Brittany Walker Pettigrew is, by her own description, “liberal AF.” The 45-year old child welfare manager from Oakland, California, grew up in a liberal bubble so impenetrable, she was a college freshman the first time she met a Republican.
Stevie Krupnik calls herself “a pretty conservative conservative.” The 65-year old retired nurse from Hunterdon County, New Jersey, thinks the “Clinton phenomenon” is a sham and admires President Donald Trump’s “shoot-from-the-hip” style.
Yet every morning, Pettigrew and Krupnik share a similar routine: Get up, grab a phone or iPad and open Facebook to check in with women from across the political spectrum as part of a group called “The Many,” a nonpartisan effort to help women talk respectfully about divisive issues.
Since February, the group — which has about 330 members — has discussed abortion, gun control, education, health care, media bias and what, exactly, it means to make America great again. They’ve shared book recommendations, relationship advice and photos of the views from their homes.
The members have also built a community that rivals your local moms’ Facebook group for popcorn-worthy discussions.
The group isn’t out to win converts for any position or party, but for many of the women, participating has changed how they think and talk about politics and social issues. It’s changed the kind of conversations they have at home and at work.
And on a platform that’s often seen as part of the problem in an increasingly polarized America, The Many has yielded some lessons about a path forward: People need a lot of help to learn from people they disagree with. Even with intense moderation, things can go off the rails — and facts don’t change anyone’s mind.
No screaming and yelling
The group is a project of Spaceship Media, a small California-based company founded by two journalists to help media organizations expand their use of “dialogue journalism,” or conversations with communities. Although Spaceship doesn’t have nonprofit status itself, The Many is funded by grants that flow through a sponsoring nonprofit.
“A lot of the core things we’re doing are what journalists have always done,” like helping people understand the world around them and giving them the information they need to do so, Spaceship co-founder Eve Pearlman said.
Members hail from about two dozen states, though the majority are from Alabama, California, New York, New Jersey and Ohio. The group is nearly evenly divided among Independents, Democrats and Republicans — and a few “other.” Members are recruited through media partners like Advance Local sites, from previous Spaceship projects and through word of mouth.
Spaceship has moderated other, similar groups, but The Many is perhaps the company’s most ambitious project yet.
“People really, really want to do this on all sides,” co-founder Jeremy Hay said. “People want to be able to engage in ways that are not screaming and yelling and getting angry with people who have different viewpoints than they do. But most of us don’t know how to do it well, and most of us aren’t in environments that support that.”
On display in the group is evidence that facts don’t change minds, Walker Pettigrew, a member of The Many and earlier Spaceship groups, said.
Those conversations go like this:
“What! How can you people think this way?”
“What! How can you people think this way?”
“Then somebody posts an article that says here’s a fact about my point of view that makes me right. Then somebody else posts an article that says these are the facts about my point of view that show your point of view is a bunch of hot garbage,” she said.
The discussion rarely takes a productive turn from there.
Yet the personal stories resonate. Before joining The Many, Krupnik didn’t think about racism much. She’s white, most of her neighbors are white, and she hasn’t gotten out much since retiring on disability.
“It doesn’t touch my life. It was kind of like out of sight, out of mind,” Krupnik said, though she added that the stories shared by black women in the group opened her eyes.
Walker Pettigrew wrote about house hunting with her husband and said comments about her race, like that she was “not like other black people” or that she “was a good one,” were hurtful.
“And perhaps some of the most insulting are the very subtle comments like, ‘She’s African-American but she’s really smart!’ or ‘They’re a black family but they’re really nice!’ The emphasis is on the word ‘but.’ When I have mentioned this to white people, they often don’t even hear it. It’s that subtle ... but it stings,” Pettigrew wrote in The Many.
“Now I’m like, ‘This really does exist in people’s lives, and they experience it and they feel the pain of it,’” Krupnik said. “It’s kind of why I joined.”
Christine Merrill, a 39-year old stay-at-home mother of six from Maryland, was exhausted by the political discussions in her Facebook feed.
“I wanted to understand what was going on in a way that didn’t involve trying to decide what’s fake news and what wasn’t,” she said.
Merrill describes herself as a “moderate who would be a Republican if Republicans stood for what they say they stand for.” Her first post to the group was a Washington Post analysis of Trump voters. She asked women who voted for Trump to help her understand.
“I’m trying,” she wrote. “I honestly can’t understand it ... We woke up the day after the election to a world that we didn’t understand. The unfathomable had happened. I promise, at least for me, it’s not malice or hatred, it’s really just trying to make it make sense. So I guess I invite you to help me ditch the assumptions and explain to me why someone who clearly lies, is immoral and has ethics problems is worth voting for.”
Jane Gretna, a member from Louisiana, responded, explaining she is from a “blue-collar state” and her oldest son is a blue-collar worker.
“America was built by such folks. I dare say they’ve become a marginalized group,” Gretna wrote. “Our country NEEDS painters, plumbers, truck drivers, welders, pipe fitters, etc. It’s been a long time since a presidential candidate forcefully and verbally backed this group and upheld its dignity. Donald Trump saw the need.”
In that conversation and others, women wrote about bringing back well-paying jobs, enforcing immigration laws and ending political correctness. They talked about their distrust of Hillary Clinton and the bump in their families’ paychecks since Trump’s tax cuts. They explained what they hoped would change under Trump — and the things he tweeted that made them recoil.
Merrill still deeply distrusts Trump and disagrees with many of his decisions.
“But I have a lot less despair about his presidency than I used to because [posts she’s read in the group] really helped me see that he was doing some things that could actually work and be good for our country,” she said.
Still, conservative women in The Many are much less likely to post than liberals.
“I’m hesitant to respond with my point of view because I know it’s going to be anti what the majority of the people in The Many believe,” Krupnik, the “pretty conservative conservative” from New Jersey, said.
In fact, there are about as many Republicans as Democrats in the group, according to Spaceship staff.
Several conservative members left the group after facing what they saw as liberals’ unwillingness to listen to their views. One long-time conservative member who left declined to talk about The Many, saying there’s too much “Trump hysteria” and she didn’t want to be targeted by speaking out.
For their part, some left-leaning members have been frustrated at what they see as conservatives’ reluctance to accept “facts” and call out offensive statements.
Spaceship’s team of moderators has since taken a more active role, closely guiding controversial posts and highlighting examples of tough conversations handled with grace. They work with librarians to research members’ factual questions and share answers with the group.
But with new members joining each week, The Many’s founders acknowledge that maintaining a sense of community will be a challenge.
Since joining The Many and its predecessor — an earlier Spaceship group called “Talking Politics: The Alabama-California Conversation” — Walker Pettigrew has dialed back on the snarky political memes she used to post on Facebook. At work, she’s less likely to insist her way is the best and only way. For other women, the group has changed how they handle disagreements with spouses or issues at their children’s schools.
The group’s most active members sometimes reach out to each other to check in during tough conversations. They write of being heartbroken when another member feels hurt.
When Walker Pettigrew opens Facebook each morning to see what’s new in the group, she’s not looking for conservatives to stop being conservative.
“I just want them to recognize that we all want the same thing,” she said. “Where we differ is how we go about achieving that.”
For her, The Many’s conversations point to one route toward common ground.
“We can’t move forward in any way if I just assume you’re an idiot and you’re wrong about everything,” she said.