We must listen to varied voices and find common ground

“Podcast” is a portmanteau — like a suitcase with two halves, the word combines iPod with broadcast. You can listen to a podcast anytime you want — while you’re walking your dog or doing your dishes.

This year, The Enterprise has started doing regular weekly podcasts. We have a conversation with someone we’ve come across while covering news stories. We’re trying to stay away from the leaders everyone is used to hearing from. We’re seeking varied voices to elucidate a wide range of interesting topics. The podcasts give us the leeway to explore ideas outside of the traditional who, what, where, why, and when of a news story.

This past Saturday, for example, we spoke with a bright young woman about engineering and robots. Kierstyn Gonzalez is the president of the robotics club at Guilderland High School where she is a senior. We knew, of course, that we’d be talking about robotics and the school team’s recent second-place finish at a regional competition.

But as the conversation flowed, we learned many fascinating things we hadn’t anticipated: what it’s like to be one of only a few girls in an engineering program; how Gonzalez developed a passion for the discipline — hearkening back to childhood films she’d watched of outer space; what’s happening right now in space exploration as NASA space stations, for example, can produce objects designed on Earth.

One of the threads of the conversation that we’ve pondered since Saturday had to do with what the robotics competitions are like. Gonzalez had told us beforehand she was eager to get the word out about her club because sports and the arts usually draw the attention of a school community. Mind you, she wasn’t dissing these discipline — she sings and plays the violin; she also runs track and jumps hurdles.

But, with robotics, she said, there is a sharing of information and learning rather than just a competition to see who can beat whom. We thought this made a wonderful model for life.

That’s something we hadn’t anticipated as we started making our podcasts: We’re picking up common threads from the conversations that form a tapestry of life lessons.

For example, when we conversed with Nan Stolzenburg, a local planning consultant currently working with Voorheesville on its first master plan and also working with Knox on updating its 25-year-old comprehensive plan, we heard her passion for bringing people from different facets of a community together to listen, really listen, to each other.

Lots of times her work begins when she’s called to a place embroiled in controversy. She gets the various factions to listen to each other — often these days, communities don’t do this, she says — to resolve differences as they work together to chart a future.

Similarly, we talked with a poet, Castina Charles, who organized an Altamont Main Street USA rally. A black woman, the only child of parents who had immigrated from Haiti, she told us it wasn’t only middle Americans from the red states who are suffering. She pointed to a story on our front page that week, headlining the fact that the number of students at rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program — an indicator of poverty — has doubled in just a few years to 40 percent.

Her point was that struggles are shared across America and we shouldn’t be splintering ourselves, denigrating others as the cause of the problem.

We were saddened after the story on the protest ran that the man who had hosted those organizing the rally — his Main Street Altamont home gave the group its name — was upset his name had been used. He was frightened for himself and his family. How did we come to live in a time and place where people feel fear for expressing their beliefs?

For next week’s podcast ,we’re conversing with a Muslim woman who, as part of a diversity series hosted by the Voorheesville Methodist church and library, was speaking about her religion at the church — with every pew filled, some of them with families and their young children. She and others in the crowd were frightened by the outburst of a man who called himself an apostate.

“He became physically aggressive, shouting, ‘You people have to leave. You’re ruining our country,’” said the church organizer.

“I agreed with the general sentiment that the man’s behavior was out of order. But I think he was talking from a place of deep belief and one has to recognize that,” said Gail Sacco, director of the Voorheesville library.

Sacco, during her podcast conversation with us, spoke eloquently and passionately of the need to find common ground. “We can’t allow ourselves to be stratified and divided...We have to respect everyone for what they have to offer,” Sacco said. Our attitude should be, she said, “I want to find out why you think what you think. You don’t need to yell at me...Let’s talk.”

Sacco, who is herself Jewish, spoke of the Jewish cemetery that had been desecrated in St. Louis. She said what is important is that people of different religions in that Missouri community came together to repair the cemetery. “It was not just Jews that came,” Sacco said. “They worked together.”

Finding common ground — and doing so through civil discourse — is essential if our nation is to progress. This is as true at the local level as it is at the national level. We have traditionally seen the pages of our newspaper — and now, in this era where many receive their news orally, our podcasts — as a place where varied voices can be heard, where people can come together to understand those who may have backgrounds or ideas different than their own.

Too often, in this modern era, people live in an echo chamber, listening only to news or to other people who have the same views they do. We were delighted last week to publish 18 letters to the editor. The bulk of them centered on the previous week’s coverage of a Knox Town Board meeting where a councilwoman had proposed accepting a grant for an electric-vehicle charging station. Many in the crowd were derisive of her and she did not get a second to her motion.

Some of the letter writers responded to the name-calling and derisiveness with name-calling and derisiveness of their own. While one man criticized “the pitchfork people” who prevailed, a woman countered, “We are going out to the barn and start throwing the shit.” She contended that the newcomers to town “made us raise our pitchforks and charge” and advised, “And if you don’t like it, the highways go both ways!” Another letter-writer criticized “the elitist liberals” in town while yet another asserted, “Climate change is based on a lie.”

This strikes us as reminiscent of the national scene — with people angrily labelling others derisively rather than civilly exchanging ideas and seeking common ground to move forward. One of our favorite letters last week was by Amy Anderson. She disagreed completely with our editorial of the week before. We had advocated for accepting the grant for the EV station; she opposed it.

She clearly stated her views and gave her reasons. She didn’t demand an apology or retraction from us just because our views were different. She didn’t call names. She even used humor to rebuff the offense she’d felt. Anderson asked, “What are we teaching our children in this town when every week there are letters to the editor where we are fighting, calling names, and bad-mouthing our neighbors?” She concluded, “We are better than that and should be ashamed of ourselves.”

We are all better than that and we need to work, here at the local level where we can genuinely make a difference, to talk to each other with respect, to listen to each other with the intent to understand, and then to take from those conversations the rational steps that will improve our society. If we focus less on winning and more on learning and growing, we can reach meaningful compromises to move forward.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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