October 30, 2018

3 ways we can get along with the other side

What a Capitol Hill intern, a Democrat, learned from her mentor, a Republican.

Through the nonprofit College to Congress, Milla Anderson was able to intern for Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) this summer. Milla also was paired with a mentor from the opposite side of the aisle. Photos courtesy of College to Congress

My dream has been to intern on Capitol Hill and learn about the world of politics from its epicenter ever since I took my first government class in high school. But even as an Ivy League student with grades and a resume that speak for themselves, the financial burden of an unpaid summer internship in D.C. was enough to keep me from even applying. The majority of congressional internships are unpaid, which systematically excludes students like myself, with limited financial resources and no political connections, from the staffing pipeline.

Thankfully, I was selected by College to Congress, a nonprofit that works to creates a more inclusive and effective Congress by fully-funding internships for high-achieving, low-income students to intern on Capitol Hill. With the support of the program, I was able to achieve my dream this summer as an intern for Senator Maggie Hassan.

Instead of feeling excitement as my start date approached, I was anxious. It wasn’t due to my fear of getting lost in the halls of Congress or becoming speechless when I met my favorite senators (although both of these would happen). I worried about the Bipartisan Ally Program, a core component of the College to Congress program. In addition to providing internship opportunities, C2C actively works to break down the partisan divide in Congress by fostering relationships across the aisle. Each intern is assigned an ally who is a senior congressional staffer of the opposite political party. Bipartisan Ally pairs discuss today’s most pressing policy issues in order to open up constructive dialogues to break past partisan stereotypes and build deeper understanding.

I feared that conversations with my new mentor would devolve into bitter debates and stalemates, typical of what I had seen on social media and in the news. As a Los Angeleno, I come from a highly diversified community and background—and also a very liberal one. I am biracial. My mom is Mexican-American and my father is African-American, so my life is epitomized by intersectionality. My upbringing taught me to put the person before the policy, and exposed me to the very personal impact of immigration reform, the criminal justice system, and environmental change. As our country debates immigration policy, I don’t see “illegals” but instead the faces of people from my community. To say that my political beliefs contrast with mainstream Republicans is an understatement.

Milla Anderson with Sen. Maggie Hassan, center, and College to Congress founder and CEO Audrey Henson.

Would my mentor and I ever be able to see eye-to-eye? I did not want our attempt at bipartisanship to be futile.

Thankfully, my anxieties were almost immediately eased during my very first conversation with my mentor. As I got to know my bipartisan ally, she has become someone I trust to support my future career goals, and also a confidant with whom I can celebrate life’s special moments.

There were three simple things we did that have allowed us to have constructive conversations, avoid arguments, and build a relationship grounded in mutual respect.

1. Lead with the person, not politics.

This step can feel impossible if you focus solely on your party affiliation. My friendship with my mentor formed in the same way many relationships do—we got to know each other as people.

During our first conversation, we started with the basics like where we come from. She grew up in a more rural community than my home of Los Angeles, but neither of us came from a family of means. We both also faced similar financial struggles to fund our college degrees. This eventually, and naturally, led to our motivations behind joining our respective parties and why we hold our current worldviews. Once I was able to relate with her on a personal level, I realized that we weren’t polar opposites simply because our political parties were.

2. Identify a common cause.

Next, we started to talk about a political issue we were both personally invested in: the education system. We came to the topic of school choice and realized we held different stances on the issue. Rather than debate why one stance was “right” or “wrong,” we both explained our motivations behind our beliefs.

Neither of us approached our conversations with an agenda to prove, but rather, we both sought to hear each other’s perspective.

She came from the perspective of a mother attempting to provide her child the best education possible and explained how her stance fit into her motivations. My perspective was from my experience attending public schools. Neither of us approached our conversations with an agenda to prove, but rather, we both sought to hear each other’s perspective. In doing so, I was able to see how someone could have political beliefs that were in opposition to mine, but still have motivations that I could support. This kept our conversation from ever becoming contentious, because it was clear we both wanted similar outcomes.

3. Recognize your own bias.

One of the most valuable things my mentor shared with me was her news sources, which varied between ones that leaned toward either party line or were more objectively partisan. In looking at my own sources, it didn’t take long to realize that all of my information was coming from sources that reaffirmed my political beliefs and never truly challenged them. Being fully informed on the political issues we were discussing ensured our conversations were objective and based around the actual facts, not opinion.

“Talking politics” had always felt like a taboo topic, but my relationship with my ally helped to destigmatized these types of conversations. The point of our conversations was never to push our beliefs onto each other because, in many ways, we already believed the same things. Our views simply diverged when it came to how we are impacted by those problems and how to arrive to the best solutions.

If we choose not to engage in conversations with people from opposing parties, or worse yet, ignore their views entirely, then our democracy is hopeless. By listening deeply to the concerns of the person sitting across from us, or across the aisle, we build the relationships necessary to achieve our shared goals.

Milla Anderson

Milla Anderson is a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in Quantitive Social Science. She was a 2018 College to Congress intern, serving in the office of Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

College to Congress is a nonprofit creating a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. College to Congress is accepting applications for their Summer 2019 class through Nov. 30.
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