not destiny — are their locations divulged. On that point, the group says they are still debating the pros and cons of viewers not knowing on which “side” any given participant stands.  

One disadvantage, they say, is the project’s name, which leads one to expect a neatly prescribed binary. Nevertheless, they feel it aptly symbolizes their mission: to get people from opposite sides of the political spectrum talking to each other again. They also hope that their methodology will spread nationwide and that it will ultimately come to represent diverse and challenging points of view, rather than geographic locations. 

Indeed, W2W has already inspired people from other groups and communities to open space for civil communication. An Ulster County church group used W2W’s video compilation on abortion to facilitate a recent community roundtable, and a past congressperson who is now a professor presents some of W2W’s videos in his Albany class as fodder for discussion.

“What we often hear from participants,” Antman says, “is that what we have in common is greater than what keeps us apart.” Terry Funk-Antman adds that what participants have in common might best be summed up by the phrase “I love my country, and I am deeply concerned, and I don’t agree with you.” 

Susan Auchincloss says that “we knew what we were trying to achieve when we started: To help the two sides understand each other better. We’ve given up on understanding. Now our objective is to promote greater appreciation and respect for the other side and what their values are. And you can’t do that until you listen.”

Wichita 2 Woodstock went live one month ago, and the group is eager to add to their video library. They invite you to reach out to them via their website, http://www.wichita2woodstock.com, to join the conversation.

There is one comment

  1. Bayete Ross Smith

    This article is somewhat incorrect. Question Bridge: Black males was created by Hank Willis Thomas, Bayete Ross Smith, Kamal Sinclair and Chris Johnson in 2012-2015. It consists of a gallery installation, a film version, an interactive website, a mobile app., a book, a high school curriculum aligned with core standards and a series of events. Question Bridge was an idea Chris Johnson implemented in 1996, However it IS NOT the award winning Question Bridge: Black males that was created by a team of 4 artists and 5 producers that visited over 30 locations nationwide, showed at the Sundance Film Festival and L.A. Film Festival, and showed at the Sheffield Doc Fest and is also installed in the collection at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

    It is important for journalists to get their facts correct when doing their work, otherwise the undermine their credibility and misinform people.

    – Bayeté Ross Smith
    Presidential Leadership Scholar, TED Resident, NYU Faculty and co-creator of Question Bridge: Black males
    www.bayete.net

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