Harnessing the Power of a Mighty Storm

Spring 2020

By Lowell Libby and Lydia Maier

Whether you have been thinking that America is on the right track or tragically lost, you would probably agree that the 2020 election looms on the horizon like a mighty storm. The political climate has already divided the nation and strained the principles that bind us. At the time this article is being written, the full impact of the pandemic and the social and economic disruption it will cause cannot be known. What is known is that the impact will be significant and that American institutions of all varieties, including the nation’s secondary schools, will be challenged further by the evolving political storm and its aftermath.

At their best, America’s schools are places of psychological safety and intellectual rigor—functions that usually complement each other. In the current political climate, however, they are often at odds. For example, immigration, a topic that Waynflete’s Upper School advising curriculum is focused on exploring, is clearly a pressing political issue. Many argue that, for the good of the nation, we desperately need to enforce the immigration laws already on the books, if not create more restrictive ones. Others argue that much of the national discourse about immigration is fundamentally bigoted and that bigotry has infiltrated mainstream American thought. Teachers expressing any of these points of view might find themselves accused of taking a political stand and silencing students who think differently. If, on the other hand, teachers say nothing, their silence might be taken as either sidestepping what some consider the most pressing matter of our time or, worse, condoning bigotry and leaving many students feeling vulnerable and confused.

Educators face the same kind of dilemma with almost any politically charged societal issue, often leaving them in damage control mode, detracting from the relevance of the school experience and, ironically, making school less rigorous and less safe. But with the impending political storm of the 2020 election likely to heighten the impact of the choices they make, some educators are asking themselves whether there is an opportunity amid the turmoil. Rather than trying to keep the political storm at bay, can we find a way to harness its power to energize the learning in our schools?

That question was on the minds of the school consultants and teams of educators from seven independent schools who gathered for four days at Waynflete in July 2019. The catalyst for the conversation was The Can We? Project, which Waynflete piloted in spring 2018 during the run-up to the midterm election. An experiment in revitalizing democracy, The Can We? Project took direct aim at bridging society’s deepest divides by asking an essential question around which the project took shape: Can we harness the wisdom and power inherent in the great diversity of the American people to revitalize our democracy, mend the social fabric, and live out the true meaning of the American promise of liberty and justice for all?

To live out a possible answer, the planning team recruited 29 high school students with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and political viewpoints from six very different public schools and Waynflete to participate in a three-day retreat. Guided by the expertise of a school consultant with deep experience in facilitating dialogue and engaging youth, we designed a multifaceted program that asked students to identify societal issues that matter to them, reflect on their own beliefs and where those beliefs came from, and get curious about the beliefs of their fellow participants.

Prior to the retreat, student participants engaged in several activities to establish connections and curiosity about one another before meeting. The curriculum, the product of design thinking and led by a diverse facilitator team, helped students deepen individual self-awareness, consider new perspectives, and actively practice collaborative problem-solving around divergent political views.

The retreat itself was a three-day immersion into the core skills of self-awareness and listening in close proximity and was intentionally held in a neutral “third space.” Selected participants explored the personal experiences that led them to form certain beliefs and committed to “staying in the room” as they explored through dialogue what had led to their political differences.

Through the process, students deepened their inquiry by listening intently to each other as a way to move beyond fixed views and first impressions. As one student said of her experience, “I learned to say my third thought.” Her reflection is right in line with the thinking of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, he noted that most people, when confronted with a moral question of some kind, will first respond emotionally and then construct a rationale to justify their initial response. We must get to at least our third thought, which has been informed by listening carefully to the perspectives of others and reflecting deeply on our own beliefs, to generate wisdom.1

Trained to reflect deeply on the diversity of perspectives of the group, the students sought solutions to the societal issues they had chosen: gun control, education reform, immigration, the environment. Rather than finding common ground in their disparate viewpoints through compromise, students forged new and transcendent common ground informed by those viewpoints.

Underlying The Can We? Project is a simple but powerful premise: Students can be trusted to lead difficult conversations about the most pressing matters of our time. This premise is counterintuitive for many adults, including educators. We all carry around our own stories and, consequently, our own fears about the risks of conversing freely about authentic lived experiences. For educators, these fears are heightened by polarizing national rhetoric intruding into the classroom—rhetoric that often leads to contemptuous “othering,” short-circuiting a more nuanced articulation of the issues and accentuating the paralyzing effect of the dilemmas mentioned above. Simply asking students to put their core beliefs on the line and then bracing for the possible fallout feels risky and irresponsible—because it is!

By contrast, asking students what they think and then engaging them in disciplined dialogue flips the script and offers the chance for transformative learning. Rather than the participants seeing themselves as a collection of individuals who each have a platform to speak their truth, authentic dialogue fosters a sense of “we” that values multiple perspectives and distinct realities.

When Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a lecturer in the Prevention Science and Practice Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was interviewed in a “Thanks for Listening” podcast that featured The Can We? Project, she noted that adolescents are developmentally primed to engage in dialogue in ways that adults are not. Adolescence is a time of significant neurological rewiring as teen brains become more efficient and discerning about what has relevance and emotional significance. They are highly attuned to relationships and naturally curious about the experience of others, and their ways of relating to the world are not fully set—all of which leads to Brion-Meisels’ insight into the “amazing ability [of youth] to see the world with a fresh set of eyes and … [to generate] really important insights into what we might be doing wrong."2

In addition to being primed for meaningful dialogue, youth are nurtured by it. Building self-confidence is a crucial antidote to the traumatic overload of global ills, rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, and negative behaviors that can ensue when young people cannot see a hopeful future for themselves. By connecting young people to what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “the deep story"3 we each hold about ourselves while helping them see the deep stories of others, we help them cultivate empathy and expand their circles of belonging. A central task of adolescence is to make what Meghan Lynch Forder of the Center for the Developing Adolescent calls “contributions of consequence,” that is “actions that have substantial benefits to others that help to reach a shared goal."4

In The Can We? Project, students are challenged by the critical and very real task of presenting their vision for the future they want as a “we” to lawmakers and decision-makers. To bring the project to life and give students an opportunity to apply their skills in a real-world setting, the first Can We? Project culminated with students presenting their ideas to nine gubernatorial candidates on the eve of the election. Students presented the areas where they had forged common ground on issues such as gun control laws and race relations, proposing solutions for pressing societal issues in Maine. Student response was quite positive. For example, one student said:
I had an amazing experience and met some lifelong friends. I didn’t really have anybody that I could talk to about [political issues] before this experience but now I know people who are as interested as I am in the problems in our country today.

Another said:
The most impactful thing I learned from Can We? is to not judge someone for a view they hold. Yes, it may be in opposition to your belief on that specific issue, but in other ways they may be much more like you than you initially think. So it’s important to take a chance and talk to people who are different than you are.

This experience was a powerful example of civic engagement and served to broaden students’ sense of regional community investment beyond school walls. In both iterations of the Can We? Project, adult stakeholders and policymakers who listened to the students’ final presentations were blown away by participants’ level of engagement and articulation and expressed gratitude for having the chance to listen and share insights with them.

Cultivating confidence through immersion in a direct experience of dialogue conveys to students that their ideas and actions are needed now. Young people are eager to be actively involved in their own future. Being more flexible and curious as an evolutionary imperative, their brains are wired to tackle what arguably may be the biggest challenge we face for our collective social survival: revitalizing our democracy by carving out a true “we” at the heart of “We the people.”

What task could be of greater consequence for youth and the society they will inherit? In fact, it is possible that the deep concerns many educators feel about navigating an increasingly polarized election season is exposing the need for significant cultural change, perhaps coming from the students themselves. Trusting students to engage in these conversations empowers them with confidence in their own leadership skills and may well render moot the dilemmas that adults otherwise face.

Adolescents are fundamentally resilient, not fragile. With the right tools in hand and the space to employ them, young people can form a profoundly radical new mindset—one that embraces the inevitable but creative tension of diverse viewpoints stemming from dramatically different life experiences, even within the same geographic region. By modeling and teaching the building blocks of respectful dialogue, Can We? facilitators cultivate a powerful tool for social transformation and build faith in young people’s capacity to forge a sophisticated way of thinking beyond fear-based divisiveness and the contempt occurring in today’s political landscape. By embracing diversity of thought, the Can We? experience generates a sense of purpose and hope in both the youth and the adults involved.

The Can We? Project stands as a prime example of the good that can come from an independent school putting its core values out into the world. Doing so serves a public purpose while reinforcing those core values within. In November, Waynflete sponsored a second edition of The Can We? Project. In summer 2020, Waynflete was planning to host another gathering of educators from across the country looking to do more than merely survive the impending political storm and its aftermath. While we have had to postpone the gathering, we know that the challenges facing our nation will grow more urgent through the current crisis. With confidence in the efficacy of youth, together we will summon the strength, develop the strategies, and hone the skills needed to harness the mighty power of the political storm in the service of deep and purposeful learning and a better future for us all.


Lowell Libby

Lowell Libby (lwlibby@waynflete.org) is the Upper School director and co-founder of the Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement at Waynflete in Portland, Maine.

Lydia Maier

Lydia Maier (lmaier@waynflete.org) is the assistant head of school and co-founder of the Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement and co-founder of TIME (Teachings in Mindful Education) in Maine at Waynflete in Portland, Maine.