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Rewriting the story of polarized debate: He got Tea Party and Occupy to talk

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Last October Laoudji invited Ms. Weitzman to join three other storytellers at the Cambridge, Mass., YMCA theater, bringing together people from diverse political ideologies – from tea party to "Occupy" supporters and one in between. None of them were professional speakers, but he coached them on how to weave compelling eight-minute stories from the intimate personal experiences that shaped their values. Then they told their tales to an audience of about 35.

When a more political conversation developed within the audience, Laoudji says, "We started from a very different place because we had already been open and listening, and understanding each other."

Weitzman says the process taught her that "everybody's story matters." Despite polarization, people can still find common ground and work together, she says: "That is what I wanted the audience to know."

Public debate typically isn't structured to include why people believe what they do about divisive issues. Civic dialogue would be more productive if this engagement gap were bridged, Laoudji says.

So he created The Mantle Project, combining the lure of a well-told story with his desire for deeper dialogue. The project's ethos is based on a quote from pioneering psychotherapist Carl Rogers: "What is most personal is most universal."

The program, named after the layer beneath Earth's crust, Laoudji says, is meant "to create a space for people to have a deeper conversation, to dive beneath the surface."

Laoudji's story about learning to accept his own identity explains his passion for reconciling opposing beliefs. He was born in Tunisia to a Muslim father and Polish Roman Catholic mother. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and he moved to the United States with his mother and sister.

Because his parents had fought about religion, he's always had an adverse reaction to people pushing their beliefs on him. "They say that you are most drawn to the work that you need to do yourself," he says. "Ideas of self-worth are ideas that I've struggled with; and in [helping people identify their values], I'm also doing some of this work for myself as well."

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