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High schoolers aim to promote civil political discourse

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Mountain View High School junior Dayana Sheinin, right, discusses the 2020 presidential election with a group of fellow teenagers at an event hosted by the school’s Conversation Club.

In the current era of high political polarization, many people avoid discussing politics entirely with those who disagree with them. A group of local high schoolers think that’s the wrong path to go down and recently held an event aimed at getting those with divergent political beliefs to have a respectful discussion about the 2020 presidential election.

Mountain View High School’s Conversation Club hosted the event at the Mountain View Teen Center Feb. 29, and it drew approximately 20 local teenagers, plus at least one adult.

For Conversation Club co-founder Avi Gerber, the first goal was to help inform people about each of the candidates, especially with Super Tuesday right around the corner. The second, equally important, aim was to help people have a civil conversation with one another, even when they disagreed.

For Mountain View High junior Dayana Sheinin, the opportunity to talk about politics in a space where her voice would be heard and respected was appealing. Sheinin was born in Israel and moved to the area three years ago. She said she hasn’t been very politically involved, and the event taught her more about U.S. politics.

“I think everyone should respect the other opinion and understand it – and not only believe what they think is the right thing,” she said.

The event was structured so that the attendees learned about each candidate’s positions on a given issue and then had a small-group discussion on the topic. On the issue of trade and the economy, for example, the Conversation Club’s other founder, Ethan Huang, explained some of the terminology (NAFTA, TPP, etc.) before going through each candidate’s platform.

“We live in a very liberal area and with that we kind of take for granted political perspectives,” Huang said. “And there’s a lot of nuances that don’t get discussed in today’s political climate.”

Huang said he’s seen political polarization increase in the Trump era, even in his own life, with his family no longer talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner. However, he said conversation is an important part of maintaining a vibrant democracy.

“We sometimes take for granted how important democracy is, but globally people are literally dying every single day for the chance to have
democracy,” Huang said, citing the recent protests in Hong Kong as an example.

At Saturday’s event, the vast majority of attendees were local high school students. One exception was Katie Dunlap, a tutor at Mountain View High’s tutorial center. When she heard about the event, Dunlap decided to come because she lives nearby and wanted to hear from young people.

“I’m curious to hear the opinions of the high school students and I’m interested in politics,” she said.

Both Gerber and Huang said that was one of the goals of the event – fostering cross-generational conversations. Although few adults turned out this time, they plan to hold more gatherings in the future.

Having a voice

The organizers also stressed the importance of getting involved – even if you’re young. Tara Sabet, president of the Liberal Action Club at Mountain View High, gave a presentation on registering to vote.

Sabet noted there are things students can do to get involved, even before they can vote, such as signing petitions, speaking to their elected representatives, reading the news and phone banking for candidates.

“I want people to be comfortable with their political beliefs,” Sabet said. “They don’t need to know everything, but to know enough to have a voice.”

Gerber said he doesn’t like to hear people say that they are apathetic about the election, or don’t think their voice matters. One of the things young people can do, he added, is talk to the adults in their lives and help inform them about various political issues.

“Even though I can’t even vote in this election, there are people that I know that can,” Gerber said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re educated when they go vote.”

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