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

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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."

Laoudji founded The Mantle Project a year ago, just after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. He has funded the program's two events out of his own pocket, and is working on a third event on guns and gun control.

Working out of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a collaborative workspace, Laoudji sets up his laptop at one of dozens of communal tables with other young entrepreneurs, researchers, and writers. He recruits participants – calling people and organizations and explaining what his project is about, looking for local events where he can find participants.

'I exist, and I'm worthy ... of your attention'

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