This morning, I facilitated a small group discussion over lunch with members of the Democratic Party of Oregon. As with just about every Democratic Party function, it was interesting. This is a particularly fractious time in the Party's history -- wounds from the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders primary have not yet healed, and many activists consider their allegiance to a 2016 primary candidate as part of their core political identity (rather than a single vote that they made in an election). The tension, though, is deeper than just "Bernie people" versus "Hillary people;" there are tensions between age and experience, as well. I spoke to a longtime volunteer and modest donor to the party who is feeling disillusioned, to the point of wanting to leave entirely, because the "new people" coming in have big plans for spending party money but no plans for raising it.
Today's lunch discussion was designed by Party leadership (both sides of the 2016 primary are represented in the leadership) to give volunteers, activists, and office holders an opportunity to talk a little bit about their life stories in a more intimate setting. It was supposed to be mostly apolitical; it would be a chance to get to know people a little more deeply than you would during a traditional meeting introduction (where you share your name, position, county of residence, and then move on). I was excited to be involved in it.
After spending a few minutes explaining the purpose and laying out some ground rules, we began, with each person having about four minutes to share. Some fascinating, moving stories were told. An older woman who became a U.S. citizen just a few years ago after having lived in America for decades spoke about how, as a child, she lived just two miles west of the Berlin wall -- one of the greatest strokes of luck of her life. She told us that she didn't become a citizen for so long because her mother resented the fact she left Europe. Another man, now running for office, spoke about how even just a few years ago he didn't really care what was happening politically. His recent engagement in politics is because he's worried about his kids futures. Holding back tears, he said he felt hopeless and didn't think they had much of a shot economically or environmentally, but all he could do was try his best to make a difference. This caused the older woman to speak up: "All we can do is try," she said, referencing her family surviving in Nazi Germany.
It was a powerful moment -- valuable for me and I think valuable for everyone in the room.
Another person in the group took things in a different direction. Instead of sharing much of her story, she doubled down on politics. "I don't care if the Democratic succeeds," she said at one point. She meant that she cared about issues: health care, poverty, justice. Still, it was an odd thing to hear at a meeting of the Democratic Party where most of the people present had given a lot of time and money to help the Party succeed. No one, I don't think, wants the Party to succeed for the sake of succeeding. For all of us, it's about something deeper. She later called the Party and the people in it "gross," "disgusting," and "corporate shills." This made facilitating an "apolitical" conversation a bit difficult.
Fortunately, everyone took it in stride. We were all trying to do our best, and at the end of the day, we all agreed about health care, and poverty, and equity, and justice. Turns out, it's going to take more than sandwiches and Doritos to heal the Party -- but sandwiches and Doritos and a conversation about where each of us come from isn't a bad place to start.