In March 2017, Seattle’s The Evergrey took about 20 Seattleites to rural Oregon to spend an afternoon in conversation with 16 residents of Sherman County. The trip to Moro, Oregon, was inspired by hearing from several members of The Evergrey community who said they were hungry for connections and conversations to understand different viewpoints following Donald Trump’s election as president. The project’s name, Melting Mountains, was coined by Sandy Macnab, a just-retired Sherman and Wasco County agricultural agent who planned the event with Anika Anand and Mónica Guzmán, co-founders of The Evergrey. It refers to the snowmelt that runs down the mountains dividing the eastern and western parts of Oregon and Washington states and recharges the soil that provides what we need to grow crops.
Project Goals: The intent of the trip was to bring together people with different political perspectives and life experiences to connect. The intent was not to win an argument, but to have an exchange of ideas and to understand where other people were coming from. Ultimately, it was about helping community members understand their communities and our society better. Undertaken on an impulse guided by listening to The Evergrey community, it was a first step following the presidential election to make sense of our world.
Tools and Technology: This was a relational effort that required finding a local partner in Sherman County, renting a bus, and organizing a trip. Anand and Guzmán found Sherman County — the nearest geographic place that voted exactly opposite of Seattle’s King County — by using an interactive tool developed by the Washington Post. Besides that, they used a good old fashioned telephone and Google docs (which Anand explained to Sandy how to use) to put together the event.
Impact: The project’s impacts were largely personal, with potentially a longer reach for The Evergrey and others who wish to bridge political divides. Here are the highlights:
- The people directly involved in the trip were touched by the experience, as characterized in the quotes listed below (see: “What else you should know”).
- The Evergrey raised its profile, resulting in multiple invitations to talk about what they did, including a Town Hall Seattle event on April 17. Plus, The Evergrey provided a model for a nascent activity: reaching across political divides. In fact, they’ve started listing examples of other such efforts on their site.
- Asked about the challenge of measuring impact, Anand noted, “Ah, I’ve spoken with several potential advertisers who said they knew about us because of our trip to Oregon. Anecdotally, we know from talking to people in our community and our new subscribers, we’ve established a reputation as people who ‘facilitate tough conversations’ whether they’re about national politics or other local issues.”
Organization Background: The Evergrey is a digital news publication that helps Seattleites feel more connected to their city. They produce a weekday morning email newsletter with stories and perspectives, and interactive events. Its goal is to give Seattleites more ways to discover, explore, enjoy, understand, and feel a part of their city.
- The Evergrey newsletter curates uniquely Seattle events, points to local news, and highlights communities and people that help Seattleites feel more connected to their city and to each other.
- The Evergrey launched in October 2016 with a staff of two — its cofounders Anand and Guzmán. The Evergrey’s parent company, WhereBy.Us, is a media and technology startup that launched The New Tropic, a similar Miami community news organization, a little over two years ago. The goal of WhereBy.Us is to open more local brands like The New Tropic and The Evergrey in cities across the country.
- WhereBy.Us and The Evergrey are for-profit media that have diverse sources of revenue, including annual memberships, event ticketing, merchandise and newsletter advertising. The bulk of the company’s revenue comes from sponsored and branded projects created for local and national businesses and brands. Six months in, The Evergrey reaches more than 4,000 subscribers through its daily e-mail newsletter, with a 45 percent open rate. Its subscribers are curious locals who are engaged or want to be more deeply engaged with Seattle and the future of their city.
Project Resources: The project was self-funded, with participants paying $25 to $50 for bus fare and expenses. Also Crosscut, a local civic news site, partnered with The Evergrey and contributed some funds to the overall cost. Sandy MacNab generously insisted on covering the cost of lunch for all the attendees, saying we were guests in his hometown.
Here’s how it started
According to Guzmán, the inspiration for the project came out of the intense reaction in Seattle to Donald Trump’s election. The Evergrey strives to be close to what people are feeling, the mood of the city. What she and Anand heard from their community is: “I’m curious. This is a blue city. I want to know more about the other side.” So Guzmán asked herself, “How do we help people connect?”
Anand and Guzman saw an interactive map created by a Washington Post columnist where you could plug in your county and find who voted opposite. They found Sherman County, Oregon, population 2,000, where 74 percent of voters went for Trump, a counterpoint to the 74 percent of King County voters who voted for Clinton. On a whim, they put out a query in their newsletter: Anyone up for a road trip? They got 20 responses that day. And they faced a choice. Do we make this happen?
Guzmán googled Sherman County and found Sherry Kaseberg, volunteer editor of The Sherman County eNews, who linked her with Sandy Macnab, a partially retired crop and soil scientist from the Oregon State University Extension service. With a positive reception from Kaseberg and then Macnab, they were off and running, planning together a 10-hour round-trip bus drive from Seattle for 3.5 hours of structured conversation and a meal.
Here’s what worked
1. Trust your instincts, particularly when based on listening to your audience.
Without tuning in to their community, this project would never have come to mind. It also took making a connection between the Washington Post interactive map and the needs of the community.
2. Be willing to take a risk and try something new.
While events were part of The Evergrey’s strategy from the beginning, what made this project a huge risk is that they were directly engaging only the 17 Seattleites who were going on the trip with them. As a startup only five months into their existence, it was a time when they were supposed to be scaling and having a “bigger impact” as evaluated by the numbers. Instead, they chose to go deeper rather than broader. Ultimately, they think that paid off.
3. Find compatible partners.
Key to the project’s success was working with a partner in Sherman County to plan the trip and its activities. So was consultation with Bob Stains, a conversation facilitator. They also had support from Crosscut, another Seattle news organization, who traveled with The Evergrey to Sherman County and wrote a story about the day, which helped get the word out about the trip.
4. Keep it simple.
Perhaps having limited resources contributed to the elegant simplicity of the project. From idea to completion was just three months. Still, Anand reported that she spent 30-40 hours in preparation. She had three major challenges: finding a van for a decent price, figuring out how much time they’d actually have in Sherman County given unpredictable winter weather, and working with Sandy MacNab, their Sherman County partner, to ensure the process included what she and Guzman wanted to do and what he wanted to do.
5. Cultivate an ethic of welcome.
Essential to talking across differences is setting an empathetic tone from the start. From the moment the bus arrived, smiles, warm body language, contextualized the conversation. Beginning with exchanges that reminded participants of their shared humanity and established mutual respect prepared people for tougher conversations later in the day.
6. Encourage curiosity — and listen.
As Guzmán explained at the Seattle Town Hall event, curiosity is a choice for how we respond to a situation. Anand added, “Where’s any progress without curiosity and empathy?”
Here’s what to do next time
1. More time!
According to Guzmán, the only negative they heard was a desire for more time to learn about each other.
2. More experience
Both Guzmán and Anand indicated that preparing for the trip was not without anxiety. Would this strange urban caravan work? According to Anand, they addressed their angst by defining what success looked like and being transparent about that with the Seattle participants. The goal of the day’s very short conversations was to meet and get to know another person who shares views different from your own. They barely scratched the surface of specific politics/politics. That was enough for this start. Anand added, “Ideally, we’d have this as a gathering series. Maybe one event every month for six months in which we get people together and there’s a structured progression of conversation. We are thinking of how we can help continue these conversations with Sherman County folks, but logistically it is really tough to make that drive.” Anand and Guzman are thinking about ways to take what they learned from this experience and facilitate tough conversations – about politics or otherwise – locally in Seattle.
Here’s what else you should know
- Stress test: Is it possible to undertake something for the first time without occasionally questioning your sanity? Anand jokingly says no. But in the end, Guzmán and Anand say they were both glad they pursued it.
- Notes and quotes: Here’s a sampling of what participants had to say about the event:
- “Last weekend I attended a discussion that comprised, presumably, liberals from Seattle and conservatives from rural Oregon. Our small county was chosen based on the numbers – King County voted 74 percent for Hillary Clinton, Sherman County voted 74 percent for Donald Trump. A group of curious and courageous voters from Seattle decided to reach out and host a discussion, aiming to bridge the Great Divide. Or at least, begin to. – Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler, from Sherman County, Melting Mountains and the art of diplomacy: A reflection on crossing political divides from Sherman County, Oregon.
- “I was afraid it’d be a lot more Clinton/Trump stuff. Instead what we got was some really nice guided discussions on the fact that even though how we approach problems is very different, in the end we truly are looking for the same thing.” – Jennifer Zimmerlee, from Sherman County, Seattleites took a 10-hour road trip to cross a political divide. Here’s what happened, The Evergrey, March 7, 2017
- “Going to Sherman County and being in person, I think, I was surprised by the complexity of the stories I heard. To stand in front of someone and hear them speak with passion and feeling about what they believe, you sort of can’t help but expand your own sense of empathy and humanity. I want to get out there and talk to primary sources from now on. I love the media, my best friends are journalists… but I’m not going to look for easy answers anymore.” – Leah Greenbaum, graduate student, University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, Seattleites took a 10-hour road trip to cross a political divide. Here’s what happened, The Evergrey, March 7, 2017
- “You don’t know what you stand for until you meet someone who’s different from you. That to me seemed like a fitting lesson for the day. Our differences broaden our minds, but also sharpen our thinking. So does spending some time seeing the world from another perspective.” – Jessica Richelderfer, a Sherman County mom and writer, Seattleites go to Trump Country, Crosscut, March 7, 2017
- “My biggest takeaway didn’t have to do with specific issues or experiences, it was about the concept of ‘free speech with manners’…There is nothing inherently wrong with disagreeing, but how we talk about our beliefs, both publicly and personally, must at least reflect respect, if not compassion, for those who are listening, even if they believe differently.” – Laura Miller, Seattle, ‘I want to stay curious’ and other takeaways from a trip across the political divide, The Evergrey, March 8, 2017
- “We could have learned more still if we’d had more time to probe more deeply… I would have liked to know exactly why they voted for Donald Trump and whether he’s living up to their expectations. If they’re worried about the threat he poses to our constitutional democracy. And if they really believe that communities like theirs will be economically uplifted by an abundance of newly created jobs.” – Bill Boyd, Auburn, Washington (just outside Seattle)
- “The negative is that [Padget] didn’t get an opportunity to connect that deeply with city dwellers about how he lives his life. When he introduced himself, he pointed to the sandwiches people were eating for lunch. “If you knew what it took to get that simple sandwich on your plate…” he’d said then, to murmurs of thoughtful agreement from residents of both Sherman and King counties in the room.” – Mónica Guzmán writing about Darren Padget, a fourth-generation Sherman County wheat farmer.
To learn more about Melting Mountains, check out these additional resources:
- Melting Mountains: An Urban-Rural Gathering (event announcement)
- Why you should come with us to Sherman County, Oregon and two post-election resources to check out, by Mónica Guzmán, December 6, 2016
- Seattleites took a 10-hour road trip to cross a political divide. Here’s what happened, by Mónica Guzmán, March 7, 2017
- Seattleites go to Trump County, by Knute Berger, March 7, 2017
- Melting Mountains and the art of diplomacy: A reflection on crossing political divides from Sherman County, Oregon, by Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler, March 8, 2017
- ‘I want to stay curious’ and other takeaways from a trip across the political divide, March 8, 2017
- Moving Mountains: Healing the Ideological Divide, a Town Hall meeting, April 17, 2017