A school bus at Grossmont High School. Photo by Chris Stone
A school bus at Grossmont High School. Photo by Chris Stone

Last month Bleed the Same and Braver Angels hosted a gathering of Republicans and Democrats to discuss race in public education. The purpose? To seek common ground.

A novel idea, you might say — Reds and Blues coming together to navigate the fraught issues of identity politics, racism, indoctrination, the banning of books, cancel culture, etc., etc. Here’s what we learned, but first an introduction of these organizations. 

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Bleed the Same is a grass-roots group based in Newport Beach that formed out of a local Black businesswoman’s response to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020 to address issues of race. Talks with her white neighbors, including the co-author of this essay, Jean, began, and we’ve been meeting for conversation ever since.

Bleed soon saw the benefit of collaborating with Braver Angels on the myriad issues that we are told have so polarized us. That organization had been formed in 2017 as a national, bipartisan, not-for-profit to foster civil discourse (no yelling, no fighting).

Joe, the other author of this essay, decided to join the discussion at the urging of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. So it was that Jean, a Blue, and Joe, a Red, found themselves sitting next to one another and began a conversation that continues into this column.

Of course, it helped that both of us were born in Brooklyn and attended the academically rigorous public high schools — Brooklyn Tech in Joe’s case and Hunter in Jean’s — that New York City was then renowned for. In other words, we were taught to think critically, and we tried to apply that skill to the conversation.

Here’s what happened: The three-hour workshop began with the participants gathering with their like-minded colleagues to list the values they hold dear. For the Reds that included honesty, accuracy, against discrimination, fairness, completeness (the whole story being told), and diversity of perspectives. The Blue list of values covered teaching kids that humans naturally have a variety of unconscious biases, teaching American history ─ the good and the bad, and teaching kids to think critically.

So far, so good. The extent of agreement surprised the organizers and us. The Blues and Reds then got together to discuss tweaking some of the items.

The Reds wanted to add “conscious” to the sort of biases humans naturally have; suggested that American history be taught within the context of world history; and edited “teaching kids to think critically” to include “from a variety of perspectives.” Other Blue values were agreed upon in full: “teaching kids an accurate history from diverse authors and teachers’ perspectives,” “teaching kids to value education,” and “teaching kids to value themselves and one another.” 

With such agreement on the values for teaching about race and racism, what could go wrong? Well, on this day, with these individuals, nothing did go wrong. The conversations were civil; it was good to see Reds and Blues attentively listening to one another. And yet we didn’t get to the end of the discussion.

Asked to list their concerns, the Reds cited the ideology of teachers and the books that are used; the goals in a curriculum that taught students to be activists; and people being made to feel different based on their identities. Blues resisted the idea of scrutinizing teachers’ ideologies. Their concerns named “the rise of misinformation in social media,” “aggressive radicals on both sides,” and “making kids feel guilty about their race or background.”

Responses from the Reds were about adding context, completeness, more about perspectives, and overarching law and the Constitution. Some of the Blues felt that the Red concerns were too generic and needed to be more specific.  

Deeper dives were avoided, often by substituting more open ─ and therefore ambiguous ─ language. One exchange glossed over the causes of racial disparities in education and, in our opinion, fell short. Joe said that in his local school district, the emphasis is on oppression, victimhood, grievance, intersectionality and similar concepts, and that view may lack empirical support. This debate, whichever side one takes, was not accommodated the meeting.

Another sticking point was the Reds’ concern over “teaching students to be activists.” This Blue would argue that is precisely the bedrock of the country’s decision to fund public education: to create citizens taught to think critically in order to participate in democracy — as active voters.

This Red would counter that such activism in our current school system would be the same as the partisan, progressive agenda. Joe, in fact, couldn’t recall being taught activism at Brooklyn Tech and wondered whether Jean’s experience at Hunter was similar. Jean laughed ─ Hunter girls were taught to take on the world.

The fact that we never reached the end of the discussion is not a criticism of the process since the resulting list can be used as a steppingstone for future Braver Angel workshops. Bringing individuals together to hammer out a first step was perhaps the desired result. 

Readers will likely wonder about the degree of agreement. There are obvious questions. Were these participants naïve? Were they unaware of the national debate, often caustic, over teaching about race? Or perhaps those who attended were predisposed to moderation, which would forestall scaling up this process to the wider public.

But this is where we must ask, how are we to continue our nation’s grand experiment in democracy? There is no easy way to compete with the Twitterverse ─ not with the stream of bitter consciousness, nor the attempts to moderate a specific outcome. At some point, those seeking common ground will have to do just what this workshop did.

That was, not surprisingly, one of the concerns offered up by the Blue team and tweaked by the Red team: “The lack of ability of people to navigate misinformation through critical and logical thinking, especially on social media” in tandem with “the amplification of aggressive radicals on both sides.” One Red proposed a solution ─ no politics in school boards. That brought laughter from all.

And that is perhaps the biggest hurdle to locating common ground. While we can find much in common, the quest for power ─ seemingly always partisan ─ can defeat the greater public good. Which is why we both plan to continue our involvement in such gatherings.

It says a lot that this Red and this Blue are still speaking after collaborating on this essay. And yes, there was some yelling. Besides, given that we’re both from Brooklyn, should we tire of such debates, we can always turn to the enduring lament over why the heck the Brooklyn Dodgers left town. That we agree on.

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University. Jean Hastings Ardell is the author of “Breaking into Baseball” and the co-author with Ila Jane Borders of “Making My Pitch,” named by Esquire magazine as one the hundred best-written baseball books. She works as a freelance writer in Orange County.