By Carol Costello, Journalism Lecturer at Loyola Marymount University & Creator of Project Citizen
What are the odds that a Baby Boomer from Trump Country and a Gen Z-er from Southern California could carry on a civilized conversation about politics and other topics that would seem to divide them? Actually, what are the odds of any progressive really listening to anyone who says anything positive about “the other side?” And vice versa?
Better than you might expect—at least when two people are willing to speak honestly, hear each other out and acknowledge their differences, as they did in a 20-minute podcast that I moderated recently, featuring a Loyola Marymount University (LMU) student and an advertising executive from my home state of Ohio.
The podcast series, “I Hate Your Generation,” is part of a larger initiative that I started at LMU last year, called Project Citizen, which focuses on the importance of civil discourse in the democratic process. The series takes on tough topics — fading patriotism, dirty politics, intersectionality and police brutality, as well as the connection between race and sports.
The fact that our guests come from different generations, and sometimes different parts of the country, isn’t a coincidence. Project Citizen reflects my belief that we can have more meaningful interactions and find solutions to problems through constructive and candid conversation.
It is crucial that we learn to listen to one another. In a divided nation that urges us to take sides, I encourage students to reject the temptation to retreat into like-minded camps. Rather, we must stay in conversation with one another in order to safeguard our democracy. Bringing disparate people together is my way of helping to repair what has torn us apart.
Part of the democratic process is voting and with that right comes civic responsibility. That means it is imperative to understand the issues from all perspectives, not just your own. Without that 360-degree view, a fully informed decision and the opportunity for compromise are impossible. The only way to be a truly informed voter – and a truly informed American – is to get to know people “outside of your bubble.”
Project Citizen began as a course in Summer 2019 before expanding to include the podcast, “I Hate Your Generation.” The class focused on getting students “outside of their bubbles” to engage in deeper conversation and collaboration between students at California-based LMU and my alma mater, Kent State University (KSU), in Ohio.
For six weeks, we split our time traveling between the LMU campus in Los Angeles and Kent State’s campus near Cleveland. Together, our students explored why our country is so bitterly divided. We invited guests to talk with us, including Homeboy Industries founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, S.J., KFI radio host Mo’ Kelly, Hollywood executive Steve Mosko, journalist Annie Zaleski, and the editorial staff at the Youngstown Vindicator, located in the rustiest of Rust Belt Ohio. We also talked with voters across the political spectrum: Trump supporters and resisters, pro-choice and pro-life activists, supporters and counter-protestors at a LGBTQ pride rally. We even sat down for dinner with an Amish family in Ohio, who explained their choice to live a simpler life.
Early in the course, I asked the LMU and KSU students to write what they thought of each other: the California students came up with stereotypes about Midwesterners, and the Ohio students came up with stereotypes about West Coasters. Not pretty.
But as they spent time with each other and in their respective states, they found those stereotypes didn’t hold. The students produced video projects on civil discourse and, in the process, established friendships, mentors and a greater understanding of their country.
I came up with the concept for Project Citizen because of my experience covering the 2016 election for CNN. Although I love my former employer, CNN, along with other cable news outlets fanned the flames of division in our country. Project Citizen is my small way of dousing the fire and rebuilding what was broken.
The coronavirus pandemic prevented the Project Citizen reciprocal course from being taught in Summer 2020, but its success led to the development of the “I Hate Your Generation” podcast, with support from the LMU community. LMU students and alumni have helped identify the topics, create the graphics, conduct research and produce some of the episodes.
Students who agreed to be interviewed were engaged and open to tough and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, just like the one between the 19-year-old progressive LMU student, and the conservative 58-year-old Ohio man, who argued over whether Gen Z or President Trump was more adept at cancel culture: the practice of withdrawing support for, or “canceling,” public figures and others after they have done or said something objectionable.
While my guests discovered areas where they disagreed on this topic, they ended their talk with a mutual respect for one another. When I asked them what they’d learned, their responses were encouraging. “It’s so easy to paint the other side as a one-dimensional person or one-dimensional belief,” the student told me and her fellow guest. “The fact that you listened,” he replied, “gives me hope.”
I’m looking forward to bringing together disparate students from LMU and KSU when we can safely travel again. We have big plans, including a partnership with YouTube and a trip to Washington, D.C., so that students – progressive, conservative, independent, socialist – can better understand the people who pull the political strings in our country, for better or worse.