In an effort to break through political barriers, Plattsburgh State’s I Am An Ally group will be hosting the “The People’s Supper: Common Ground” event this Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Valcour Conference Center in Peru, New York.
The dinner will focus on bringing together people from opposite sides of the political aisle and will be a part of a larger “People’s Supper” movement that has helped host similar events across the country.
The I Am An Ally group came up with the idea for the event following a survey performed on PSUC students last fall that focused on asking students how comfortable they would be being friends with people from a variety of different backgrounds whether it be race, religion, gender or sexuality, among other factors.
“In the original survey in the fall of 2016, they found that about 95 percent of those answering the survey said they were comfortable with every single facet of human being that was listed,” said Michelle Ouellette, assistant professor of public relations at PSUC and advisor to I Am An Ally.
While the numbers stayed around that area for most categories in the fall 2017 survey, a new category was added due to the rising temperature of America’s political climate: Would you be comfortable being close friends with a person with different political beliefs?
The results deviated from the trend, with only about 77 percent of respondents saying they would be comfortable.
“Plattsburgh is a microcosm of our bigger society,” Ouellette said. “A lot of the issues that we see here are issues in the bigger society at large. An inability to cross political lines, to burst our bubbles, or at least permeate our bubbles and get information from the other side is a serious problem.”
The dinner’s premise is to help bring people out of those bubbles and cross those lines, as attendants will share dinner tables with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“There will be several tables with republicans and democrats sharing them, and there will be [I am an Ally] members there to help facilitate conversations,” said Carl Fossi, an international student at PSUC from the Central African nation of Cameroon and a member of I Am An Ally. “We don’t want more of one side than the other. If we were going to have 10 democratic students, we want to have 10 republican students.”
Cardinal Public Relations, SUNY Plattsburgh Cares and PSUC’s chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America will all be assisting in hosting the event according to Ouellette. As of Sunday, 45 people had RSVPed to say they are attending the dinner.
Another facet of life at PSUC that the survey explored was whether students felt safe in the surrounding community of Plattsburgh, with only 76 percent of students surveyed said they felt safe or very safe.
Common Ground’s organizers decided to invite specific community members to the event in an effort to bring that number up. Eight to 10 community leaders as well as a handful of local business owners will be attending, according to Ouellette.
Among them will be democratic Clinton County Legislator Christopher Rosenquest and Chair of the City of Plattsburgh Republican Committee Bruce Lawson.
“Michelle Ouellette contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in attending and being a political voice in the mix,” Rosenquest said. “I’m always up for contributing to the community, so it just made sense for me to say yes.”
Rosenquest is the legislator for Area Nine of Clinton County, which includes the university, making him the legislator for students while they’re here.
Rosenquest mentioned that he doesn’t usually see political divisiveness on a local level at the same heights as the national level, but is looking forward to exploring that.
“It’s interesting for me to see how much the federal conversation in terms of political divisiveness has impacted us locally,” Rosenquest said. “As a legislator, I represent Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Green Partiers and Conservatives, the whole spectrum. What it comes down to is we are a smaller community, a smaller local political scene, and the party politics that might play out on a certain level don’t play out at a local level.”
Rosenquest hopes the dinner can help bridge some divide between the campus and community. He mentioned that in his time as a women’s rugby coach at PSUC, he’s heard from students who don’t often venture off campus because they don’t feel comfortable, which is something that he’d like to see change.
“You belong wherever you are, and I hope that’s the mentality shift, that this can be your home,” Rosenquest said. “This is your home for nine out of the 12 months of the year, and you have just as much of a right to enjoy being here as much as anyone else does.”
Lawson shared Rosenquest’s hope.
“Trying to find ways to bridge the ideological divide that our country is going through right now is very difficult,” Lawson said. “This seems to me to be a meaningful step on a local level.”
Lawson’s time in the Plattsburgh area has seen him run for office as a Plattsburgh city councillor, as well as work in advertising with the local NBC affiliate, WPTZ. In that time he has enjoyed interacting with students on campus, recently acting as a guest speaker in an advertising and marketing class.
“I’d love to hear more from students about how they see things, and if I could be helpful in any way by sharing some of my experiences at the local level, then all right, maybe we’ve helped each other hear and think about things we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Lawson said.
Lawson expressed hopes that this event won’t be a one-off, and that constructive steps for the school and community can be taken from it, as well as learning new things for himself.
“I would encourage the university to think about some of the challenges they are facing as a part of our larger community, and how can we continue this dialogue,” Lawson said. “I haven’t stopped learning and growing, so I look at this as an opportunity to continue my own education.”
The dinner was originally scheduled for last Thursday, but was rescheduled to not conflict with the memorial for former PSUC Educational Opportunity Director Kyla Relaford.
More information about how to RSVP for the event, as well as background on the event in general, can be found at the event’s facebook page “Finding Common Ground” at https://tinyurl.com/yd3wyjal.
“It’s a chance to see each other as human beings with some shared concerns,” Ouellette said. “A chance to think about how we might be friendlier to each other, listen a little more and honor other people’s opinions even if we might not agree with them.”