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In a politically divided time, Erie residents have ideas about how to start talking to one another again

A conversation with a panel of voters there shows many are more willing to work toward common goals than seek out what separates them.

  • Sam Dunklau
A screenshot of the December 8, 2020 Zoom discussion with seven Erie-area residents. From top left, Barb Chaffee, Sam Dunklau, Jezree Friend, Dave Tamulonis, Kate Philips, Chuck Cammarata, Kelly Armor, and Corey Cook.

 Sam Dunklau / WITF

A screenshot of the December 8, 2020 Zoom discussion with seven Erie-area residents. From top left, Barb Chaffee, Sam Dunklau, Jezree Friend, Dave Tamulonis, Kate Philips, Chuck Cammarata, Kelly Armor, and Corey Cook.

WITF’s Sam Dunklau produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania are part of America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Sam Dunklau / WITF

A screenshot of the December 8, 2020 Zoom discussion with seven Erie-area residents. From top left, Barb Chaffee, Sam Dunklau, Jezree Friend, Dave Tamulonis, Kate Philips, Chuck Cammarata, Kelly Armor, and Corey Cook.

(Erie) — Erie County is well-known as one of Pennsylvania’s swing counties, one that went for President Donald Trump in 2016, but flipped for President-elect Joe Biden in November. 

You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it a starkly — if closely — divided community.

But during a recent chat with a group of voters, those who call the area home showed signs of cooperation that could offer a model for other areas of the Commonwealth.

Seven people came together on a Zoom call: five Democrats, two Republicans, four men, three women. One’s a retired pastor. A few are nonprofit leaders. Another is a teacher and business leader. Two worked for Pennsylvania governors of opposite parties.

They gathered in early December to talk about how they were processing Democrat Joe Biden’s victory, as well as the president’s refusal to concede, and the repeated calls for Americans to look past their divisions.

Listen to the story:

Barbara Chaffee, used with permission.

Panel participant Barbara Chaffee, who serves as President and CEO of Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie, PA. She was an aide to former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Barb Chaffee is one of the people who worked for a governor, Republican Tom Ridge. She was a long-time Republican –– but voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

“I’ve given money to and participate in the Lincoln Project,” Chaffee said, “because I don’t perceive what was my Republican Party, the party I was a member of, as the party of Trump.” 

Jezree Friend, used with permission

Panel participant Jezree Friend, Senior Government Relations Representative at the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie, PA.

Republican Jezree Friend, however, is for Trump. But he wants people to know there’s nuance in that decision.

“There’s probably 19 different reasons why someone may have voted for Trump which is very different from my reason. Let’s start by not assuming things of others,” Friend told the group.

That’s how the group started answering one of the key questions of the night: What does unity in a political sense mean to each of you?

David Tamulonis, an event manager at the nonprofit Erie Downtown Partnership, doesn’t think it means much at all.

“I think we should strive for solidarity, building relationships and shared goals and objectives rather than unity,” Tamulonis said. “[It] seems to be sort of a naive buzzword, and a concept that seems a little bit out of reach right now.”

Kate Philips of Lawrence Park in Erie County feels the same way. She worked for Democratic Governor Ed Rendell before founding her own consulting firm.

Kate Philips, used with permission

Panel participant Kate Philips, the CEO of communications firm Parker Philips and press secretary to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

“I don’t think that unity requires everyone to agree, and I think that we’ve had a long history in this country of having differing opinions and philosophies, and different reasons for going to the polls,” she said.

Corey Cook, a logistics worker and musician/philanthropist, said people can’t hope to start talking to one another productively without building a bridge to a common goal.

Sam Dunklau / WITF

Panel participant Corey Cook in September 2020. Cook is a dispatch supervisor at UPS and is an instructor at a non-profit music education program called Life thru Music.

“We all have different ideas of how to get there, and you know, that might differ from people from different backgrounds, but at the end of the day, we should be able to unify over that common idea of bettering people’s lives,” Cook said.

As the call went on, the talk turned to what’s stopping that bridge-building from happening in Erie. 

It seems that much of the country, even though it appears bitterly divided, is invested in achieving common goals in the same way people are in Erie. But though opinion polling from organizations like Public Agenda suggests that momentum exists, there are things that seem to get in the way. 

Chuck Cammarata, used with permission

Panel participant Chuck Cammarata, who is a retired pastor of Fairview Presbyterian Church in Erie. He was there for more than three decades.

Democrat Chuck Cammarata took a stab at the question. He’s a retired pastor who’s involved with a group that brings together people of different religions and political leanings to figure out how to talk to one another. 

But he told the group that bridge-building even among that group is a slow process.

“I think Americans don’t feel like we have a lot of time,” Cammarata said. “Secondly, Americans tend to be pretty impatient people to begin with, so if we can’t fix it right away with three short steps, then we’re frustrated by that.”

Kelly Armor, the folk art director at the nonprofit Erie Arts and Culture, works a lot with the city’s large New American population. She said cultural festivals put on by people from all over the world do a lot to improve understanding, but like so many things, that’s been hampered by the pandemic. 

“Now we’re even more in our own little silos, spending more time on social media,” Armor observed. “I think the fact that you have death threats on social media is blocking bridges to understanding!”

Despite all that, something kind of cool happened during the call.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Kelly Armor, folk art director at Erie Arts & Culture, works with refugees in Erie. She is seen inside the office on July 27, 2020.

Republican Jezree Friend and Democrat Kate Philips were talking about education policy, specifically whether more money for schools produces better results. Friend had written a graduate thesis on the subject.

“I will tell you the short [answer] was no,” he said. “I am convinced..”

Philips interjected: “My short answer is yes!” she said, laughing.

Friend replied: “Interesting! You and I have to get coffee real soon, because I’d love to pick your brain on that more.”

Philips remembered the offer as the chat wound down, revealing she was maybe thinking a little differently about someone who voted for the candidate she didn’t. 

“In the hour that we’ve spent on this Zoom, I just can’t imagine you…calling someone Pochahontas,” she said in reference to one of President Trump’s well-known insults. “I can’t imagine that. You seem like a pretty cool guy, like, that’s pretty nice…you know?”

Just like that, simply talking led to the first step in building a bridge. 

It’s just one connection across party lines in one place. But if it happened in Erie, often thought of as a bellwether area of Pennsylvania, maybe it can happen elsewhere, too. 

About this story

WITF’s Sam Dunklau produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism.

Sam embedded for several days during December in Erie, PA, speaking to a number of new sources and following up with a few familiar ones in order to engage the community on how it was processing calls for unity following President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win.

This story was based around a community engagement session conducted entirely over Zoom, as well as separate in-person and Zoom interviews with individual sources who were part of the panel. Nearly all sources were asked throughline questions drawn up by America Amplified aimed at finding out where people Erie stood on the concept of unity, what’s blocking effort to unify from happening, and how to move forward productively after a tense election season.

Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?

Even the sources I hadn’t met before seemed perfectly comfortable once I laid out what I was after and how the conversation would go. I usually am sure to characterize my interviews as mere chats to help people of different conversational styles open up.

It certainly helped that this story was about the election from the perspective of people in a politically-active area of the country. Nearly all of my sources had well-formulated opinions on the election and its fallout that they were ready and willing to share with me. When pressed for more detail, they were happy to provide it. 

Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?

I couldn’t believe that seven individual people, all with busy lives that could have been doing a lot of better things, chose to take a full hour and a half of their evening to speak with their neighbors about politics and the idea of coming together. Some of the participants hadn’t even met each other before.

I was admittedly nervous to conduct this panel discussion. I had interviewed nearly everyone who participated on a separate occasion, but I had no idea what to expect when I brought them all together to discuss a charged subject like politics. 

To my relief, decorum and decency rule the evening, and much of what was said during the Zoom call was productive and insightful. In the few months I’ve spent going back and forth between Harrisburg and Erie, I’ve come to expect this from those who live there.

Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?

If you’re going to have a panel discussion, try and moderate it better than I did! My only regret was not keeping better watch of the time.

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