By Catherine Epstein and Cherese Smith
Special to the Gazette
After witnessing the tone of conversation throughout the 2016 presidential election, Catherine Epstein found herself asking the same questions that frustrate many other Americans. How had the country become so fiercely divided, and why did it feel nearly impossible to talk to those with whom we disagree?
As a middle and high school teacher in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Epstein also witnessed this political polarization in her own classroom. Many of her students identify as liberal, and she was surprised to hear her middle school class – who range in age from 11 to 13 – so unequivocally distancing themselves from perspectives that seemed to be “other” than their own, particularly those of Republicans and conservatives.
She considered what it would take to help her students humanize those on the other end of the political spectrum – and vice versa – to build their capacity for perspective-taking and difficult conversations. Authentic interaction with others seemed key, and soon she wondered: how could she create a long-term correspondence between her students at Meridian Academy, an independent, project-based school in Boston, and those in a more conservative part of the country?
That spring, the educational non-profit Facing History and Ourselves put out a call for applications to their Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant, whose 2017 theme was “hard empathy,” or empathy for those with whom we don’t easily relate. Epstein applied with her letter-writing idea, and in June found out that she was one of twelve educators selected for the grant.
But the project could only work in collaboration with another teacher, and when Epstein realized she knew no one who taught in conservative regions, she reached out on teacher Facebook groups. Cherese Smith, who teaches 8th grade History in Ozark, Arkansas, was one of the first to respond, and the two teachers quickly found a like-minded rapport. Epstein was struck by Smith’s immediate openness to the project, including her willingness to devote a few classes a month to reading and writing letters – precious time for any teacher trying to get through the year’s curriculum.
A few months later, Smith hosted Epstein on a grant-funded trip to Ozark. As a teacher of Arkansas history, Smith was an especially adept tour guide, and took Epstein on a long drive through Ozark and the surrounding towns. They told each other about life in their respective communities, including the role of religion, jobs, families, politics, and local tradition. But while Epstein got to see Ozark, Smith has not yet traveled to Boston, and the teachers are working to help Smith travel there in the spring.
Epstein was also able to use the Facing History grant money to work with Essential Partners, a non-profit that specializes in cultivating dialogue across difference. John Sarrouf, their Director of Program Development and Strategic Partnerships, has helped Epstein and Smith think critically about what it means to build trust between their students, to see each other as fully-rounded people, and to share their perspectives through stories, which can be much more compelling and humanizing than arguments.
Smith’s class wrote their first letters in late August, and several of her students commented that they had never had a penpal before but had always wanted one. One student remarked, “No one has ever sent me a letter!”
As their students correspond, Smith and Epstein are writing letters to each other as well, engaging with monthly prompts on topics like class, patriotism, politics, religion, race, and gender. In her first letter to Epstein, Smith wrote about her family and community in Ozark.
“Being from the South and Arkansas,” she wrote, “people make lots of assumptions about me. Because I have a Southern accent, people think I am dumb. Since our school wears our Hillbilly mascot t-shirts, people think we are backward and slow. I do not think that I am any of these things, and it hurts my feelings that people have these prejudices.”
When Epstein’s class in Boston received these first letters, the students were astonished to see their own names already written on envelopes by kids they’d never met or even heard of before that moment. When they learned the name of Ozark’s school mascot, several of them wondered aloud, “What’s a ‘hillbilly’?”
The first letters are meant to help students get to know each other as people, rather than wading immediately into controversy. But Epstein and Smith aspire for the correspondence to create space for challenge, reflection, and growth. And with practice, they hope their students won’t find it so impossible to communicate across difference.
[This article has been updated.]