“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”
– Thomas Jefferson
With the dust settling after the surprising victory of GOP Candidate Donald Trump last November, the news analysis on the election results clearly revealed that America is a divided nation of red states and blue states, either leaning Republican or Democrat. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and into President Trumps 226 days in office, personal attacks are a very common occurrence on Face Book if the person disagrees with your posting.
Jeffersonian Dinners: Finding a common purpose
We have lost our way in agreeing to disagree on political issues. We are no longer able to civilly discuss our differences on issues. How can a politically divided nation relearn how to have civil political dialogue to find a bridge between our differing political philosophies and positions on policies. Here’s Leadership Rhode Island’s answer.
Last January, LRI released its second book in three years. “Dear President Trump,” a compilation of 31 letters written by LRI alumni who attended 1 of 13 structured “Jeffersonian Dinners” held across the state in 2016. The attendees began each dinner conversation answering the question, “When faced with ideological or principle-based differences with another, how did you and the other party find common ground and/or progress?”
Each letter compiled in this 32-page book was written “to the office/position and not the person,” as submissions and selections were made prior to the Presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016. “Given the emotional nature of this year’s presidential election, which might be best described as identity politics at its most divisive, we thought advice from accomplished Rhode Island leaders from different sectors and industries to our incoming president would be gladly received by the next President and the citizens of Rhode Island,” said Mike Ritz, Executive Director of Leadership Rhode Island, in a statement.
“There’s much wisdom and perspective inside.” In all, about 30% of the 111 dinner attendees – corporate executives, small business owners, directors of state agencies, elected officials, executive directors of non-profits, retirees, and veterans - submitted a 300-word letter which began with “Dear President.” Inserted between letters are quotes by each of the 44 U.S. Presidents, which were curated by Dr. Jane Nugent, a 1995 graduate of Leadership Rhode Island and LRI’s volunteer project advisor.
Sage words of advice
Here are a few snippets of advice in letters from LRI graduates…
Tricia O’ Neil, LRI ‘09, Family Wealth Director and Financial Advisor at Morgan Stanley, asks the incoming president to remember: “You are no longer a Democrat or Republican; you are now the leader of the greatest country in the world. Regardless of party, we are a rightfully proud country that continues to hold the truths of our Declaration of Independence, all the freedoms it stands for, as self-evident. Sometimes we will agree with your stances and sometimes we will not, but if you talk to us with honesty, patience and understanding, and stay consistent and steadfast, we will all successfully grow together.”
Jerauld Adams, LRI ’14, President of North American Industries, Inc., urges the new president to: “Find the strength to negotiate a middle ground on issues and policies so that your team will lead responsibly and will gain respect. Americans need you to be strong; they crave someone they can look up to. As the earth grows smaller, we need a more united America.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian, LRI ’97, of Warwick, gives his thoughts to the incoming president, too: “When dealing with the opposition, please find ways to agree and to disagree without vilifying them. Lead this nation by being an example of calm, allowing all to have their say and make decisions that exemplify the best in all people and all things.”
The “Jeffersonian Dinner” series, which provoked the idea for the book, will continue by Leadership Rhode Island in 2017. Leadership Rhode Island is currently in talks with other organizations outside of the state to collaborate on a national initiative for helping citizens talk through their differences productively and with civility, an action which Ritz says is desperately needed to heal a divided country after very contentious and negative election campaigns.
Adds, Matt Coupe, LRI’s Alumni & Community Engagement Liaison, the idea for Jeffersonian Dinners came out of a series of alumni focus groups held in early 2016 regarding membership benefits. “Alumni told us they wanted to connect with each other in more intimate settings than the large parties and networking events we often host, and they wanted to discuss topics of substance, says Coupe.
According to Coupe, Maryellen Butke, of Providence-based Namaste Consulting who graduated from LRI in 2008, introduced the concept of Jeffersonian Dinners, which had been developed by Jeffrey Walker at the Monticello Foundation, to LRI. Walker wrote a book, called The Generosity Network, in which he describes the Dinners as being modeled after dinner parties that Thomas Jefferson had once hosted at Monticello. Jefferson’s idea was to bring people of different backgrounds together to discuss topics of importance, so he could hear multiple perspectives on various issues he was facing.
LRI launched its Jeffersonian Dinner series in March 2016, after a few months of initial planning. Each dinner took about a month to plan, said Coupe, noting that the nonprofit organization did not even any expenses in planning these dinners, other than some minor advertising costs and staff time. “Thanks to the generosity of Paul O’Reilly, President and CEO of the Newport Restaurant Group (graduating LRI in 1995), we were able to host six dinners at his restaurants [22 Bowen’s Avvio, Castle Hill Inn, Trio, and the Waterman Grille] at no cost to us. The rest of the Dinners were hosted and paid for by individual alumni, held a t the Hope Club, University Club and in their homes” he said.
LRI has recently conducted an online survey of participants, which showed an overwhelming consensus of agreement that the conversations held at the Dinners were valuable in and of themselves, even if they didn’t always change someone else’s way of thinking, says Coupe. “We view this as a validation of the Jeffersonian Dinner model, since their purpose is to expose participants to different viewpoints, not necessarily to build consensus,” he says.
LRI continues to hold its Jeffersonian Dinners in 2017 and plans to continue for at least another year, says Coupe, with the goal of eventually host inviting LRI graduates and the general public to participate. We want to eventually spread the word about the value of Jeffersonian Dinners outside Rhode Island with assistance from the Monticello Foundation and the national Association of Leadership Programs (ALP),” he says.
Now, is the time to work together to build a better American and world by learning how to discuss our differences and finding the root of compromise. Jeffersonian Dinners organized throughout the nation my just be the answer to bringing a politically divided country together.
Let’s hope that a copy of “Dear President Trump,” finds it’s way to Trump’s desk. It’s a great read.
Books may be purchased for $20 (domestic shipping included) online at bit.ly/dearpresidentbook or by credit card over the phone at 273-1574. About Leadership Rhode Island Leadership Rhode Island is a nationally awarded community leadership development nonprofit organization, founded in 1981, with over 2,000 graduates across the state of Rhode Island. For more information about Leadership Rhode Island visit www.LeadershipRI.org
Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.