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Learning from Election Season

Melissia Mason
This election season has been a time for expanding your perspective at Emma Willard School. A team of faculty crafted a series of conversations and resources to engage the community in learning about the processes and perspectives involved in the American electoral system. Over the past few weeks, several presentations and discussions have made for robust dialogue.

Beginning with a presentation by the League of Women Voters (LWV), students had the opportunity to pre-register themselves to vote and learn more about the voting process. Our local LWV Co-President Shirley Buel led a discussion of how the League chooses policy issues to support that are non-partisan and protect voting rights.

A lunchtime session with English Instructor Caroline Boyajian and History Instructor Robert Naeher, PhD gave students and adults alike the opportunity to learn how the electoral college works and why it exists in the first place. Parts of the discussion centered around how the electors are chosen, and whether the electoral college itself should be eliminated. This exploration was particularly helpful for participants to learn how the process in the United States differs from that in other countries.

The next gathering, led by Director of Research and Library Resources Caroline Buinicky, explored the world of information-gathering, fact-checking, and fake news. Participants shared their favorite websites for gathering unbiased information—like www.allsides.com—and discussed the impact of social media on our personal “information bubbles.” Ms. Buinicky shared skills that fact checkers use in their work and introduced tools that will help us pop those bubbles, including news sites that can be accessed through the Emma Willard library.

English Instructor Kathleen McNamara moderated a discussion with Grace Smith '14, who works as regional organizing director for the Biden campaign in Pennsylvania (and previously as a field organizer for Elizabeth Warren in Iowa). Smith discussed what she's doing behind the scenes to organize and mobilize communities on the issues that matter most to them in the election. She also reflected on what she would tell her high school self: "There's nothing you HAVE to do, no certain path you have to be on" to find meaningful success after Emma.

As many Americans try to manage their relationships while differing politically, it was important that the Emma community have the opportunity to explore ways to prevent polarization from destroying relationships. Mathematics Instructor Alexandra Schmidt led a discussion defining polarization and helping participants understand the ways in which terms—like left/right, liberal/conservative, or Republican/Democrat—can deepen divides. The group discussed how framing conversations around issues rather than labels can help promote healthy exchanges. Ms. Schmidt presented the example of the late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who were known to be on opposite sides of opinion, yet still maintained a close friendship. Ginsburg was noted as saying, “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it.” We can all learn from their ability to disagree and still respect one another. This conversation ended with some practical steps for having conversations across differences: Listen. Don’t take it personally. Be a bridge, not a barrier. Lean into discomfort. Set norms to create a safe space for sharing. (Source: “Five Ways to Have Better Conversations Across Difference” by Adrian Michael Green)

After the conversations are long over, the information and insights remain. Participants were left with a collection of resources to help them learn and grow through the election season experience. These exercises promote intellectual curiosity and set our students on a path toward understanding, serving, and shaping the world.
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