America the humble: A Gen Z leader on the value of honest and open discourse
As part of our emerging leader series, we spoke with Notre Dame sophomore and aspiring policymaker Lucie Kneip on patriotism, polarization, and her generation's activism.
America is at an inflection point. No matter who wins the 2020 election, the emerging leaders of Gen Z will be a force to help move the country forward. In this critical moment, we want to hear directly from them on how they’re working to create stronger, more inclusive communities—in their hometowns, on their college campuses, and in their professional circles. If you’re an emerging leader in high school or college and would like to be a part of this series, email the editor, Margaret Myers at: Margaret@TheRenewalProject.com.
A few years ago, when Cincinnati native Lucie Kneip was applying to colleges—all 11 of them—she envisioned herself studying everything from English to neuroscience. “Clearly I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she told us. Now a sophomore at Notre Dame, she seems perfectly suited for her chosen major, political science and global affairs, with a minor in business economics.
Lucie is vice president of her school’s chapter of Bridge USA, a student-run organization that seeks to develop the next generation of engaged, informed, and constructive citizens. She’s part of a team of dedicated students hoping to boost civic engagement and voter turnout among their Gen Z peers.
We spoke with Lucie recently about polarization and political discourse, patriotism, and America’s evolving identity and its place in the world. In a recent op-ed in The Fulcrum, she wrote, “The value of communal or national identification should not be regarded as superficial, but concern must also be paid to the development of a community open to all. Education that cultivates appreciation of difference is imperative, so each generation may be able to identify and emphasize common aims and perspectives among those who may initially seem different.”
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s just start with introductions. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
We have this thing called the Notre Dame introduction and so I’ll give you my classic Notre Dame introduction if you don’t mind.
My name is Lucy Kneip. I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’m a sophomore studying political science and global affairs, with a minor in business economics.
What brought me to Notre Dame is actually this panel for a program called the [Reilly Spring Visit Program], which is where they pay for about 100 kids to come up to the school for a couple of days and show them the best of what Notre Dame has to offer.
When I was here, they took us to the student panel where they kicked all of the adults out of the room and we got the opportunity to ask the students whatever we wanted. What really stood out to me was the honesty at this panel and how willing people were to discuss, here’s what’s not a 100 percent great about this school. Ironically that’s actually what sold me on it was the fact that people were not trying to convince me of how great it was here. They were saying, this is a great place, but we can make it better and we’re not going to lie about that.
I honestly think those who are the greatest critics of some institution are sometimes the ones who care about it the most.
How did you come to major in political science and global affairs?
I think what it was was me realizing my passions for immigration. As well as being a little bit more exposed to the lack of productive discourse in our country. That’s everything from media headlines to where I grew up—a semi-conservative city and a pretty conservative state. Once I started to go on this college search and meet all of these people who were from different countries, different regions, I realized how much I didn’t know. When I don’t know something, I want to know everything about it.
I would say the No. 1 skill I’ve learned since coming to Notre Dame is this concept of listening without intent to respond.
You think of what a conversation is, it’s a dialogue between two people, right? But when you’re discussing something with someone and they bring up a point that you don’t agree with, what are you doing in your head? You stop listening. You stop tuning in to what they’re saying and you think about how you’re going to respond. You miss the other half of what they’re talking about. That sometimes is a problem in our country.
That’s valuable insight. Do you think that’s something that you got through your time at Notre Dame or or through your work with Bridge USA?
I would say it’s a little bit of both. For example one great thing we do at Bridge USA, at least at the Notre Dame chapter, we have weekly meetings where somebody will give a 10-minute presentation on some political issue or current event. It’s just the facts of the matter.
And after that we break people in small groups and start discussing. We would get to the discussion questions, and I’d be so excited to jump in or so excited to give my opinion thinking that it was the be-all-end-all. I found that there were so many situations that I had never considered, because I had never either been exposed to them or I had never considered them as valid.
If we don't learn how to engage in respectful discourse and we continue to immediately dismiss those whose opinions differ from our own, what kinds of policymakers and what kinds of leaders will my generation become in the future?
And that really went to show me what perceptions are and how we develop those. That’s something with Bridge USA that is really valuable. They give you the opportunity to question your views. And I can be a little bit uncomfortable at the beginning because values are something that we hold onto as something that’s very close to our hearts. We believe that the world operates in a certain way. And if you find out that the sun or the stars don’t rotate the same way you think they do, how much does that change about how we think about the entire universe?
It’s integral that you have these different perspectives, that you have this dialog where you can cultivate these respectful responses. There’s value in having people who think differently than you.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to facilitate productive debates, be it within their own families or community without the sting of polarization? What are some tactics that you’ve learned to facilitate productive debates?
A very easy answer to this would be that I want to create more informed policymakers. Policy is something I’m very interested in and something that I’m looking to go into. But also appealing to the larger population and stressing the importance of how crucial it is to be able to have these conversations at the dinner table and in your own community.
If we don’t learn how to engage in respectful discourse and we continue to immediately dismiss those whose opinions differ from our own, what kinds of policymakers and what kinds of leaders will my generation become in the future? Not very good ones.
So I guess my advice to anybody who is trying to cultivate this dialogue is to listen. It’s taking the initiative to do it. We’ve all heard the need to be a respectful listener, but how often are we conscious of the fact that we’re trying to develop as a listener?
How would you hope that your generation would change or shape the way we have political dialogue in our country today?
I think the most salient issue in politics right now is ideological polarization. My generation is the one that’s becoming very well versed in technology and social media. It started early in 2020—the killing of [the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani], the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter. I’ve started to see people my age reaching out and advocating who never would have done so before.
I think that my generation has a responsibility and the capability—I want to stress that we do have the capability—to create a sense of civic duty in Americans.
I think that my generation has a responsibility and the capability—I want to stress that we do have the capability—to create a sense of civic duty in Americans. That starts with changing assumptions and changing norms.
At least with 2020—yes, it’s been very chaotic—but at the same time I’ve seen people starting to speak up who never would have before. I’ve seen the quiet kids from my grade school post about acceptance and respect on their Instagrams. I’ve seen people who I thought were very ingrained in certain ways of thinking challenge that.
I’ve seen this incredible wave of independence that’s present in youth protests across the world. They realize that they’re the only ones who are going to solve this and they’re not sitting around and complaining that these policymakers and these people who are older are not delivering.
You wrote some really interesting things about the pandemic and what it’s taught you about America and the state of our political debate. I’m wondering if you could start telling me about what the pandemic has taught you about the country.
It’s definitely reinforced the sense of humility that I feel we need to have as Americans. We see America as this great paradigm of democracy, this country whose economy is incredible. I remember it was right after we went home in March, after the coronavirus got really bad. I was in an Intro to International Relations class and we were talking about the United States and why our economy was beyond that of other countries. I sat back and I just kind of laughed because this was at the point when the economy was tanking and I thought, how quickly these things can change.
I felt a lot of anger during this pandemic over, why can the U.S. not solve this issue? That’s definitely something that’s been a little bit hard for me to face because I honestly do think that I am a large critic of America. I am a critic because I want it to be better and because I believe that it can be.
America is a very large proponent of liberalism and with that comes the necessity to create these ties with other places in the world—creating opportunities for investment and trade and new markets. But you can’t have the economic globalization without the cultural globalization. That comes from a concept that I learned from this great philosopher called Kwame Anthony Appiah—cosmopolitan patriotism. It’s basically where, it’s not as if you have a lack of national identity, but that your national identity is crafted around who we are in the context of the rest of the world and what responsibilities do we have to reinforce here.
That creates a sense of humility. Yes, we do have an incredible country and I do love my country. But sometimes we don’t always have the best solutions and that might be rooted in how we think about issues such as the coronavirus.
I definitely think that that’s something that is rooted in our ideology and something that we need to rethink if we’re ever going to be able to rise from this and re-cultivate our sense of life, our sense of identity, and really combat these issues going forward.