PORTLAND — Can the political divide be bridged when those across the spectrum not only come to the table with their opinions firmly embedded, but with their own sets of facts, too?
That’s the question Waynflete School, a private school on the city’s West End, is attempting to answer with a program designed to bring juniors and seniors from seven area high schools together for training in the art and science of democracy.
“The political divide is paralyzing our society,” Lowell Libby, head of Waynflete’s Upper School, said. “But as educators, we believe in using diversity-of-thought to solve complex problems. These issues can only be solved if we listen and learn from each other.”
Libby said between 25 and 30 students from Portland, Deering, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Lake Region and Poland Community high schools have been invited to attend a three-day retreat in March to take part in what he’s dubbed the Can We? project.
The students will work with a trained facilitator, Deb Bicknell, who has worked with the Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield for many years. The retreat will be held at an undisclosed location, Libby said.
He said the goal is to create a vision for “thoughtfully, effectively, and fairly” addressing the “many urgent challenges we face,” which will then be presented to a group of candidates for public office on May 10 at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Politicians invited to attend include those running for governor.
In a press release, Waynflete described the Can We? project as “an experiment in revitalizing American democracy,” and one that calls on the participants to “practice the basic skills of democracy — engaging in dialogue, mediating differences, visioning, holding elected officials accountable, and working collectively for a higher purpose.”
The overall idea behind the Can We? project, Libby said, is to “see if we can join students together and teach them to find a common purpose and give them the skills and inspiration to become involved in politics in a productive way.”
“This is really and truly an experiment,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get to the heart of what’s plaguing us as a nation, both in terms of politics and (individual) identity. Whatever happens, even if we fail, we’ll have learned something. Part of learning is taking a risk.”
Libby said the students selected to take part in the Can We? project will be “completely diverse in terms of background, life experience and viewpoint.” That’s why it was important to include students from not only urban but also suburban and rural school districts, too.
“The project will encourage participants to speak authentically about their own ideas and experiences, to listen deeply to each other, and to dare to be changed by the conversations,” the press release describing the Can We? initiative states.
“Beyond the immediate scope of the project, we hope that the Can We? experience will nurture in its participants the lifelong habits of skilled and active civic engagement,” the release adds.
Initially, Libby said, Waynflete intended to include only four other high schools in the Can We? project, but “we wanted a real cross-section, and the response to our putting out feelers has been really strong. Everybody we contacted expressed an interest.”
He said the original goal was to include only seniors and only those who would be old enough to vote in the upcoming mid-term election, but a number of schools asked if they could send juniors, too, in order keep the project going next year, as well.
Libby agreed to that request and said that “whatever happens, we’ll have created a model that brought people together and maybe that’s a seed that can flourish.”
While the country is facing a number of polarizing issues from promoting economic opportunity to environmental sustainability and social justice “none arguably is as urgent as the need to strengthen our democratic institutions,” the Waynflete press release said.
Waynflete School on Portland’s West End is inviting teens from other area high schools to answer the question: “Can we revitalize American democracy?”