I’m not exactly sure what I expected when I invited residents of Hillside Terrace in West Orange to a summer block party to talk politics.
It was part of an election-year series called Voting Block, a collaboration among New Jersey news organizations to each focus on one neighborhood as we cover the upcoming election of a new governor. We wanted to find out what people thought about the candidates and the issues facing New Jersey. We also wondered whether, in this era of heated rhetoric and divisions, residents could even find common ground.
It turns out they could — but not around politics. I also learned I was asking the wrong questions.
Len Mrozak sat in the middle of a group of Democrats, the lone Republican to attend a block party in this neighborhood that boasts a real mix of people from different ethnic, racial, and political backgrounds. He lamented the stereotypes that makes dialogue so difficult.
“If you’re a Democrat and you look at a Republican, well you know, you hate children. You want to throw 23 million people to the wolves. You want dirty water. You’re a bad person, you’re the enemy,” Len Mrozak told the group. “That is the level that we’re at, that’s where we are today.”
“But that is true,” Arun Vardemani said. “Republicans are rich, privileged, not caring for other people and ‘take my money and screw you’ kind of people.”
Much of the evening’s discussion went like that. Until, I realized I was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t what Democrats and Republicans could agree on — a conversation that led only to valiant but unsuccessful attempts to convince the other side of the correctness of one’s position.
Instead, what resonated most with people were sharing explanations of their beliefs and how they developed over a lifetime. The better question, I learned, was what can we learn and understand about people with whom we disagree?
The common ground, it turned out, was how much each person loved the neighborhood they all share, and how they would return to friendliness and respect if ever political differences threatened the peace on Hillside Terrace.
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