This East Coast Team Moved To Texas To Tackle Political Polarization. Here's What They Learned.

Jan 10, 2020

When two 2019 college grads from the East Coast noticed a lack of important — and civil — conversations about critical issues, they decided to help make those conversations happen. And what better place to do that, they figured, than Texas.

More specifically, Marley Duchovnay and Casey Moore say they chose to move to Smithville because they wanted to experience a broad range of political opinions, but be part of a community close to Austin. Bastrop County fit the bill.

So the two University of Delaware graduates hit the road and headed to Texas to set up Project Divided, which they describe as a multimedia initiative "to bring people to the table to have difficult conversations about politics." They spearhead political discussions on their website and social media channels and host conversations within the community.

Duchovnay and Moore believe political polarization permeates much of society. But they say individuals can help to break that down.

"If I, as one individual, want to do something to impact political polarization, truthfully, the best thing that I can do is to try to build relationships with people who are different from me ideologically and in other ways, " says Duchovnay. 

Project Divided’s next event is Saturday at the Smithville Recreation Center. Chili Cook-Off and Conversation invites people to engage with members of their community and vote on their favorite chili.  

KUT talked with the Project Divided founders about what they hope to accomplish with their initiative and how they encourage people of different political beliefs to come together in conversation.

Interview Highlights

On why they decided to begin their project in Smithville, Texas:

Marley Duchovnay:  A lot of what we're advocating for is people to step outside of their comfort zones and have difficult and sometimes contentious conversations. We wanted to kind of put that on ourselves as well to get outside of our comfort zones. So we decided to drive cross country to Texas. But Texas is a big state. You can fit, I believe, 108 states of Delaware in here. So we had quite some land to choose from, but we wanted to make sure and ensure that we could get a wide range of political opinion. We felt that being close to Austin was a good choice. But we wanted to really be part of a community outside, and so we decided on Bastrop County. Then from there, it really was all about, "Where can we find housing?"

On what keeps people from reaching out to people with different political opinions:

Marley Duchovnay: I think that what we realize that we're contending with is a lot of human issues. ... We group into people who are similar to us or we perceive as being similar to us. ... Then we have the fact that psychologically, we like positive feedback. So if I'm going to talk to you and you're like, "Yeah, you're spot on," I'm going to leave with the endorphins running, feeling great. On the other hand, if someone's like, "Oh, I actually don't think you've totally got it," that feels terrible. We want to avoid that negative emotion at all costs.

On how individuals can overcome divides:

Marley Duchovnay:  If I, as one individual, want to do something to impact political polarization, truthfully, the best thing that I can do is to try to build relationships with people who are different from me ideologically and in other ways. Keeping that relationship is hard work but really important because when we no longer have those ties between people, it's so much easier for politicians to really kind of utilize that disconnect and for us to begin to dehumanize each other as individuals.

Casey Moore: A lot of people don't feel represented by either the Democratic or the Republican Party, or people see those labels and think, "Oh, because you're this you're X, Y and Z," and that is not always the case. So I think not assuming those labels on someone, and actually trying to engage in a conversation and kind of get beyond the talking points, is definitely one small way that we can try to connect more as human beings.

On how to talk civilly with someone who differs politically:

Casey Moore: Some of the tips and tools that we tell people, we try to use ourselves. So the one that I think is the easiest is using "I" statements. So when I'm having this conversation with Marley, I'm going to say "based off what I've read"  or "based off my opinions or my personal experiences, this is the conclusions that I've come to." So, not making any assumptions about Marley's lived experiences. Coming from a place where I've personally experienced things definitely starts the conversation off on the right tracks because you can't necessarily argue with what I feel, but we can argue about the policy nitty gritty.

The other thing that we've really found helpful is using our values to guide those conversations. By framing an argument through your values or framing an argument through someone else's values, it definitely lends to a better way to understand where the other person is coming from.