The Penn Red and Blue Exchange hosted “Can We Talk?” — an open discussion forum for students from all perspectives to discuss prompts related to contemporary politics and society — on Nov. 30.
Participants from Penn and local universities discussed immigration, hazing, how female performers present themselves, college admissions preferences, climate change, and Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert on Nov. 5 that resulted in 10 deaths. Students said they enjoyed the ability to have an open conversation with others who hold different viewpoints.
“[We hope] to create a sense that political discussion is not something to be avoided, but to be embraced and to give people skills that they can use for any kind of difficult or challenging conversation in their lives,” Chris Satullo, “Can We Talk?” Project Manager, said.
Satullo began the event by introducing nine ground rules meant to encourage productive and respectful dialogue. The rules included active listening, building off of previously stated points, and remaining open to new ideas. The students were split into breakout rooms, with two trained moderators facilitating each discussion.
“These conversations, which have become harder, are just a way to hear where people are coming from, not just looking at the data, not just listening to one or two anecdotes, but really mashing it all together based on everyone's experiences,” Wharton senior Charlie Ross, a moderator for the event, said.
Ross attended a previous event as a participant, but said he gained a new experience from moderating this year. He added that while students agreed on most issues, there were slight deviations in how they think about the issues based on their experiences and previous knowledge.
“I think [what] was super interesting as a leader of one of the sessions is actively withholding my opinion,” Ross said. “It was nice hearing everyone and then also being able to push the conversation a step deeper, because I wasn't really thinking about my response.”
The event’s virtual format meant that students from multiple colleges and universities could attend, both as moderators and attendees. Alejandra Rivera, a senior at George Mason University, decided to attend “Can We Talk?” because of her positive experience attending the last event in October.
“I attended the last 'Can We Talk?' and completely fell in love with the environment and the conversations that came out of the topics,” Rivera said. “I really like when there’s someone that disagrees with my opinion because I love hearing the other side’s perspective.”
Rivera was able to bring her perspective as a first-generation Salvadoran American to the conversation about immigration, specifically when hearing from someone who held a different perspective than she had.
Jason Check, a sophomore at Drexel University, also had a positive experience with the talk.
“It’s nice to see that people can have such different viewpoints on some issues, such as immigration, but then when we talk about the hazing policy or Travis Scott, we kind of agree,” Check said. “It’s interesting to see how not everything is just about politics.”
"Can We Talk?" was created in 2017, due to polarization surrounding the 2016 presidential election. Satullo said that the event has seen changes over the years, particularly with the transition to Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. The event has also embraced more student leadership by bringing on more student moderators and involving students in the creation of the discussion prompts, he added.
In the future, the event plans to become even more student-led. Ross believes that this will help integrate open dialogue into campus conversations and culture.
“I would love for this idea, this civil dialogue, this movement conversation, to begin to make its way into the classroom, make its way into club culture, make its way into just everyday dialogue and everyday conversation that happens throughout the school,” Ross said.