During April and May of 2021, 16-year-old Clara Brodey collaborated with her teachers and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill faculty on an initiative designed to foster conversation between North Carolina high schoolers with differing demographics and political opinions.
Coming from a predominantly liberal community, Brodey felt disconnected because she only ever heard one side of the argument, even though North Carolina is overall a conservative state. She heard about a UNC initiative called the Program for Public Discourse through her mother. The PPD serves as a resource for individuals and organizations that are interested in cultivating engaged citizenship.
Deciding that more dialogue is exactly what Americans need, Brodey developed a five-week long discussion program that brought together around 20 student volunteers from Orange and Randolph counties, with the assistance of moderator Dr. Jonathan Lepofsky.
Although Orange and Randolph counties are only about one hour away from each other, they have very different demographics and political leanings. Orange County consistently votes Democratic and is a diverse urban area, while Randolph County is majority Republican with a more prevalent rural white population.
Every Wednesday, participants were given two hours to discuss a scenario connected to often controversial political topics, like commemoration and heroes, civil disobedience and gender identity.
“I decided to base all of the early topics, cancel culture and media polarization, on the theme of information and media because I wanted to recognize the purpose of the project — ending informational and social isolation. ” Brodey said.
It appears that Brodey and the PPD were successful in their endeavors. According to Lepofsky, “The students regularly noted that they learned something new or a new perspective on the topic at hand, both from their peers at their own school, as well as from students at the other school.”
Lepofsky, who is the PPD outreach coordinator as well as a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Geography, said he thoroughly enjoyed being a moderator. Although he had worked with high school students before, this experience reminded him of how passionate, wise, and caring teenagers can be.
“Even when they disagreed, they did so by earnestly seeking to understand someone else’s ideas, not to shut them down, but to figure out what someone else thought and why someone else would think differently,” Lepofsky said.
Brodey and Lepofsky hope to continue the program in future years with some adjustments based on student feedback.
Although Chapel Hill native Ananya Cox enjoyed her participation in the program, she also had a few suggestions. “I feel like it would be good to have another one when either it’s longer, more often or in person because it’s not enough time to really get to know people or really form a new opinion or have a wide variety of topics or something like that. But it was a good start.”