Sophie Beren, 26, wants young people to know that their voices matter. “I spent my whole childhood growing up feeling like the ‘other,’” she says. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, as the only Jewish student in her grade at school, Beren constantly felt unheard. In college, Beren found her community by getting involved in Jewish life on campus. But she found she wasn’t sure how to reconcile the viewpoints of her mostly conservative hometown in Kansas with those of her mostly liberal campus at the University of Pennsylvania. The personal conflict prompted her to think about how she could bridge the gap of partisan politics. “I started to finally open my eyes to the echo chamber,” Beren says.
So, in 2019, Beren founded The Conversationalist, a digital community dedicated to amplifying multi-partisan Gen Z voices on subjects like gun violence, health care, environmentalism and climate change, and racism. As of December 2020, the community, which operates both discussion panels on YouTube and a forum on the app Geneva, has more than 10,000 members dedicated to learning from each other and breaking the barriers of partisan politics. “The Conversationalist is that stepping stone to unify the world, and our members are igniting the flame,” Beren says.
Young people should be open to thinking outside of party lines because the only way to make a difference is to be educated on all perspectives.
The Conversationalist encourages members to use empathy and curiosity to understand those with opposing beliefs. “We’re not trying to change anybody’s minds or aggressively debate,” explains Leora Greene, 21, a self-identified liberal from Boulder, Colorado, who works as The Conversationalist’s community operations intern. “The whole point is to talk about your lived experiences and the things that you’ve learned.” She thinks Gen Z is in a unique position to build bridges. “We're just unafraid to have these conversations, even if it means [struggling],” she says. “We’re seeing the impact that it can make.”
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, Gen Z is deeply invested in politics, with an estimated 52 to 55% of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voting in the 2020 election — up 10% from the previous presidential race. However, they’re also the least partisan generation, and only 56% of people age 18 to 24 affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party in 2018. While stark partisanship in Washington, D.C., has frequently left government agencies gridlocked and ineffective, the Gen Z activists of The Conversationalist see bipartisan unity as the pathway toward positive systemic change. “Young people should be open to thinking outside of party lines because the only way to make a difference is to be educated on all perspectives,” says Zahier Turner, a 20-year-old member of The Conversationalist from Savannah, Georgia, who identifies as conservative. He finds that once people start listening, there’s often more common ground than you might expect. “We want the country to get better; we don’t want it to be divided. We want unity, which is why we joined The Conversationalist.”
I was so beautifully surprised about how much unity was possible.
The activists know that us-versus-them partisan politics can be an enormous hurdle to political action, even on existential issues. While nearly two-thirds of Americans say the environment should be a “top” policy priority, the left-right divide — there’s a 46-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on the subject, per Pew Research — has made it hard to find any institutional solutions on the increasing threat of climate change. The divide has led to heated exchanges in local communities, fewer environmental laws being passed each year, and an increase in the severity of natural disasters like wildfires and heat waves as the issue goes unaddressed.
But on The Conversationalist, the discussions are unique in their civility and a desire to find common ground. In an Oct. 20 panel, The Conversationalist brought together eight liberal and conservative young people to talk about environmental sustainability, moderated by YouTuber Tatiana Ringsby. Despite coming from opposite sides of the political aisle, the group found space to agree on the importance of sustainability and the need to encourage ground-up environmentalism, including actions like combatting local government restrictions on solar panels and holding corporations accountable for pollution. Even though they couldn’t come to a consensus on the best policies needed to prevent climate change, they all agreed on the necessity of preventing climate change itself — no small feat when some U.S. political leaders deny the impact of human-made climate change.
Beren sees it as an example of the power of their work. “I [thought] that conversation was going to end up being heated and controversial and people were going to be shouting at one another, but the entire conversation was [about] ‘how can we come together across the aisle from both sides of this issue to create a better future for Gen Z?”’ Beren recalls. “I was so beautifully surprised about how much unity was possible.”
According to Greene, there’s always more to learn. “I’m trying to educate myself on other issues that I’m not necessarily as well-versed on,” she explains. Though she’s always cared about gun violence prevention, in an Oct. 13 panel, Greene spoke with people like Joshua Turner (no relation to Zahier Turner), a Black man from Baltimore, Maryland, who lost his brother to gun violence. Joshua shared his perspective and discussed the impact of scarcity, institutionalized racism, and trauma on gun violence in urban Black communities. Joshua’s take as a Black man in Baltimore, which had more than 11,000 violent crimes in 2019, per FBI statistics, was vastly different from Greene’s experience as a white woman in Boulder, Colorado, which had fewer than 300 violent crimes that year. “It reminded me that gun violence prevention, like many other issues in this country, isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” Greene explains. “We need to learn from the experiences of folks in different communities and address the issues from [the] bottom up to get the work done.”
The activists also stress the normalcy of having political views evolve and grow. As the Black son of a Black police officer, Zahier Turner found he disagreed with the Black Lives Matter movement’s political undertones and lack of financial transparency. “As one of the very few Black conservatives, I bring a very interesting and different perspective from other people,” Turner explains. He thinks that African Americans have a co-dependent relationship with the Democratic Party due to policies like affirmative action, and he likes the Republican party’s anti-abortion stance. In June 2020, he switched from thinking of himself as liberal to conservative and joined the organization BLEXIT, which encourages minorities to leave the Democratic Party.
I'm such a fan of the notion that there are multiple truths to every situation.
They’re all aware the goal of empathy and common ground isn’t always easy to achieve. “There are definitely some internal biases that I have to overcome” about people on the other side of the political aisle, Greene admits. She advises others to listen before making assumptions, to follow people they disagree with on social media, and to connect with people in other parts of the country. “We’re not necessarily able to [have these conversations] in our everyday setting in a physical space,” she notes. “Having people that we can reach out to across the country is critical for Gen Z.”
Looking to 2021, The Conversationalist looks forward to discussions regarding potential Biden administration policies, like plans to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and end the death penalty. “I think there is something to be said about the fact that the Biden-Harris administration stands for unity,” Beren says. “That is our core mission as a company, so it’s definitely comforting to know that the administration really champions our mission.”
It’s perhaps appropriate that even as she helps others engage across the aisle, Beren herself is still finding her own political views. “I'm still on a journey and figuring it all out, but at least through The Conversationalist, I'm constantly breaking my echo chamber to consider more than two points of view,” Beren says. “I'm such a fan of the notion that there are multiple truths to every situation.”
Opening hearts and minds, she says, starts with one heart and one mind. “If we can just teach one young person to open up their mind to another person’s point of view, I’ll be the happiest camper.”