Breaking down barriers at the Red/Blue Workshop

Elijah Nichols and Leah Hoffman learned to talk about political differences at the Red/Blue Workshop hosted by Better Angels on the Fairfax Campus on Oct. 22. Photo by Damian Cristodero

Elijah Nichols sees good and bad in the current state of political discourse in the United States.

It’s good that people seem more engaged, the George Mason University freshman said.

“But when things aren’t done out of pure intentions, the meaning behind a movement or activism can be out of spite rather than genuine care for one another,” he said.

That is why the government and international politics major said it was important for him to attend the recent Red/Blue Workshop, held on the Fairfax Campus in the Hub Ballroom Oct. 22.

“It’s really important right now to reach across the aisle and understand exactly how the other side thinks, to see if there is common ground on any issue,” Nichols said.

The workshop, presented by Mason’s Leadership, Education and Development (LEAD) office and the Office of International Programs and Services, followed a format developed by Better Angels, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization that endeavors to help red (conservative) and blue (liberal) Americans better understand each other’s perspectives.

Trista Schoonmaker, a Better Angels volunteer and an group facilitation expert, and Nick Lennon, LEAD’s director and an affiliate faculty member in Mason’s School of Integrative Studies, were the moderators. Seven red students and seven blue participated.

In the three-hour workshop, each group discussed among themselves the characteristics and stereotypes they believe the other side holds about them and if there is any truth to those stereotypes. Then both sides presented their lists.


It’s not about changing minds, Better Angels explains on its website. It’s about listening.

“It’s a structure that allows us to have the conversations we always wish we could have,” said Emma Lee Schmelzer, a master’s student in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a LEAD graduate assistant and co-organizer of the event. “But because of habits and the way we are conditioned to approach these topics, we usually end up yelling at each other rather than listening.”

The workshop was especially interesting for Nichols and Leah Hoffman. Both are freshman student senators and are friends. But Nichols is blue and Hoffman is red.

“We’ve discussed politics a few times,” Nichols said.

“But surface-level things,” Hoffman said. “We haven’t gotten down into anything where we’re, like, ‘ooh.’ ”

“Like economic policy,” Nichols said, “the ins and outs of it.”

Nichols and Hoffman both said they wanted to engage more with the other side during the workshop—the usual Better Angels format was shortened for time considerations during this session, according to Schmelzer—but that was a minor complaint.

“I felt this workshop was a really good opportunity for me to understand both sides of the argument and work on communications skills,” said Hoffman, a government and international politics major and a member of Mason’s Honors College. “There are people who are very stuck in their views. This showed me how to recognize that and how to start a conversation.”

“It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” she added. “You don’t have to be red or blue. You can be purple.”