Teambuilding America: A Declaration of Interdependence

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A Declaration of Interdependence

Hannah Rudin

TEAMBUILDING AMERICA A Declaration of Interdependence

Hannah Rudin MFA Products of Design School of Visual Arts

Teambuilding America A Declaration of Interdependence Graduate thesis body of work by Hannah Rudin for the degree Master’s of Fine Arts Š 2019 Hannah Rudin All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of this author. School of Visual Arts MFA in Products of Design 136 West 21st Street New York, NY 10011-3213 for more information, please contact or visit

Hannah Rudin Author + Designer

Allan Chochinov Chair, MFA Products of Design Thesis Advisor

Kristin Janecek Editor

For Nick, who gives me hope for the future.






Research + Synthesis



Systems + Strategies



Contact Strategy



Action Strategy


Future Strategy


Moving Forward



110 158 176

fig. 1: The United States Capitol building. Washington, D.C., November 2018.





About me


Thesis Introduction




High-Performing Team




Preface In early 2018, the news all sounded the same to me. Democrats promised not to cooperate with Republicans. Republicans promised not to cooperate with Democrats. There was so much nothing happening in the federal government every day that it was tough to keep up with it all. One morning, listening to more of this on the New York Times’ The Daily podcast on my way to school, a wild thought popped into my head: what if I walked into the Capitol and made all of Congress do bipartisan trust falls? This moment planted the seed. In April, I declared a thesis around American partisanship, confusing many people close to me with my sudden, intense interest in politics. I surprised myself a bit as well, but I kept going. August granted me an epiphany, a burst of clarity that allowed me to both understand my motivations for this work and recognize a new framing for it. This framing is the thesis I present in this book: countering social and political polarization in the United States through team-building.



My Motivations When people ask me why polarization is a problem, I can respond with one word: stagnation. America is frequently referred to as the “land of opportunity,” yet people across the country are becoming disillusioned with this title. Opportunity enables movement. Polarization causes stagnation. The two cannot exist together. I want America to be the “land of opportunity” and recognize that there are large, systemic barriers to this for the majority of the country. Polarization prevents us from uniting to solve these problems, allowing these barriers to sustain by inhibiting progress. In failing to solve problems at home, the nation seems to have lost sight of its role in the world. I am motivated by a desire for progress and a belief in America’s potential.

Teambuilding America In thinking about the issues caused by and contributing to polarization, I began to realize that a lot of these were expressed in the form of really bad teamwork in American society and government. After working in team and leadership development for three years, I know a bit about fixing bad teamwork. Teambuilding America proposes not only that polarization is a major problem to be solved in America, but also that solving polarization will enable us to address many other major problems. My thesis also argues that polarization can be countered by developing the nation into a high-performing team, an action-oriented body with a responsibility to itself and the world. Team-building, by its nature, takes a stronger stance than is often used when discussing our social and political divides. For example, team-building aims to move us Team-building means that we cannot just get along. We must be able to work together. Team-building means that we cannot just tolerate each other. We must belong. Team-building is not just about finding common ground. We must create a common future. Team-building means that we cannot just heal our divides. We need to come back stronger and keep developing.

toward having a nation that does not merely function, but rather performs. Let’s try a few more: Keep thinking about this as we go along. In team-building, we must keep asking the question, “What if we aimed one step further?”



About My interest in this work is the confluence of several factors. The first is my upbringing in Northern Virginia. At a young age, I learned when traveling to tell people that I was from Washington, D.C. My proximity to the nation’s capital became part of my identity in many other ways as well. With national politics on our doorstep and a swing state as our home, I followed my parents’ example by forming and valuing my own opinions about government and my role in the system. We lived in a politically mixed area of Virginia, but politics never weighed on my relationships at school and seemed not to affect my parents’ friendships. Despite this, I took my family’s Democratic affiliation for granted and generally assumed that my friends were left-leaning as well, until proven otherwise. My Jewish identity gave me my first introduction to polarization, though I did not recognize it as such at the time. I began learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and realized that my opinions were different from both my family’s primarily pro-Israel stance, and the pro-Palestinian stance of an activist I knew in high school, which had edged into anti-Semitism. It took me over a year to start to have conversations in this polarized space, until I realized that young Jewish people like me were also starting to explore opinions that differed from the debates being held around us. My experience navigating my own beliefs and desires around the fig. 2: Belaying participants at the Cornell Team & Leadership Center. Ithaca, NY. Photo credit: Amy Kohut



fig. 3: The “Ahava” sculpture in Jerusalem, Israel. 2016.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a much larger guide through this process than I originally imagined, but I am also happy that this project has encouraged me to continue working to heal this other polarized space. Finally, my experience working in group development with the Cornell Team and Leadership Center (CTLC) was what led me to have that crazy thought about trust falls, as well as the background knowledge guiding me through this project. I worked for CTLC for almost four years, during and after college. My dedication to the work led me to move rather quickly from Facilitator to Lead Facilitator, always pursuing additional opportunities to learn and grow in my practice. I am so grateful for the support and trust I received from my coordinators along the way, as well as for the incredibly talented facilitators with whom I got to work. We conducted our programs with a level of professionalism I had never before experienced, and it gave me a new understanding of the power of getting groups outside of their comfort zones. Even when the activities seemed silly from the outside, I was amazed by how transformative they could be with the right facilitation.

I asked Nick, “If America was a team, what type of team would they be?” We both looked at the five archetypes in front of us and realized that America as a nation fell pretty cleanly across two of the archetypes. It was a powerful moment. I remember saying out loud, “I think that’s my thesis.”

My thesis pulled together these personal experiences and led me to a place I never expected to be. In August of 2018, I was working with my partner Nick to develop archetypes of teams when suddenly, something clicked.



Intro What does it mean to be a nation today? Social and political polarization in the U.S. calls this meaning into question and makes progress more difficult for a country trying to achieve the dreams of its people. By merging design with team-building methods, my thesis Teambuilding America: A Declaration of Interdependence seeks to counter these growing divisions and the resulting difficulties. Social and political polarization in the United States a complex problem from which it will take no small feat to recover. It is an issue that is rapidly attracting concern and increasing in salience across the country. This challenge rests on the same fundamental elements as team-building: trust, teamwork, and communication. Therefore it can be countered by addressing those fundamental elements, scaling up team-building practices, and identifying where design can help. Social and political polarization have been demonstrated to be inextricably linked. Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor of government and politics at the

“Ironically, politics and religion may be increasingly acceptable topics at a dinner party today, because most of our dinner parties include mainly socially and politically similar people.”1



University of Maryland, describes this in her book Uncivil Agreement by saying, “Ironically, politics and religion may be increasingly acceptable topics at a dinner party today, because most of our dinner parties include mainly socially and politically similar people.”1 She also notes that “talking about politics is increasingly also talking about religion and race.”2 Polarization is defined by this separation: the diminishing likelihood that you will meet anyone from whom you differ ideologically. Political rifts are exacerbated by other social preferences. In fall of 2018, Stanford researchers concluded that political preferences were the foremost predictor of spouse selection, with stronger correlations than race or religion.3 This means that families are becoming more polarized, and children may be socialized to be more polarized as well. Additionally, more than one in ten Americans reported blocking someone on social media due to political differences after the 2016 election, demonstrating another way that we polarize our social circles. This number breaks down into nearly three in ten Democrats and one in ten Republicans.4 Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that conservatives and liberals hold strong preferences for living among others who share their political views, with 50% of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals sharing that this was an important factor. Perhaps more fundamentally, the same survey indicated differing desires for 1 Lilliana Mason. Uncivil Agreement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 14. 2 Ibid. 3 Shanto Iyengar et al. “The Home as a Political Fortress: Family Agreement in an Era of Polarization,” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 4 (2018), http:// 4 Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox. “‘Merry Christmas’ vs. ‘Happy Holidays’: Republicans and Democrats are Polar Opposites.” PRRI. 2016.

Polarization leads to Decreased public desire for compromise Decreased impact of substantive information of policy opinions Increased income inequality Decreased economic investment and output Increased unemployment Inhibited public understanding of objective economic information

fig. 4: The U.S. Capitol building. Washington, D.C.

living space across ideologies, with liberals expressing preferences for more urban settings and conservatives for more rural housing.5 This separation has real, tangible socioeconomic impacts. The opposing page shows a list of some of the most troubling, empirically evidenced, societal implications of polarization.6 When it comes to team-building America one of the most telling statistics is this: 27%, or more than one in four Democratic-leaning Americans sees the Republican Party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” More than one in three Republican-leaning Americans, 36%, said the same of the Democratic Party.7 Imagine trying to work on a team to solve problems while believing that members of your team are an active threat to your organization. They also believe the same about you. Assuming that our government bodies are teams attempt5 “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., June 12, 2014, https://www.people-press. org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/ 6 Mason, Uncivil Agreement, 15. 7 “Political Polarization.” Pew Research Center.

ing to solve problems at national, state, and local levels, it is no wonder that nothing is getting done. Not all experts agree that the public is becoming more polarized, or that polarization is the root cause of these other problems. Morris P. Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University, asserts that polarization is a misdiagnosis when the real issue is partisan sorting. He points out that the majority of the public favors more moderate responses to partisan issues, and that nearly half the country identifies as independent of the two main political parties. According to Fiorina, politicians and pundits are the culprits because both are both highly sorted and highly active in politics; they are the ones we “see, hear and read about on television and the internet.”8 His characterization is certainly accurate, however I do not believe that it excludes polarization, as he suggests. While the majority of the public remains more moderate than the political class, this need for independence from the political parties is its own form and conse8 Morris P. Fiorina, “Polarization is Not the Problem,” Stanford Magazine, May 2, 2018,



quence of polarization: when people feel they are not represented, they will leave. This further separates the majority of the public both from both government and each other, feeding polarization rather than diminishing it. In the 2018 midterm elections, moderate incumbent Republicans were more likely to lose their seats than more ideological incumbent Republicans.9 Additionally, more ideological members of Congress, on both sides, tend to have more Facebook followers than more moderate members.10 Both of these trends further call 9 “House Republicans who lost re-election bids were more moderate than those who won,” Pew Research, Washington, D.C., December 7, 2018, 10 W



into question the depolarization of the public, indicating that despite expressing moderate preferences, the public is still more responsive to stronger ideologies. My thesis takes the stance that society is polarized in many ways, but these rifts are increasingly politically aligned. Polarization is expressed at many levels of society and must be addressed in order to continue moving forward as a nation to improve the lives of people here.

Overview Over the past year, I conducted design research in the areas of politics, polarization, and organizational development. Viewing polarization as a team-building challenge, I then developed a variety of concepts that scale current team-building methods and apply them through design. Design enabled the exploration of solutions through multiple channels that address polarization by looking at the needs of users. In the course of my thesis research—which included interviewing experts and subjects across the country, running co-creation workshops, speaking with local organizations, and exploring secondary sources—three necessary strategies for reversing polarization have emerged:

By producing a myriad of design outputs, my thesis aims to catalyze large-scale movement toward not just healing but reversing the rifts across the country, laying out new ways to thrive together as a nation. In sharing this book, it is my hope that you, the reader, will add your own concepts to the ones presented here. I hope that some of these concepts inspire action in your own life. Depolarization can be addressed at all levels of humanity, starting internally and radiating outward. Thank you for joining.

1. Get people who would not normally meet each other into the same room. 2. Have them accomplish something together. 3. Identify a shared vision for the future of United States.

This book outlines these three strategies and shares the concepts developed to apply these strategies. Some of the concepts are exploratory, while others are proposals. Some have even launched out into the world and exist beyond my thesis.

fig. 5: (opposite top) Seeing the other party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing. fig. 6: (opposite bottom left) 1994 ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans. fig. 7: (opposite bottom right) Ten years later.



High-Performing Team Early on in this thesis, I mentioned the term “high-performing team” in a presentation and was met with resounding confusion. I realized that as someone who works in team-building, I had a construct of what it meant to develop a high-performing team (HPT), but no real definition for it. Other facilitators also often use the term to describe the goals of our work, so I suspected that we all had a construct for what it meant but that it mostly came down to “you know it when you see it.” Given that the ultimate goal of this thesis is to develop America into an HPT, I knew I would need to develop a definition for it. After asking nearly every one of my interviewees who worked with teams and organizations about their definition for the phrase, I synthesized the following:

This definition splits into two parts to reveal two overarching needs for HPTs: (1) an HPT has collective values and (2) it aligns its behavior to those values. This allows us to know, in a broad sense, how to help struggling teams: they need to either establish or re-establish collective values and/or figure out where their behavior is not matching those values and come up with an action plan for aligning it. Identifying this definition helped me design the Relationship First Aid Kit, as you will see in the next section. The opposite page shows some of the other responses from my interviewees when asked for their definitions of a high-performing team.

A high-performing team is one that has aligned its behavior to its collective values.



Emily Cohen

Business consultant and author, Brutally Honest

Sarah Highland Lead Facilitator, Cornell Team & Leadership Center

[High-performing teams] have clear hierarchy, not collaboration, or not too much. They need to have a clear decision-maker. They are small and nimble . . . Someone needs to be empowered to make decisions who is a good listener and a great collaborator in that they listen and unify everybody’s opinion.

A high-performing team gets the job done, gets tasks done. [The team is] open to people being who they are, and bringing their whole selves to the team—not having to edit or worry about what each other might be thinking or scheming. When conflicts come up, people are willing to acknowledge and address them.

Matt Cowburn Lead Facilitator, Cornell Team & Leadership Center

Jay Mangone Co-author of Leaders: Myth and Reality

Try to get the info from them. Most people do know [what a high-performing team is], but it’s an uncomfortable place to go, so people might shy away from it. It really depends on the group. . . . [H]ow do they see themselves as a high-performing team?

Anecdotally, [high-performing teams] have ethos of excellence, which is mutually demanded and created. Mutual accountability.

Jeff Gambitta

Lead Facilitator, Cornell Team & Leadership Center To develop high-performing teams, you have to ask: what do you want to be? How do you want to behave? Tell them: “Even though all groups say these things, not all groups achieve them. What are you all going to do to be different? Now that you’ve identified it, how do you do it? Now let’s go test it.” A high-performing team has certain attributes: perseverance—not winning but working through challenging dynamics. Not accepting failure, but viewing failure as growth. They have resilience, which is like perseverance, but next level: how will you get through those emotional highs and lows. Last, high-performing teams are unconditional. There are no qualifiers for respect, and they build in mechanisms to earn back respect and trust.

Dan Tillemans Lead Facilitator, Cornell Team & Leadership Center Does best with personal growth + safety for everyone on the team. Have them say that, and then model it. Any behaviors that don’t support that, be like, “you guys said this but we’re not doing that. What should we do?” You need empowering leadership for high-performing team. Values-driven, exemplary, empowering leadership develops high performing teams with the goal of personal growth and fulfillment for all. A high-performing team will not work without situational leadership.

Simon Greer American community and labor organizer [A high-performing team has] the right talent, a shared purpose, agreement on strategies, and confidence in execution. It has strong relations that can support fast-paced feedback and corrective actions taken, rewards and consequences. It needs sufficient resources to put to the task, so you don’t skimp on things. And it needs inspiring leadership that calls people to their best selves. Leadership with vision, humility.



fig. 8: A bit of my bookshelf at the end of the summer.




Secondary Research






Relationship First Aid Kit




Secondary Research I had an overwhelming amount to learn about politics. At the start of the summer of 2018, I knew that I needed to begin both anywhere and everywhere. As someone who loves used book stores, they seemed like a great place to start. By popping in to any given store, I can always quickly find a number of books that seem like “must reads”— certainly too many to actually read. Purchasing one or two books at a time this summer, I acquired a collection that I hoped would give me both a broad and deep understanding of the domain of partisanship. Towards the end of the summer, I had collected more than twelve books on polarization, government, and society. I was unable to read all these titles, but I received a piece of advice that helped me come to terms with this. My mentor at Future Laboratories, where I interned over the summer, told me what his thesis advisor had told him: “You’re a designer. Your job is not to do an empirical study or literature review so much as it is to design things. Open a book on any page and figure out how it can inspire you; if it can do that, then it’s useful.” Podcasts were an equally important resource for me this summer, succinctly synthesizing fascinating empirical analyses and allowing me to hear conversations between real people grappling with our nation through tying the present state of things to broader history and



the world. I became more practiced at criticality by discussing with others where I agreed and disagreed with the experts. Through these conversations, as well as the interviews I conducted with coworkers, I was able to reframe my thesis and end the summer with a much stronger point of view.

Books In this write up I am focusing on the three most influential books I read; below are five others that added richness to my perspective but contributed fewer insights to my work and argument. Can Governments Earn Our Trust?, Donald F. Kettl Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

Rule of Nobody (2014), by Philip K. Howard, serves readers rather upsetting truths about the way the U.S. government functions. It seems that the driving principles of government include increasing distrust for all stakeholders, resistance to change, and blindness to the future. This book opened my eyes to the level of institutionalized, systemic dysfunction of the U.S. government; Howard’s premise is actually that human beings have legislated and regulated themselves out of any sort of control over the system. He compares the situation to a plane on autopilot—a dystopian manifestation of an American founding principle, “rule of law,”which was intended to constrain the power of despots by maintaining that laws enacted by legislature must be followed by everyone. Fortunately, he lays out a number of logical solutions to some of these problems, but says that they need to happen through some huge policy changes. About this, he says, “None of this can happen except through massive, organized pressure from the government. The first and highest hurdle, therefore, is for the public to embrace the need for big change.” (p. 143) His argument convinced me to focus my efforts in this thesis on society rather than the government, aiming toward helping the public come together around the need for change.

In Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (2018), Lilliana Mason breaks down polarization and explains why it matters both in terms of policy outcomes and social outcomes. This book was critical for my understanding of why partisan polarization is worth solving; not only is polarization frustrating in how it plays out in current politics, it also has adverse and potentially dire consequences for the future of our country as it continues to escalate. Additionally, Mason characterizes social polarization from a social psychology standpoint, allowing me to see the opportunities for piecing the country back together.

In Representing Red and Blue: How the Culture Wars Change the Way Citizens Speak and Politicians Listen (2012), David C. Barker and Christopher Jan Carman look at the differences between red and blue voters in terms of how they want their representatives to act, as well as the implications of delegate- vs. trustee-style representation (and the implications of voting that way). This book provided insight the issues of polarization as it relates to representation: is what voters want out of representatives actually going to get them what they need? This book indicates that the answer is “no.” This led me to the understanding that civic engagement is not the solution to polarization at this time.





I discovered a number of podcasts that orbit or land on issues of polarization. My favorites include The Ezra Klein Show (engaging interviews with authors, thinkers, and researchers in current politics), Political Research Digest (breakdowns of fascinating current empirical studies in politics), and Conversations with People Who Hate Me (Webby Award-winning podcast hosted by Dylan Marron).

I learned about Make America Dinner Again in the fall from one of my interviewees and quickly reached out to get involved. Make America Dinner Again, or MADA, helps people across the country organize and host dinner parties that center on facilitated discussions of political issues. Tria Chang and Justine Lee, the founders and coordinators of this national organization, kindly welcomed me in and gave me resources, especially their list of interested participants in the New York City area. This was incredibly helpful in putting together my first co-creation workshop, discussed in Chapter 6. I reference MADA frequently throughout this book as indicative of both the successes and the shortcomings of groups currently working to address polarization. Overall, it has been a wonderful group to be a part of and I look forward to continuing my particpation well beyond this thesis.

My least favorites were more surprising: Bipodisan (conservative and liberal former presidential speech writers discuss current issues) and my former favorite, The Daily (deeper dives into national news stories from the New York Times). Bipodisan proved that it takes more than just putting four smart people together with a commitment to a low level of civility to counter polarization: I found that they were still uncomfortably snarky and dismissive of each other, and they did not discuss the issues with openness so much as each share their point of view. It was both interesting and alarming to hear the conservative viewpoints (I was already pretty familiar with the liberal ones), but overall no more beneficial than listening to conservative and liberal news. Simultaneously, it was frustrating that a group brought together with good intentions could still be unable to really listen to each other. While I still listen to The Daily, I became much more of a skeptic over the course of this thesis as the bias became more visible to me. Michael Barbaro (the host) and his team increasingly succumb to overtly liberal biases and sensationalism, to the point where even I have to roll my eyes despite mostly agreeing with the content. While I enjoyed listening to it for news, I started feeling like I could not rely on its depth to paint honest pictures of politics, and therefore I did not want to rely on it for my thesis.



Another organization that I am grateful to have intersected with during this thesis is Resetting the Table (RTT), a national group of facilitators who host dialogues across the country, primarily around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Melissa Weintraub and Eyal Rabinovitch, the co-founders and directors of the organization, allowed me to attend the first day of a facilitator training after I reached out to them about my thesis, and it was quite impactful. This event introduced me to RTT’s facilitation and conflict resolution philosophies and gave me language to describe some of the skepticism I was already feeling about other intergroup dialogue practices. From Eyal and the other facilitators I learned to think much more critically about using the word “empathy”—I rarely use it in the rest of this book—and to spend more time exploring how to move forward from our differences than finding common ground.

Interviews Throughout my thesis, I conducted more than fifty interviews with subject-matter experts whose life and work are affected by polarization. While many of these interviews were intended as subject-matter expert interviews, the line was often blurred; it was difficult for interviewees to separate their work with teams and/ or politics from their own experiences with social and political polarization in America. For the most part, I chose to eliminate the distinction in order to (1) gather as many stories as possible along with individual expertise and (2) reduce the number of judgments I would need to make about whether information was coming from a place of expertise, a place of lived experience, or both. While my search for interviewees was initially fairly broad, I quickly identified three groups who could cover the landscape of information I needed for this work: Creatives, Politicals, and Facilitators. Below is a description of each archetype, the questions I asked interviewees of each archetype, and some key takeaways from the interviews. Interviews were primarily conducted over the phone, over a video call, or in-person, and were usually about thirty minutes to an hour long. Most interviews were one-on-one; for all of the interviews, I was the only researcher present.

fig. 9: A piece of my wonderfully complex and colorful Contact Log spreadsheet—one of my most visited webpages in the fall.



Creatives Description People who address political spaces (government, politics, policy, etc.) through arts and design lenses. Questions What do creatives bring to this space that is otherwise missing? What are the most important things to keep in mind when approaching your work/problems in this space? How do you communicate ideas in order to bring people together around them? How do you bring diverse groups to the table? How do you feel about the current state of the U.S.? What makes you hopeful? What is particularly frustrating? Key Findings »» Power and voice are important to socially conscious designers. Multiple interviewees brought up concerns or awareness about “who is this design coming from? who is it for? who says it’s good?” »» Think about being multilingual, metaphorically and literally. How does my design or writing sound in some else’s voice? »» Start small. Look for what can be found out at the smaller scale, then think about how it could work in the larger context of America.



Rachel Abrams Associate Principal Arup Foresight

Michelle Arrazcaeta Creative Strategist The Future Company

Rachel Atterstrom Creative Director The Black Sheep Agency

Alexia Cohen Designer Omidyar Network’s Interdependence Project

Emily Cohen Business consultant for creative professionals

Sands Fish Research Affiliate MIT Center for Civic Media

Chris Frank Full-stack Developer The Future Company

Sam Haddix Instructor | Managing Creative Teams Parsons School of Design

Shanti Mathew Deputy Director Public Policy Lab

Chelsea Mauldin Executive Director Public Policy Lab

Nina Montgomery Systems Designer IDEO

Randy Plemel Senior Design Lead IDEO

Jennifer Rittner Principal Content Matters

Jo Skillman Creative Director The Black Sheep Agency

Sue-jean Sung Legal Innovation IDEO

Manako Tamura Designer Thesis: Hyphen America



Politicals Description People who influence policy, political thought, and political media in ways not based in art or design. Questions How is polarization different now compared with the past? How does it impact you/your work? How do you cope/deal with it? What are the primary factors and how do they influence polarization? How do you feel about the current state of the U.S.? What makes you hopeful? What is particularly frustrating? What is your hope for the future of the country? What is the first thing that needs to happen to get us there? Key Findings »» Politicals across the spectrum of identities are disheartened and pessimistic. »» Communities and localities are important ground-zero contexts for countering polarization. Politicals of all ideologies expressed both concerns and hopes for increasing connections in their communities. »» Politicals outside of media cite the state of social and political media as a top concern. However, those who worked in media consistently mentioned individual responsibility in media consumption.



Elena Bell Logistics Manager for a Washington, D.C.-based political think-tank

Marc Dones Executive Director National Innovation Service

Lynn Englum [former] Policy Analyst Rebuild by Design

Marya Friedman Policy Analyst Green Street Power

The Honorable Rob Henneke Director | Center for the American Future

Nat Koloc Campaign Manager 2016 Clinton Campaign 2018 Biaggi Campaign

Leslie Loftis Conservative Writer & Lawyer

Andrew Mangino Co-founder + CEO The Future Project

Kiro Morkos Co-founder + CTO Crater Media

Chris Renner Partner BSF Law Firm

Jamie Rogers [former] Chairperson Community Board 3 New York City

Arpit Sheth Co-founder + CEO Crater Media

John Thackara Grassroots organizer for social innovation

Josh TreviĂąo American political commentator

Carol Wilder [former] Chair School of Media Studies The New School



Facilitators Description People who work or have extensive experience in team, leadership, and organizational development. Questions How do you design programs? What is your definition of a “high-performing team”? What are some of the biggest challenges you face in developing teams? How do you build connection between people? Relationships? What happens when conflict arises? Why does conflict arise? How do you help groups deal with it? If America was your client for a program, what goals or outcomes would you identify for the program? Why? If you had a group of about 10 people (that was somehow completely representative of the diversity of individuals in the country), what are some of the activities you would do with them? Why? Key Findings »» Facilitators can think of America as a team but have various definitions for what makes a “high-performing team.” However, their definitions are not mutually exclusive. »» In facilitating team development, the primary role of the facilitator is in creating space for vulnerability and authenticity. This requires striking a balance between safety and collective discomfort. »» Despite that facilitators can imagine America as a team, they surfaced some practical challenges to developing America as a team. These stem from structural differences between a nation and an organization.


Kevin Amirehsani Co-organizer Bipartisan Bonds

Tria Chang Co-founder + organizer Make America Dinner Again

Mallory Combemale Associate Manager Deloitte Greenhouse

Alexa Courtney Co-founder + CEO Frontier Design Group

Matt Cowburn Lead Facilitator Cornell Team & Leadership Center

Julie DeLeo Coordinator Syracuse Outdoor Education

Elizabeth Galbut Instructor | Leadership & Strategic Management School of Visual Arts

Jeff Gambitta Lead Facilitator Cornell Team & Leadership Center


Boyuan Gao Partner Project Inkblot

Simon Greer American community organizer

Sarah Highland Lead Facilitator Cornell Team & Leadership Center

Sallomé Hralima Executive Dream Director The Future Project

Jeremy Jackson Veteran U.S. Army

Cullen Lind [former] Troop Commander U.S. Army

David Livingston Senior Principal McChrystal Group

Jay Mangone Co-author Leaders: Myth & Reality

Jahan Mantin Partner Project Inkblot

Eyal Rabinovitch Founding Co-Executive Director Resetting the Table

Ted Scoufis Veteran U.S. Army Rangers

Daniel Stillman Design-thinking Consultant The Conversation Factory

Dan Tillemans Lead Facilitator + Mountaineering Guide Cornell Team & Leadership Center

Larissa Wohl Community organizer B’nai Jeshurun



Synthesis Affinity Mapping Synthesizing fifty interviews conducted over the course of four weeks was no small task. There was a lot of data to unpack, and it seemed like there was no simple way to do it. To start, I bought 2,400 post-it notes from Staples. I then spent too long thinking about how to approach the challenge. After two days of starting and stopping the process, I realized that the best course of action was action and decided to commit to the method of printing all of my interview notes, slicing them into chunks of information, and then grouping them on a large floor mat. The purpose of this process was to distill patterns and insights from my conversations with my subject-matter experts. Grouping the notes to find trends helped me to also identify the most common points and map



them to my empirical research, as well as assess the scope of knowledge of my interviewees and find potential weak spots.

As shown below, the category of “people� was a huge bucket. It captured statements describing a spectrum of levels of personal interactions, which I split into four categories in order of scale: self (intrapersonal), interpersonal (person-to-person), communal, and contextual (person-to-context). The second-largest grouping consisted of statements about the state of the nation and how my thesis might apply. This felt like a looser grouping, but I tried to arrange it roughly from theoretical/hypothetical statements to practical/factual statements. Next was the leadership and facilitation category, where most of my facilitator insights fell. This was distinct from the people category because it seemed more about actions that facilitators and leaders can take to help teams achieve their goals. The people category was more about inherent qualities of various types of interactions.

Similar to the leadership category, but large enough and distinct enough to stand alone, was the team-building activities and goals category. This was focused around actions that teams can take with or without a facilitator, as well as around what makes a high-performing team. My biggest regret with this process is failing to record the connecting statements that lay between the big categories. At the time, I knew that those might be some of my most important insights, but during the process I neglected to record them. I say this for my future self, as well as for other future researchers: look at the bridges.

fig. 10: (left) Individual scraps of interviews, sorted into categories and connections on the floor. fig. 11: (right top) Sorting in progress. fig. 12: (right bottom) First pass at labeling categories.



Team-building Synthesis After the initial affinity map, I wanted to further deconstruct the leadership and facilitation/team-building buckets. Looking just at the notes from my team-building experts, I synthesized statements onto post-its and grouped them on a big chalkboard wall. The number of different categories that came from this surprised me, as well as the patterns that emerged from some of those categories. Specifically, in the conflict resolution category, a strong insight emerged about the importance of creating a “full value contract,” not only before the conflict occurs, but even during and after the conflict. A full value contract (FVC) allows the team to lay out the values and behaviors they want to collectively hold and come to a consensus around those values. That way, when conflict leads to dysfunction, the team, facilitator, or leader can refer back to the FVC and say, “These are the values we agreed upon and right now our behavior is not aligning with these. Does everyone agree with this and what should we do about it?” This makes it much easier to talk about and address dysfunction. I had assumed that the FVC was only useful when the group made it early on, before the conflict arose, however, my synthesis revealed that this tool can be im-



plemented at any time. A group can figure out that they are dysfunctional and then sit down together to lay out the FVC and discuss how to realign their behaviors to their values. The other pattern that particularly surprised and intrigued me emerged in the “space” category. This does not refer to “space” like “outer space,” but rather “space” like the environment that the facilitator needs to create or use to help the team develop. The most fascinating insight from this is that the space for developing teams needs to be simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable for every member of the team. It needs to be uncomfortable in order to elicit vulnerability and bring everyone to a similar level of social hierarchy, as well as disrupt their normal modes of operation. However, it needs to be comfortable so that people can bring their full and authentic selves, have fun, have basic needs met (physical safety), and feel and think deeply.

fig. 13: (left) Full post-it note map of team-building insights. fig. 14: (right) After making connections between the ideas, I circled and labeled the categories.

Deconstructing the People Category Because the category of “people” in my initial affinity map was the largest and contained breadcrumbs that I wanted to follow, I took time to deconstruct it further into each of the four sections I had identified earlier: self, interpersonal, communal, and contextual. Within each of these sections, I did more grouping and extracted four to seven insights per category, shown on the next two pages. Each insight offers opportunities for intervention.

fig. 15: (top) The “people” section of my affinity map was by far the largest. fig. 16: (below) I further sorted it in order to pull out more granular patterns and insights.




CATEGORIES Taking in information

Forming perceptions

Developing identity

Understanding purpose

INSIGHTS Individuals need to recognize agency in consumption of information.

Intrapersonal understanding is at the root of interpersonal understanding.

Individuals must reexamine their own agency and purpose in the world



Discomfort with our own points of view inhibits openness.

Individuals must be willing to bring their whole selves to the table.


CATEGORIES Changing the game

Recognizing + exploring others’ identities

Intentionality + openness

Better listening // better conversations


Connectors // polarizers

Catalyzers + Champions

Sharing experiences

INSIGHTS Find your champions — people who naturally foster connection

Conversation is paramount, but needs redesign for scale + equity

“It is joyful to see yourself at connected.” — Carol Wilder, The New School

Shared experience is at the root of sustainable interpersonal bonding

“People are polarized in many different ways.” — Lynn Englum, RBD




CATEGORIES Having respect without understanding

Community as a team

Building stories

Local government

Membership + roles

Community aspirations



Communities must be “mosaics”, not “melting pots”

Communities need a revitalization of rituals

“There must be a tension and a need for stories to go on.” — Simon Greer

“Don’t bring people to the table. Go to their table.” — Randy Plemel, IDEO

Shift public focus from national to local

If you belong to a community, act like it.



CATEGORIES Space for authenticity

Safety // discomfort

Culture + society

INSIGHTS Our environments must enable us to bring and express our whole selves.

There is a tension between needing safety and novelty in a space.

Often, the goals of a space are understood, but the process is not.

Shared culture sustains a place: rhythms, rituals, rhetoric.




Relationship First Aid Kit


Opportunity Space

The Relationship First Aid Kit contains tools inspired by medical first aid kits to heal and rejuvenate relationships. Each tool in the Relationship First Aid Kit addresses damaged relationships at one of the four levels in the framework of relationships, increasing in scope from self to contextual.

Many of my interviewees spoke about seeing a failure to build relationships with their neighbors and in their local communities. The Relationship First Aid Kit addresses this opportunity space: like a medical first aid kit, is scalable and applicable to many locations, but acts at a relatively small scale in each instance; at most it is designed to heal approximately a small office space or the floor of a building.

Medical first aid kits are available in most workplaces and other public places. They are so commonplace that we design them to blend in with walls and often overlook them. While bodies are physical, relationships are often perceived as intangible, and we perhaps have more hubris when it comes to dealing with them than we do with our physical bodies. The Relationship First Aid Kit provides physical interventions for the invisible ties between us. What would it look like if the Relationship First Aid Kit was available in every place that a medical first aid kit is available? How can we place more value and care on our relationships as a society than we do on our own will and entertainment?



self interpersonal







thrum Description

thrum is a mindfulness tool designed with elected officials in mind. It enhances self-awareness by displaying one’s heartbeat as a gently pulsing light and occupying one’s hands in a mindful gesture. This pulse-light acts at the intrapersonal relationship level, seeking to strengthen one’s relationship with their own body and help humans better recognize their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. How It Works Each thrum has a metal base and a single, inset LED light that blinks to display one’s pulse. The user pinches around the neck of the device with one hand and gently presses the metal base into the wrist of their other hand to allow the internal sensor to read their pulse. The light is inset to make the display more personal; while others nearby can faintly see the blinking around the edges of the device, the person using it can see it best and most directly.



The device also must be held against the wrist in order to work, in the same gesture as manually taking one’s pulse. This gesture occupies the hands and necessitates that one of the palms remain open, a mindful position that yoga practice links to enhanced listening and openness in decision-making.1 Knowing the precise number is unnecessary; the goal is awareness and viewing the acceleration and deceleration of the light. “Normal” heart rates fall across a wide range of beats per minute; in wilderness medicine, responders take six patient histories before making judgments about their pulse rate, and are also trained to ask patients, “Is this normal for you?” Often, patients have no idea what is normal for them. The information lies in the changes, the quickening and slowing of the pulse, which can be passively observed through blinking light.

1 Erin Phillips, “Palms Up,” Utne Reader, last modified August 2011.


Opportunity Space

Awareness of your own pulse is a mindfulness technique similar to mindful breathing used in meditation. Research links it to greater emotional intelligence, or the ability to interpret both one’s own emotions and, importantly, the emotions of others2. When making decisions, as elected officials sometimes do, greater emotional intelligence enables people to respond more empathetically during discussions and increases their likelihood of promoting communal interests. This in turns allows their opinion to be better received by other decision-makers, which makes it more likely to foster collaboration, which increases the likelihood of action… you can see how this catalyzes a positive chain of events!

At the start of my thesis, I imagined walking into the Capitol and making all of Congress do bipartisan trust falls. With thrum, I imagined giving one of these devices to every Congressperson and watching the whole House of Representatives or Senate fill with tiny, blinking pulse-lights during debate about a piece of legislation. I would love to test the emotional tenor of the debate, the content of the responses, and whether or not the outcome can be considered progress. Prototype The prototype is made of spray-painted Aqua Resin over a 3D-printed model. It is hollow for electronics, with a two-way mirrored lens.

2 Punit Shah et al. “From Heart to Mind: Linking Interoception, Emotion, and Theory of Mind.” Science Direct. articles/PMC5542037/





fig. 17: (left) thrum final model fig. 18: (process grid from left) initial sketches inspired by medical devices; rough foam form models; testing the gesture/ergonomics; sketch of final form; computer model using OnShape; 3D-printed model before finishing with Aqua-Resin and spray paint.




Toss-a-mic USE CASE

The 2024 Presidential Debates: two candidates stand on a stage in front of 20 cameras broadcasting to the nation. No podiums shield them from the audience, and the moderator-referee stands ready for the first mic toss. At the sound of the bell, the Toss-a-Mic flies through the air. Both candidates leap for it, but the Democratic candidate snags it first. She knows she only has 60 seconds to deliver her opening remarks before she must toss the microphone to the Republican candidate. The debate will include no fewer than 20 tosses, and her palms are already sweaty. She is ready to begin.



Description The Toss-a-Mic is a soft, cordless microphone designed to be gently thrown between a small number of people having a debate or other conversation where turn-taking is necessary and civility is critical. Sharing a mic this way eliminates speakers’ ability to interrupt each other and introduces a new form of physicality. This gets people out of their normal mental pathways, enabling them to think more creatively, and also helps them better connect their bodies to their words. In its original conception, the Toss-a-mic was an intervention for political media, designed to be used during staged debates or news segments. Currently, networks love it when debaters interrupt each other with snappy

one-liners — it gives the debate the excitement of a sporting match and makes it more shareable through social media. However, this sort of rhetoric is not helping us as Americans learn how to engage thoughtfully and constructively with each other. This problem has permeated into our daily lives. The Toss-a-Mic seeks to make debates—an important format for political communication—civil again, while recognizing that entertainment is an important element for television networks to maintain viewership. Prototype This prototype was made using scrap materials from around the studio, including steel wool as the filler, a craft foam sheet, craft felt, and a foam mesh placemat.

fig. 19: Toss-a-mic glamor shot plus logo.





fig. 20: (opposite) A storyboard of the mic’s function. fig. 21: (counter-clockwise from left) The initial sketch. fig. 22: Prototyping with studio materials. fig. 23: Close up of the final model.





Hozeh Bachground

Hozeh, the Hebrew word for “contract,” brings physical form to a team-building and conflict resolution tool called the Full Value Contract. The Full Value Contract (FVC) is a method through which a group can identify and establish its collective values, goals, and/or vision—a core part of becoming a high-performing team. There are many ways to conduct the exercise, depending on the group. For some groups for whom consensus decision-making would be important, I (as the facilitator) had them identify 3-5 core values and ensured that each person had an opinion on each value before they voted it in or out. Similarly, I had another group start with many values, and then use discussion and voting to narrow to a small, core set. In other groups where trust and energy were more important, I put out a giant pad of paper and gave everyone a different colored marker, with the only stipulation that each person must state to the group what they were about to write before they wrote it. The different colors of marker provided a visual cue to the group about who was contributing more or less to the conversation, encouraging them to decide how they would moderate participation. Before conducting interviews with other facilitators in the fall, however, I was undervaluing the FVC. Identifying values seemed like a fluffy and ambiguous activity. We would generally do it at the beginning of a program and never return to it; teams rarely referenced it during other activities and seemed to derive little



value from it. When teams were able to refer back to it and included it in debriefs throughout a program, it became a lot more meaningful, but I always questioned its long-term impact. My facilitator interviews shed new light on this tool for me: Andrew Mangino, CEO of The Future Company, spoke about a need for buy-in to a core set of national values and aspirations that would be explicitly and prominently upheld in America. Dan Tillemans, a Lead Facilitator for the Cornell Team & Leadership Center (CTLC) and mountaineering guide, also expressed a desire to realign America to its core values as a team. He said that it is important for high-performing teams to identify their behaviors and values and call out when misalignment occurs in order to address it. This cannot happen without a team having a sense of its collective values. Jeff Gambitta, another Lead Facilitator for CTLC, told me that he uses the FVC when respect has been lost in a group: “For me, it’s all about the relationship. Refine the full value contract. What are the conditions for respect, breaking respect, and renewing that bond? But you have to really tailor it, groups are unique.” Matt Cowburn, a former challenge course coordinator and Lead Facilitator for CTLC, reminded me that the FVC needs to be a fluid, dynamic agreement. “They’re identifying values in a short amount of time and aligning [their behavior] to these values. It might need to

fig. 24: (from top) Initial sketch for a modular FVC. fig. 25: Laying out cardboard parallelograms inspired by quilted patterns. fig. 26: Same as above. fig. 27: Same as above.

change over time.” Matt also uses the FVC for conflict resolution: “Agreements have gotten bent or broken so we need to ask, ‘how did this happen and what do we need to move forward?’ With trust already broken or bruised use an FVC to start to heal it.” This last quote was the one that convinced me of the necessity of putting a Full Value Contract in the Relationship First Aid Kit. Description Hozeh is a Full Value Contract in the form of window-sticker tiles that fit together to create quilt-inspired maps of team values. This enables professional teams, companies, and organizations to aggregate and synthesize core guiding beliefs, as well as create unique maps that document both the principles and the team’s process for getting there. These maps can be displayed on a wall, window, or table and are intended to be dynamic; the full value contract is most powerful when it is revisited to assess if the team’s behaviors are aligning to their values.



How It Works Each set of tiles contains three sizes of proportional parallelograms. The team is tasked with coming up with a number of guiding principles equal to the number of team members plus one (i.e. if there are three members of the team, they should establish four guiding values.) Each team member first gets that number (in our scenario: four) of the smallest tiles and writes what they perceive to be the values that will best guide the team to success. After laying these out on the table, the team can use the second size of tiles to synthesize the small tiles into any number of groupings. Lastly, the team discusses these groupings in order to come up with and establish their number of principles on the largest tiles. After being performed at the small team level, this exercise can be repeated to synthesize core principles at other levels of scale. For example, after each team within a department does the FVC, the department can conduct it using the number of teams plus one as the number of core values they wish to identify (i.e. if there are six teams in a department, then the department should identify seven core values). They would start by writing the values identified by each team on the small tiles, then synthesize with the medium tiles and establish with the large tiles as before. Why use the number of team members plus one? When conducting FVC exercises, I often see groups use the tactic that everyone comes up with one value and the group adopts all of them. While this is nice in some ways, it does not force the group to do any deep



thinking or consensus-reaching, which are important when creating a full value contract that is truly communally built and guiding communal success. Another question that often surfaces about Hozeh: how many people is this for? What if the team is really big? There are established schools of thought on optimal team-sizing that maintain that teams should generally not have more than twelve members.1 In my view, twelve people can successfully compile a set of core guiding principles according to the process above. For teams larger than twelve, the team size likely needs to be questioned and re-evaluated before Hozeh can be used as an effective tool. Prototype Hozeh was originally laser cut from clear, quarter-inch acrylic to allow users to physically play with the tiles. However, since preserving and displaying the tiles is as important as making the contract dynamic, it made more sense for Hozeh to be recreated from movable window-sticker vinyl.

1 “Is Your Team Too Big? Too Small? What’s the Right Number?” Knowledge @ Wharton, June 14, 2006, article/is-your-team-too-big-too-small-whats-the-right-number-2/






Towards the end of a long meeting, Jacqui and Charles start butting heads. They are really not seeing eye-to-eye, and it’s making their other team members uncomfortable. Drake, the meeting manager, ultimately brings out the Relationship First Aid Kit and hands two of the Clinks to Jacqui. “You two need to sit down and have a beer together,” he says. Jacqui grumbles, but once meeting ends, she and Charles go to the kitchen area of their office. After all, having an afternoon beer is far from a punishment. “Options are limited,” Charles says, looking into the fridge. “Blue Moon or Southern Tier?” Jacqui requests the Southern Tier IPA. Charles takes one, too. Jacqui wraps one Clink around each beer bottle, adjusting them like a watch band, then moves the bottles close together until the magnets in the bands snap to each other. Now the bottles are held together, unless Jacqui and Charles pull them apart simultaneously. Lifting just one bottle tended to cause the other to tip over, as Charles had learned the hard way.



fig. 28: Clink first iteration wooden prototype. fig. 29: (next page) Clink first iteration banner, with logo. fig. 30: (next page) Drying the stained pieces on a custon-made drying rack. fig. 31: (next page) All pieces together.

“Sorry I was kind of an ass,” Jacqui begins. “Look, I had a crappy morning and I brought it to work with me,” admits Charles. “That was my bad.” “Crappy mornings… can we drink to that?” Jacqui asks. They both smile a little bit and pull their beer bottles apart. Charles tips his toward her and she clinks with him. They both sip and place their bottles back down, allowing the Clinks to snap back together again. They take another fifteen minutes to continue debriefing their interaction during the meeting, and then fifteen minutes after that to just catch up and finish their beers. When they’re done, they take the links off the bottles and put them back in the Relationship First Aid Kit, sharing the feeling that they wouldn’t need to use them again any time soon.






Clinks are a set of magnetic bands that wrap around bottles, cans, pint glasses, wine glasses, and steins to hold two or more glasses together and introduce interdependent behaviors into drinking events. Food and alcohol come up frequently as available channels for being vulnerable together. Clink addresses the contextual level of relationships because it leverages our relationship to the context of drinking in order to affect our relationships with each other.

The initial Clink concept was intended to look rustic, with stained wood and brass. The form was meant to resemble links in a chain and each one fit a standard pint glass. It was a really fun prototype to make, with each piece shaped by hand.


The redesign makes it smaller and more adaptable to different drinking preferences. It also better matches the first aid kit aesthetic.

Final Note on Caring for Relationships The Relationship First Aid Kit exists because, even on a well-functioning team, relationships get injured or bruised at the levels of self, interpersonal, community, and context. Interventions at any of these levels can redefine and strengthen our relationships with each other as both friends and strangers in American society. The Kit asks us to commit to valuing and healing our relationships as a nation.



fig. 32: The process of mapping required many Post-it notes.




Systems Mapping






Strategies Overview




Systems Mapping It took awhile before I felt ready to tackle the systems map around polarization in the United States. In the weeks leading up to thesis defense, I finally set aside a couple of hours to complete this challenge. Polarization is broad and complex, but I knew that it required specificity in order to properly characterize it in a meaningful way. To do this, I started with a brain-topaper download of the most salient words and phrases associated with polarization. I then grouped those words and drew connections between them, adding in additional words as needed.



I started with the political side of the equation, then did the social side. Then I realized that, although “media� was not a type of polarization, it was such a salient and important factor in the landscape that it needed to be on the map.

fig. 33: (below) Systems map, condensed. fig. 34: (right) The political side of the map, expanded.

The Political Side The political side of polarization focuses on the government, and the forces driving it fall into two main categories: action/institution and representation. Action/institution encompasses what the government is and does. A number of the problems in our current system result from the structure of government, in part stemming from adherence to and skewed interpretations of the Constitution. For example, “checks and balances” are a founding principle of this country, and I think most people would agree on its rationale. However, historic and increasing distrust between those in Executive offices and those in the Legislative branch led to a warping of checks and balances. At the national level, Congress writes laws that are ridiculously convoluted and specific in order to diminish the interpretive power of the executive branch, particularly when the two branches lack partisan alignment.1 At the state 1 Philip K. Howard, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government. (W. W. Norton, 2014.)

level, we see what happened in Wisconsin after the 2018 midterm elections, with the Republican-majority state legislature passing legislation to restrict the power of the incoming Democratic governor,2 particularly around the issues on which he campaigned. On the judicial side, judges are being leveraged in many ways as legislative bodies. While I find this to be fascinating in terms of strategic use of the court system, it has led to the judicial branch becoming increasingly partisan, or at least viewed as such. It also shows up in the almost-pop-cultural roles of lawyers and the action of suing for all sorts of things. This all has resulted in some serious muddling of checks and balances such that they almost no longer exist. 2 Mitch Smith and Monica Davey, “Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly Move to Limit the Power of Incoming Democrats,” New York Times, December 5, 2018,



Another issue on the political side of the system is that the government is set up to maintain the status quo. Laws can always be added, but they are hardly ever repealed. Polarization, special interest groups, and mass media factor in to this because, as Philip K. Howard points out in Rule of Nobody, any time a law is up for repeal, it can suddenly become an enormous deal to somebody for some reason—all of a sudden it becomes an ideological issue. This is not the case every time something is up for repeal, and it is not necessarily wrong to do this, but it does contribute to the status quo issue. There are also just so darn many laws, each with so many components, that it would take a very long time to go through and repeal ineffective parts. The status quo bias and over-legislation (rooted in distrust, you may remember), have led to a government that has almost legislated itself into oblivion. The representation side of political polarization may be more familiar, in some ways. Representation is extremely polarizing. There are winners and losers and it feels uncomfortably personal to win or lose. There are discriminatory structures in place to ensure that certain groups get represented and that others do not. Put simply, representation is how you, yes you, show up in government. This can also mean how you show up in America’s thoughts and actions. Codified representation problems like gerrymandering, citizenship, voting rights, and the Electoral College will continue to polarize us for a long time to come. America was founded as a representative democracy; though we still promote that image of ourselves to the world, it is no longer what we would see if we stopped to look in the mirror. Having a two-party system also exacerbates polarization. Think about how much more polarizing a college football game is compared to the 100-meter sprinting event at the Olympics. In the Olympics, rooting for the U.S.A. to win does not necessarily mean hoping that Jamaica loses, or even that every other country loses. In the college football game, let’s say the University of Virginia vs. Virginia Tech, hoping that UVA wins absolutely means hoping that Tech loses, and loses hard.

Representation also differs for red and blue voters (I use the colors to refer to a broader, more socially-rooted classification for Democratic and Republican voters) not only in who they elect, but how they expect those people to act in office. Blue voters tend to value and reward candidates who say that they will listen to the public when making policy decisions. Republicans tend to value and reward candidates who say that they will make their own decisions when elected, without listening to the public.3 This difference in representation preferences during elections leads to differences in representation within the resulting policy. The last item to call out on the political side is partisanship as it relates to our personal identities. Political identity has become a stronger determinant for who we marry than any other demographic factor.4 Jonathan Haidt supports this through his research on morality: it is difficult to understand the other side when, fundamentally, our morals differ.5 Lilliana Mason also points out that the Democratic Party has tried to create an image for itself as the party of marginalized groups.6 This also serves to illustrate that parties (and brands) have increasingly tried to make themselves as much about what you look like and who you are as about your policy preferences. The public provides positive feedback in what is referred to as “identity politics.” 3 David C. Barker and Christopher Jan Carman. Representing Red and Blue: How the Culture Wars Change the Way Citizens Speak and Politicians Listen. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.) 4 Shanto Iyengar et al. “The Home as a Political Fortress: Family Agreement in an Era of Polarization.” 5 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.) 6 Mason, Uncivil Agreement.

fig. 35: (opposite) The social side of the map, expanded.



The Social Side This last point ties over to the social side. This side was much easier to organize, and I believe it is a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive characterization of social polarization. The four big categories represent the four primary forces acting on society that result in social cleavages. Within each of those are intentionally chosen sub-forces. There are a few items to specifically point out here. First the geography category is, I believe, one of the most important. Part of why it is difficult to meet people against whom we are polarized is because of this geographic separation. This is also a barrier I aim to overcome through my thesis work on bringing unlike people to the same metaphorical table. The identity category contains most of the usual suspects when it comes to how we describe our identities, however I made intentional choices here. I included “family,” “personal history,” and “intellectual/moral” identities, since they play an important role in the ways we are socially and politically polarized, and contribute strongly to intersectionality. I also separated “race” and “ethnicity”, though these two terms are often grouped. This is because in the U.S., currently, race plays a significant role in social and political polarization, as well as everyday lived experience, while the role of ethnicity is

comparatively minimal. To the right of the list of identities are two multi-syllabic terms: intersectional and subcultural. Intersectionality describes how the interplay of our separate identities becomes its own identity for each of us as individuals. Subcultural identities take this idea to the community level. Subcultures explain how individuals in geographically distinct communities with the same subcultural identities (for example, liberal Jewish people in metropolitan areas) can have incredibly similar and specific lived experiences. These two concepts may also be important in weakening polarization. Lilliana Mason cites the decrease in cross-cutting cleavages (essentially, the ties between our unique, intersectional and subcultural identities) as a cause of increasing social polarization,1 so redrawing those ties may be a cure. The fourth category, interaction, contains the four levels of the relationship framework I identified in my synthesis. Interaction is on this map of social polarization because it describes how we go about our daily lives; our rhythms, behaviors, and rituals can also keep us socially separated. The other three categories do not describe this, though they may in some ways predict it. 1 Mason, Uncivil Agreement. p. 15



The Media Vortex Finally, I mapped some of the most problematic and salient issues on the media storm. In this book, I will explain the four most significant elements of this part of the map. First, Identity-Protective Cognition1 explains why we shouldn’t read media from sources with which we disagree. This psychological response results from use of critical thinking to protect ourselves from information that counters our normal modes of thinking; when confronted with an idea that challenges something about our identity or morals, our logic brains can explain it away, even if we are wrong. Next, the three phrases in the grey arrow are incredibly important. They are in a grey arrow because they enter the media whirlwind directly from the political side of the map, unlike the items in the white boxes. Four years is not a long time for an election cycle, and 1 Dan M. Kahan, “Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition,” Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper Series no. 164 (2017), or http://dx.doi. org/10.2139/ssrn.2973067

some of my interviewees even noted that the presidential election news cycle is more like every two years. That means that there is always something polarizing to cover, and representation is always in question. It also means that polarizing issues are always important news, for both parties. That’s where wedge issues come in. Wedge issues are designed issues—designed because key constituent groups of one party are for the issue on a deep, identity level, while key groups of the opposing party are against it on the same deep, identity level. By design, these issues polarize us and our elected officials.2 The third input in the grey arrow is individual spectacle. This is every time Trump tweets, every scandal, every chaotic moment, everything that keeps us on our toes and enraged and engaged in the maddening tabloid soap opera that is our government. Individual spectacle keeps us hooked on national news, neglecting the important activities happening at the local level. There is so much of it going on right now, and we need to be more conscious consumers. 2 McKay Coppins, “The Man Who Broke Politics,” The Atlantic, October 17, 2018,

fig. 36: The forces of media on polarization, expanded.



Social Media Interventions “Democrats and Republicans use social media in different ways.” ­— Lynn Englum

“Online, you have this sense of distance.” ­— Leslie Loftis

“Troll accounts infiltrate social media and influence public opinion.” ­— Kiro Morkos

“Social media does more harm than good… to be effective, you have to get a reaction.” ­— Chris Renner

“Burn Twitter. Delete the whole thing. Get rid of social media in general.” ­— Josh Treviño

As my interviewee Chris Renner points out above, social media rewards content that gets reactions; it does not matter if those reactions are positive or negative and it de-incentivizes posts that actually seek to engage or persuade. Most of my interviewees had concerns about the effects of social media toxicity on polarization. In the fall, I conceptualized two design interventions to address these problems.




Unpost Description

Unpost is a drafting app for social media—imagine Grammarly meets Buffer meets Snopes. How It Works Let’s pretend that Representative Steve King had typed this tweet about the October 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh into the app before he posted it. Unpost would have called out inflammatory language and conspiracy theory, which it would have recognized through natural language processing and data gathered from user-reported content on various online platforms. King would have then been invited to revise his post with assistance from the app, in order to make it more engaging, respectful, and productive. Because it is perhaps unrealistic that users (particularly those who need it) will type into the app before posting, Unpost also exists as a plug-in for Facebook, Twitter, and browsers like Chrome. For users who have been repeatedly flagged for content online, this could become a default feature.

fig. 37: (bottom row from left to right) Use case with a real tweet from former U.S. Representative Steve King (R-Iowa). fig. 38: Unpost as a plug-in for Facebook, Twitter, and Google Chrome.






JoelBot Description

JoelBot is a speculative chatbot AI that would be operated by law enforcement agencies for domestic, online counterterrorism. JoelBot infiltrates online chatrooms that serve as incubators for extremism, and destabilizes them to prevent their escalation. As Americans polarize, ideological extremism is of increasing concern, exacerbated by the same forces on YouTube and Facebook that keep us engaged with the sites. JoelBot was my design output from a two-week mini sprint diving into this issue as it relates to polarization. Background Of all domestic extremist groups, right-wing extremists are responsible for the most deaths in the US since 9/11. Despite this, they are treated with a horrifyingly light touch. According to P.W. Singer, a national security strategist, “we willingly turned the other way on white supremacy because there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy.”1 This has led to a dramatic loss of control over rightwing extremism, to the detriment of local law enforcement officers. While the Department of Homeland Security has developed an expertise in radical Islamic extremism, local law enforcement is requesting help controlling the violence and disorder instigated by

1 Janet Reitman, “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It,” New York Times, November 3, 2018,



Neo-Nazis in their communities.2 They are continually met with silence. This project targets the subset of those people who engage in online safe spaces for right-wing extremism, such as 4chan, Discord, or Gab. A chatbot presents an attractive solution to the shortages of the national domestic counterterrorism division; one person can monitor tens of chatbots. Precedence for this exists in monitoring sex trafficking,3 gathering feedback on interactions with law enforcement,4 and online elsewhere where anonymity and volume of engagements overwhelm enforcement. JoelBot applies this burgeoning chatbot technology to countering online extremism. 2 Ibid. 3 Dave Lee, “The chatbot taking on Seattle’s sex trade,” BBC News, November 25, 2017, 4 Sam Sabin, “How One Entrepreneur is Using a Facebook Chatbot to Keep the Police Accountable,” DC Inno, August 7, 2017, https://www.

“[W]e willingly turned the other way on white supremacy because there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy.”1

fig. 39: The 2018 Pittsburgh synogogue shooting by neo-Nazi sympathizer Robert Bowers began with a post on an online chatroom popular with white supremacists.



How It Works JoelBot takes a three-pronged approach to destabilizing online extremism: 1. JoelBot can de-escalate conversations by asking open-ended questions, such as “what makes you say that?” 2. JoelBot can use more extreme language in order to make others uncomfortable or test the audience. 3. JoelBot can change its mind and invite others to change theirs, destabilizing or de-escalating conversations. These approaches come from my interviews with facilitators as well as my own facilitation training and practice.

fig. 40: (left) JoelBot’s opening messages. fig. 41: (below) I attached JoelBot to a page called “Morality in the USA” to make it sound political and vaguely conservative, as well as innocuous, yet engaging.



Opportunity Space The risks with this proposal are not subtle, and developing JoelBot will require no small amount of work; however, precedence for this work points to its feasibility. An initial partner could be the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, one of the most frequently cited organizations working in this space, which trains local law enforcement officers on domestic counterterrorism. Prototype I made a low-fidelity prototype of the bot using the Chatfuel API and tested it through Facebook Messenger using pre-scripted inputs. In order to better com-

municate the concept to a wider audience, I created a video. This effectively converted my prototype from low- to higher-fidelity. Testing and Learning I chose to not make the bot itself publicly available nor use extremist language in the bot since I was sharing it with my broad Facebook network as my initial test group. The three comments I received on the video were helpful and surprisingly positive; the commenters seemed intrigued by and open to the idea of having political conversations with JoelBot and did not bring up safety concerns. The encouragement is enough to possibly pursue another iteration of and/or design another test for JoelBot.

fig. 42: (clockwise, from above) Diagram of the user flow. fig. 43: The Chatfuel API dashboard for JoelBot. fig. 44: Some of the comments on the video.



Strategy Overview Towards the end of the fall semester, I began constructing strategies for my design solutions to counter social and political polarization in America. As I developed them, I workshopped each statement with interviewees and other people with whom I crossed paths. These strategies arose as much from my work with team development as from my primary and secondary research about polarization. My thesis proposes that by seeking out and designing around opportunities aligned with each of the three strategies, America will reorient itself as a team, reversing social and political polarization. The strategies are intended to act together in order:




People who would not otherwise meet each other need to meet face-to-face.


They need to do something together.


They need to develop a shared vision for the future.



Strategy 1: Contact

People who would not otherwise meet each other need to meet face-to-face. This was the first strategy to emerge from my research. My interviewees kept highlighting that as a society, we are polarized in various ways. I frequently ran across the term “echo chamber” in my research, referring to the social bubbles we tend to live in that “echo” back to us our own views; no dissenting views are present in our social bubbles, or perhaps none that we deem worthy of our consideration. I used to think that we are politically polarized because we disagree. Now my understanding has shifted: we are socially and politically polarized because we do not meet. Lilliana Mason, author of Uncivil Agreement, describes our separation best with a quote that imprinted on my brain when I first read it: “Ironically, politics and religion may be increasingly acceptable topics at a dinner party today, because most of our dinner parties include mainly socially and politically similar people.”1


This thesis takes the stance that a lot more mixing needs to happen, across any and all identities, in order to form America into a team. Therefore, the first action in solving polarization is to un-separate people—bring them to the same table. Towards the end of Mason’s book, she points to the work of Gordon Allport, a researcher who developed Contact Theory. Contact Theory posits that prejudice is reduced over time when members of different groups simply have contact with each other. However, the contact must meet four conditions to be optimally effective: “It would occur (1) among groups of equal status who (2) have common goals, (3) no competition between them, and (4) the support of relevant authorities.”2

These topics were formerly viewed as taboo due to their divisiveness. Now that stigma no longer matters because anyone who might have been divided by those topics have already chosen to have separate dinner parties.

Think about the interactions of groups with different political beliefs: do any of the four conditions hold? Mason states that these interactions lack conditions two and three, but I believe that they often lack the first and fourth as well. Contact Theory also cautions that if a member of an outgroup is viewed as a special exception to the perceived norms of the outgroup, then the contact does nothing to reduce prejudice toward other outgroup members. That is to say, if you have one

1 Mason, Uncivil Agreement, p. 14

2 Ibid., p. 130


friend who is a Republican, but you think of them as “a nice and smart Republican,” then your contact with that person is unlikely to depolarize you. When I pitched this contact strategy to Randy Plemel, one of my interviewees who has worked on civic engagement projects at the iconic design consultancy IDEO, he reminded me that for some people, this problem exists because they cannot come to the same table—the barriers are too high. For example, intergroup dialogue projects exist yet not everyone who have wants to have civil cross-partisan conversations can attend them, whether because of geography, identity-based discomfort, or another reason. Randy urged me to find ways to bring the metaphorical table to the groups I intend to unite so that it is right in front of them. All they need to do is sit down.

“Civic gatherings mostly seem to draw the more privileged members of communities... You need to go to [the less privileged members]. They cannot come to you.” — Randy Plemel, IDEO



Strategy 2: Action

People who would not otherwise meet each other need to do something together. This strategy comes directly from my experiences working in group development as a facilitator at the Cornell Team & Leadership Center. Often, one of the goals of these programs was to facilitate bonding in the client group. After working many of these programs, I noticed a pattern: group members reported feeling a lot closer to other group members after completing fairly arbitrary challenges together than they did after deep get-to-know-you activities or other types of conversations. Reframing this pattern as an insight led me the realize that facilitating activities, particularly physical challenges, was the fastest and longest-lasting method for bonding a group. In the case of social and political polarization, we often come together for conversations, or other interactions guided by words and opinions. The Action Strategy calls out that these modes are not urgent, robust, or effective enough for both reversing polarization in America and motivating groups to act toward a shared vision for the future. This strategy solidified through my interviews with other facilitators and experts in group development. Many of these facilitators, when asked how they might design a program for a hypothetical, small-group client America, proposed guiding them through a number of physical challenges. Dan Tillemans, a senior facilitator at the Cornell Team & Leadership Center (CTLC) and outdoor guide, described a program that would completely separate the group from politics:



We have to create situations where this group has got to work together. I’m a mountaineering instructor; I would take them on a climb. It needs to be real enough that throwing temper tantrums and going back to your tent is not going to work. Once safety is created, then we can think about the skills that the team has at hand. Be real and on task. That way we form real relationships where everyone is recognized and heard. Do that for about a week. We have to create an environment where we can work together; nature is the place for that. It’s spiritual. — Dan Tillemans

Other interviewees spoke to the Action Strategy in acknowledging that, as facilitators, we need to create situations where everyone feels vulnerable, yet safe. Jeff Gambitta, another lead facilitator from CTLC, said, “What has to happen is people need to be on equal footing . . . Out of their element and into an element more conducive to feeling.” He also shared that, in addressing conflict, “You need a safe space to talk about it, by which I mean intimate and exclusive to the unknown. [Participants] need to all be out of their elements. You have nothing but to be open, like a sponge, like a child mentality.”

Several of the military veterans with whom I spoke told me that shared neutral or positive experiences, like drinking and doing chores as a unit, were as important for bonding as challenging experiences. This Action Strategy asserts that as a society, we must break out of our normal gravitation toward the comfort of conversation and instead seek opportunities to have experiences together. This thesis aims to design for opportunities for action, either creating new experiences or leveraging existing ones to create new interactions.

Challenging experiences can create this vulnerable space by getting people out of their normal modes of being, but even more comfortable activities have their importance. The need for “shared experiences” across polarized groups was a common theme in both my interviews and secondary research. Conservative writer Leslie Loftis spoke of this in the form of a loss of rituals in her community, saying, “In neighborhoods, people had a rhythm. Natural that interactions would fit together. Now even family habits don’t match up. For example, families used to have a grocery day. You knew you would go to the grocery store and see the same other families on that day.”



Strategy 3: Future

After meeting and having experiences together, people in America need to develop a shared vision for the future. This third strategy was the most personally challenging for me. This idea of “the future” first came up in my interview with Lynn Englum, the former policy manager for Rebuild by Design. Rebuild by Design is a cross-sectoral organization focused on building community resilience to environmental changes, which necessitates looking at problems through a future lens and communicating that future to stakeholders. Englum told me that it is sometimes difficult to project the future lens onto policy: “Politics is bad at the future. At best, we can pursue long-term impacts. . . . The frequency of our elections reduces everyone’s accountability. We’re not responsible beyond our time in office, and then it’s someone else’s problem.”

30 years out, 36% never think more than ten years out, and 27% never think more than five years out.1 The researchers estimate that extrapolating their survey results to include American society as a whole may yield even lower percentages. In their report, the IFTF identifies personal and societal consequences for not thinking about the future:

Several of my other interviewees shared concern about the shortness of election cycles. This tied into their concerns about the media and their feeling of constant bombardment with political issues, each one seemingly more urgent than the last. I realized that, particularly with politics, American society is so stuck with what is happening in the present that it is difficult for anyone to think beyond the issues at hand.

Of course, some of the consequences described above may cause or worsen inability to think about the future. The survey also only asks if people think about the future, not what they think about it. Pew Research Center, toward the end of March 2019 (in the midst of my thesis work), dared to ask this second question to Americans across the country.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) corroborates my realization with results from an online survey for Americans at the end of 2016, finding that 53% of respondents never think about their lives more than



People who don’t think about the future vote less often, save less for retirement, make poor health decisions, procrastinate more, have a harder time resisting temptation, are more likely to drop out of school or be arrested, care less about long-term challenges like climate change, [and] show less resilience in the face of tough obstacles . . .

Pew found that half the country predicts that children will have a worse standard of living in the next thirty 1 Jane McGonigal, “The American Future Gap,” Institute for the Future, 2017. TheAmericanFutureGap_Survey_SR-1948.pdf

years, and nearly three quarters predict that the wealth gap will increase. In an unusual point of agreement, 65% of Americans across both party identifications predict a worsening of polarization.2 So, American society rarely thinks about the future, and when they do, it doesn’t look great. With broad pessimism, it gets increasingly difficult to imagine positive futures. Without being able to imagine positive futures, it gets harder and harder to act toward them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew that some part of this thesis would need to not only promote future thinking, but also go a step further to foster collective future thinking. Teams and organizations are guided by common goals and visions of the future… could America align as a team behind a shared desired future for the country?

necessarily holding a common ideal.” However, when I pitched this strategy to Mallory Combemale, a manager with organizational development consultancy Deloitte Greenhouse and former intergroup dialogue facilitator, she told me that “inclusive” was not enough, insisting that, “For teams, a vision needs to be shared. If no one else agrees, it has no power.” Reflecting on my other interviews with team-building experts as well as my own experiences, I realized she was right. Even though developing a shared vision for the future across the nation is a daunting proposition, to uphold that central argument of my thesis—that forming America into a team can counter social and political polarization—I need to believe and act on the idea that a shared vision is possible.

When identifying the Future Strategy, the word “shared” felt daunting to me. I initially backed off of it and replaced it with the word “inclusive,” as in “America needs to develop an inclusive vision for the future, making space for the vision of every person without 2 “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 21, 2019) https://



My Thesis is Not These strategies represent the foundational elements of building America into a team. Refocusing efforts to reverse polarization around these three strategies will likely lead to the conversations and civic engagement efforts that dominate the landscape, while enabling those interventions to be more successful and impactful. Throughout my research process and the generation of this body of work, I have run into some common misconceptions about what my work aims to do. Before getting into the designed outputs of my thesis, I would like to address some of these misconceptions. In the subsequent sections of this book, you will see how I implemented these strategies through six different design outputs over the course of this year: two mobile applications, a service, a game, a workshop, and a public experience. These, the four tools in the Relationship First Aid Kit, and the two social media interventions represent the breadth of design work I created over the course of this thesis.



My thesis is not about: Getting people to like each other This would certainly be nice, but it is not a necessary building block for working together as a team. However, it would ideally be an outcome of working together as a successful team. Promoting civic engagement or fixing democracy Most of these efforts that I have seen do not address polarization, though many of them are important. They are too tangential to polarization at this time to be a focus of this thesis. Dialogue or empathy-building My thesis addresses the conditions that must be true in order for successful dialogue or empathy-building to take place, but does not necessarily promote these activities as solutions. At this time, my research is still inconclusive about the efficacy of dialogue or empathy-building initiatives in countering American social and political polarization. American citizens Anyone who is in this country interacts with government, politics, and society in some sort of way. Anyone who is here, and even people who are not here, are represented in government by someone, whether they intend to be or not, and regardless of whether their representative has their best interests in mind. With the amount of nuance in American citizenship and non-citizenship, it is impossible to meaningfully narrow the scope of impact of my thesis to those who hold legal citizenship status in this country. Throughout this thesis, any reference to American polarization or American society is not limited to those who would commonly refer to themselves or be referred to as “Americans,” but rather extends to all who comprise American society. Finding a middle ground A “middle ground” is something that exists in the present because it is only relative to the current poles of a current issue. My thesis substitutes that common phrase for “developing a shared vision for the future,” creating new possibilities beyond what currently exists. The shared vision might completely disrupt the most important issues and solutions of our present. Therefore, at this time, I do not believe that “finding common ground” on issues offers a robust solution to polarization.



fig. 45: Stylized map of the 2016 presidential election results by state. This election and map made many Democratic voters realize that they had never met the Republican voters who carried the red states (light grey in this image). Original vector map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



4 | CONTACT STRATEGY Contact Strategy








The Contact Strategy Description The first step toward countering social and political polarization in the United States is enabling individuals and groups who would not otherwise meet each other to come to the same table. Doing this may also require bringing the table to them. The Contact Strategy aims to make the whole country feel a little smaller by finding new opportunities for face-to-face interactions among people who are least likely to meet otherwise. Evidence As described in the previous section, Gordon Allport’s Contact Theory and studies surrounding it support the proposed outcomes of this strategy. Additionally, a pattern of concern surfaced in my interviews that not only are we polarized, but also that “[l]ife has segregated in unhealthy ways. We have no way to meet each other any more,” as my interviewee Josh Treviño pointed out. Grassroots organizer John Thackara maintained that “people will find ways to connect when they need to,” but suggested that to create that need, “[l]ocality and place are powerful places to start.” Many of my other interviewees expressed desire to begin fixing this societal separation by creating bridges within their own neighborhoods and communities.



As mentioned earlier, when I pitched this strategy to Randy Plemel, a portfolio director at IDEO, he cautioned me that “Civic gatherings mostly seem to draw the more, or most, privileged members of communities. You might need to go to them if they cannot come to you.” John Thackara added on to this by saying that we need to be conscious of how we invite people, and that “[p]eople often feel a lack of confidence or permission to come to events.”

Opportunity Spaces Precedents exist that can act as models for new opportunities. Military service is a solid example for all three of these strategies, and it begins with pushing people who may have been unlikely to otherwise meet into each other’s bubbles. Many colleges similarly accomplish this type of contact, but the military combines two key elements that make its depolarizing effects particularly powerful: service and nation. Ted Scoufis, an Army veteran with whom I spoke, shared that being around so many other service members—and with food and shelter taken care of—time spent in the military provided new opportunities for thinking about one’s relationship with patriotism and the United States. More than one of my interviewees brought up the idea of a national service as a promising solution to polarization. A national service would send Americans around the country to work together to solve local problems. Referencing Contact Theory from the previous section, a national service would scale and systematize

fig. 46: The diagram at right shows some of the current landscape of opportunities to meet people socially or politically different from us. “Engagement” essentially refers to the importance of relationship-building in the opportunity, while “contact” refers specifically to contact across socio-political differences.

all four of the conditions required for depolarizing contact: “It would occur (1) among groups of equal status who (2) have common goals, (3) no competition between them, and (4) the support of relevant authorities.”1 While my thesis does not go into the complexities of policy design that would have to support a national service program, the opportunity space provides a reference for the goals, constraints, and conditions of an ideal contact intervention.

1 Mason, Uncivil Agreement, p. 130




Stumble Description

Stumble matches users with others to whom they are most similar but least likely to meet. The app leverages a proprietary algorithm that determines users’ similarity based on traits other than demographics. Users match, set a common goal, and track progress toward that goal. This app came out of an app sprint exercise in the fall and was refined through additional user interviews in the spring. While the original concept was speculative and broadly targeted toward American society, use cases emerged after conversations with parents, young adults, and college resident advisors (RAs). Saie Ganoo, a former Cornell RA, told me that RAs are actively seeking “ways to push residents outside their comfort zones, beyond where they came from.” She also pointed out that “freshmen are more willing to listen because everything is so new, but they bring in their family biases. Older students may be more open, but they already have their friend circles.” When it



comes to meeting new people, freshmen are likely to have greater incentives. The app intentionally does not guide users toward conversation, but rather to in-person meetups at campus events. This serves the dual purpose of increasing community involvement and giving Stumble meetups an action that the two people can do together. In the original, larger-scale concept, users identified shared goals from their similarities and track cumulative progress toward those goals. For example, if Saniya and Kaleb — in the case on the opposite page — had both really enjoyed tutoring others in math, they could set a goal for a combined number of tutoring hours and work together to reach it. This is also intended to speak to the Action Strategy, the next guiding strategy of my thesis, enabling two individuals to accomplish goals together, even remotely.

USE CASE Saniya is an 18-year-old freshman at a large university in New York. It’s only been a couple of days since move-in, and the campus still feels big to her. At the first dorm meeting, her RA tells everyone to take out their phones and download an app called Stumble, a new platform that the school is trying out to help the freshmen mix and grow closer as a class. The RA says that everyone should try it once, but it will be available to them for the rest of the year. “So it’s like school-sponsored Bumble without the sex?” someone snickers. Everyone else laughs. Saniya also finds this funny, but in part because she had caught herself wishing earlier that day for a Bumble-without-the-sex app. The app is surprisingly pretty, unlike most school-sponsored interfaces. In the first 60 seconds, she plots herself on five two-axis charts, each with different labels on the axes. When she submits her answers, the app tells her it is matching her with someone who is the most similar to her, but who she is least likely to meet. “Interesting,” she thinks. “I didn’t even think about there being people who I just wouldn’t meet here.” After a moment, the app matches Saniya with Kaleb, who is a different major, from a different state, and lives in a different dorm on campus. However, based on their answers, Saniya can see that they match up on several of the prompts: a love of math while not considering themselves exceptionally great at it, living outside the U.S. and having parents from outside the U.S., and eating mostly meatless diets. The app gives them a list of campus activities in the upcoming week, so Saniya and Kaleb choose one—a gardening event—and meet the next day.



fig. 47: Examples of the prompts provided by Stumble and the matching screen. It was important to me that answers could be provided along a continuous spectrum, rather than as binary or discrete options.







Evolution of Stumble In its original conception, Stumble was a product without a user. It aligned with the first and second strategies of Teambuilding America but lacked a driving user need to make it real. After receiving this piece of feedback for the umpteenth time, I finally found the problem clearly expressed in a single Facebook post from a friend: With this post, I connected the dots between a number of events I sawover the course of my research: a cross-partisan dialogue group trying to continue conversations through Facebook and still just barely hanging on to civility; a 70-year-old interviewee who worked in and taught political media telling me that she had no idea what Republicans were thinking these days; my own inability to simply call up a Republican over the course of my thesis research, demonstrating my own liberal bubble which includes my own Democratic local and national representatives. There was a need to scale intergroup dialogue initiatives to reach more of the individuals who were already seeking cross-partisan contact, as well as increase the frequency of contact to eliminate the current bandage solution of filling in with social media.

had left the comment. Since then, he has expanded to facilitating conversations between other pairs of people who have had negative interactions through online commenting, beyond just his own detractors. His work shows the possibilities of not just conversation but contact: both parties on his episodes often articulated that they never expected the other person to read their words, much less speak over the phone with the other person. Being in direct contact changed how they communicated with each other before the conversation even began.

At this point, I was also listening to a podcast recommended by one of my subject-matter experts called Conversations With People Who Hate Me, a project by American entertainer and activist Dylan Marron. Conversations With People Who Hate Me began with Marron calling up people who left him unkind comments online and recording the conversation. During each conversation, Dylan and his commenter learned more about each other and openly discussed why the person

From all of this, I realized that people already have awareness of whose voices are missing from their lives. Some have more drive than others to fill these voids, people certainly exist who are already seeking solutions. Though most of these individuals are critical of social media’s role in contributing to polarization, they are still trying to use it as a platform to begin or maintain conversations across differences—because what other options exist?

fig. 48: (opposite) Two images from a hypothetical campaign for Stumble. The ads would be placed on physical objects in places where barriers to meeting new people are lower, such as bars or coffee shops.





Walter is a 27-year-old working in New York City. He loves the city—it’s where he was born and raised—but, like many people, the 2016 election really shook up his world view. He realized that he did not have a single Trump-supporter in his social circles. “I guess I’m part of the problem,” he remembers thinking. He started attending bipartisan meetups around NYC and found some more enjoyable than others. Walter wished he could speak to people outside of New York City as well, hoping to get some variation from liberal- and libertarian-leaning individuals who populated the events. In 2019, Walter learned about Union from an acquaintance he’d met at one of the bipartisan meetups and was immediately excited. After signing up, the app invited him to select up to three tags for the person with whom he wanted to speak. Walter thought for a moment, then tapped on the tag bubbles for, “Kentucky, Republican, young.” Next, the app asked him to select three of his own tags to show the other person. Walter chose, “New



York, Democrat, young.� Finally, he input his availability as sometime between 5pm and 10pm that day. Though the spontaneity of it felt a bit daunting, the app only allowed same-day conversations and Walter was eager to try it out. A moment later, Union matched Walter with a young Kentucky Republican named Suzannah and indicated it would initiate a Facetime call between them at 6pm that day. Sure enough, Walter received a call from Union at 6pm. Before connecting him with Suzannah, the app took Walter through three 10-second exercises to provide some skills for the conversation they were about to have. After the exercises, Suzannah appeared. Walter was oddly surprised to see that she looked like many of his female friends, just from her clothing style and makeup. Suzannah seemed surprised to see him too. Perhaps she was thinking the same thing. Union already had a prompt up on the screen for them, but there was nothing enforcing them to stay on topic. They began with the prompt, meandered into their own conversation, then flipped to the next prompt when they felt like it and kept going. Calls through the free version of the app were cut to 15 minutes, and the time flew quickly. Walter learned that Suzannah was a marketing agent for a home healthcare provider and, like him, had grown up near where she currently lived. They spoke about why they joined the app and edged into their political beliefs towards the end of their conversation. Walter told Suzannah that from the first couple of questions, he would not have guessed she was a Republican; Suzannah playfully countered that she would have said the same about him being a Democrat, minus the whole being from New York City thing. When they said goodbye at the end of 15 minutes, Walter felt happy and satisfied, though he was not totally sure why. He decided to do another call the next day to try to figure it out.



fig. 49: A sample user flow.





Description Individuals across a multitude of political identities have expressed desire to hold conversations that expose them to opposing viewpoints, but they do not know how or whom to engage. Union brings socially and politically separated people to the same table — or rather, it brings the table to them. Union also provides users with metrics that will allow them to set goals and track progress on their conversations, similar to the Headspace meditation app or the Nike Run Club fitness app. This caters to the desire for continued engagement demonstrated by many participants of intergroup dialogue initiatives, such as the growing Facebook groups for Make America Dinner Again that attempt to maintain engagement through prompts and posts. The interviewee who introduced me to Make America Dinner Again told me that a couple he knows try to attend one dinner per month with the organization.

The majority of respondents indicated a desire for the app to provide “loose questions and topics during the conversation” for some scaffolding. However, this question allowed for the selection of more than one response, so significant minorities also indicated that semi-rigid or very rigid conversational structures would help them have better conversations across differences. Lastly, I asked respondents the first question that they would ask someone with a different political viewpoint, if they could talk to that person right now. While two respondents chose questions that were not overtly political, the five other respondents chose overtly political questions. This indicates that app users would indeed be interested in using the app to have politically-focused conversations, as opposed to general conversations with someone who holds a politically different viewpoint.

Research + Learnings

Next steps

Before building out the core features of Union, I identified four user archetypes based on both my knowledge from interviews and my participation in intergroup dialogue initiatives. I then tested my assumptions about these archetypes with an anonymous survey through the online survey platform Typeform. I shared the survey on LinkedIn and received seven responses. The survey included a brief description of the concept but tested more foundational assumptions, rather than the interface. It did not ask for political identification.

Additional user research is needed to determine trigger moments—events that would compel someone to engage with the app. I am curious to learn if frustration— for example, after reading a news article—would be the primary catalyst, or open-mindedness. Users’ abilities to have a semi-facilitated conversation also remains to be seen. A friend reached out to me after learning about Union to suggest a Call An American Hotline, which could act as a lean prototype for the app experience.

The results confirmed my assumption that Union would primarily attract users who were interested in expanding their world views. However, it seemed to reject another core assumption: that most potential users do not already have people in their lives to whom they can go to seek viewpoints that oppose their own. Five out of seven responses indicated the presence of such a person in the respondent’s life; furthermore, three out of those five people said that the person was a close


friend with whom it was fairly easy to conversations around political differences.


It is also worth noting and testing that while Union leads to conversations, conversations are actually a means to an end. The goal here is contact. If participants just stared at each other for four minutes, Contact Theory indicates that the same goal might be achieved, but the social acceptability and incentives are lower. Finding additional actions and opportunities may require a whole other thesis.

Some level of willingness to talk to strangers Sense of identity Comfort with technology (own a smart phone) Feel isolated from unlike groups Curiosity (or unanswered questions) Located in the US

Geographic location w/in the US Personal identities (esp. political identities)

Strong sense of identity. High openess to strangers. Mostly politically-oriented. Likely try to push their worldviews in other ways (news/media-savvy). Likely live in urban areas, college-educated.

Moderate sense of identity. High openess to strangers (or desire to have high openess). Not particularly politically oriented. Likely younger.

Strong sense of identity. Internal conflict or confusion. Likely politically-oriented. Moderate openess to strangers. Strong social isolation. Likely left-leaning? Likely college-educated.

Internal conflict or confusion. Likely politically-oriented. Lowest openess to strangers. Highest social isolation. Highest vulnerability. Likely older. Moderate sense of identity.





Meet someone new/push their social comfort

Answer a question

Receive affirmation (worldview or sense of humanity)

How do other people see this? How can I see it from their perspective?

How do I talk to people I don’t know? How can I get good at talking to new people?

What is the other side thinking and why? How could someone possibly believe [that]?

Why are people so mean and angry? Can we find common ground?

Tough to have rational, level discussions of opposing beliefs Not enough options for people with whom to have these discussions

Shy about making new friends Unsure how to talk to strangers Uncomfortable meeting strangers in public

So confused about why another group does not agree with them So frustrated that they are socially isolated from that group

Angry rhetoric in media is upsetting Uncertain about own beliefs

Challenge their worldview

Hannah Rudin, 1.29.19



fig. 50: Sunrise on a canoe-camping trip I co-led in the Saranac Lakes in upstate New York. The Action Strategy comes directly from my seven years of experience working in outdoor education.



5 | ACTION STRATEGY Action Strategy


Unboxing America






The Action Strategy Description


The second step is to have unlike people do something together. In my team-building programs, I started noticing that the fastest, deepest way to bond groups was not by helping them get to know each other, but rather by providing experiences where they could accomplish things together. From my experience, it does not matter what these activities are, so long as everyone buys into being together for it. That means that for this strategy, we can give the same weighting to going to the grocery store together as writing policy together; small and even arbitrary activities are practice for more impactful ones.

When facilitating team-building experiences, my colleagues and I always make sure to start by having each person learn the name of every other person in the group. While we sometimes encourage a bit more sharing than this at the start, trust-building only happens when the group activities begin. Once group members gain each other’s trust, they’ll start talking more—no icebreakers needed. Deeper, more existential conversations might begin at the end of their facilitated program. My takeaway from these experiences developing teams and groups is that conversation tends to be the end achieved through action, rather than the converse.

Though it might seem like this strategy sets the bar pretty low, jumping it is still a challenge. Remember how unlikely we are to meet people who are different from ourselves? This is on top of the apparent busyness epidemic in the United States1 and the lack of local/community engagement reported by many of my interviewees.

In my interview with a Denver-based organizer of meetup group Bipartisan Bonds, he described the power of beginning with the popular icebreaker, the Marshmallow Challenge. This icebreaker involves small groups working together with odd materials (marshmallows, uncooked spaghetti, and a couple of others) to build the tallest possible tower in a short amount of time. It’s a fun and energizing way for everyone to see each other as teammates before discussing political differences. The organizer hopes to do more bipartisan meetups where activities like hiking or volunteering locally are the focus, not any sort of political discussion. Another political conversation organization, Make America Din-

1 G.E. Miller, “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World,” 20 Something Finance, last updated January 2, 2018,



If you belong to a community, act like it. And to do that, act.

ner Again, also begins most events with action before conversation. As the name implies, all of their dialogues are intended to take place over dinner, and they encourage participants to start the events by cooking the meal together. Events like these, for both the activity-based bipartisan meetup and Make America Dinner Again, are well-aligned with the Action Strategy. Opportunity Spaces For this strategy, the military and a future National Service are again solid examples of structures based on action that can serve to depolarize. Both require a variety of actions and weight each activity similarly. Sports, community service or other volunteering, social leisure activities (like salsa dancing), and religious organizations also provide context for interpersonal action.

at the local level affects about 90% of your life.” The Honorable Robert Henneke, Director of the Center for the American Future at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, expressed his frustration in our interview with incredible frankness: “We need to take responsibility for our families, neighbors, the poor, those that need help. . . . If your neighbor’s grass is too long, don’t call the Homeowner’s Association on them. Get out your lawnmower and cut it!” Essentially, if you belong to a family, community, or neighborhood, act like it. And to do that, act.

Localities, communities, and neighborhoods are particularly important places for finding these opportunity spaces. Across the political spectrum, my interviewees reported concern and/or frustration at the state of their community and neighborhood relations. Jamie Rogers, a former New York City Community Board Chair, told me that part of this alignment around the local is because at the local level “polarization exists, but it tends to yield a resolution . . . Community is not supposed to be political.” He also pointed out that, “What happens




Unboxing America USE CASE Natalia Freed sat across from her parents at their kitchen table. Her parents looked like they might be wishing they could be somewhere else, but 22-year-old Natalia grinned with excitement. She had been trying to have this conversation with her parents for months now: why she had decided to start calling herself a democratic-socialist. Her parents, both lifelong Democrats, had been surprisingly dismissive of her decision, attributing it to a youthful phase. That was why she had ordered the box that lay before them, with the words DEMOCRATIC-SOCIALISM printed prominently on the top. It came from Unboxing America, a service with the mission of helping families unpack politics together. Natalia heard about it on The Ezra Klein Show, one of her favorite podcasts. On their website, Unboxing America had dozens of issue boxes to choose from—even some that were new to Natalia, like CONTROLLING 5G—and promised to regularly add more options. Natalia opened the box and pulled out a set of activity books for herself and her parents, as well as a “manual” with a balanced set of facts about democratic-socialism for them to go through together. Unboxing America encourages families to write down and discuss any points where they want to dispute the manual, as well as reach out to the company



with suggested updates. The activity books start the trio off with word association exercises, and within 15 minutes the Freeds find themselves laughing and teasing each other. In 30 minutes, they are debating their positions again, but in a more earnest and respectful way than before. Her father and mother are surprised to figure out that they do not fully agree with each other either, differing on some nuances around social responsibility. The manual gave an estimate at the start that the whole box would take about 45 minutes to complete, but the Freeds stretch it to an hour, allowing their conversation to go deeper into the politics of the parents’ childhoods and Natalia’s concerns for the future. The last pages of the activity books prompt the Freeds to lay out how they will all agree to treat the topic when it comes up in their family in the future. This is the moment Natalia has been waiting for. “It makes a lot more sense to me now,” her mother begins. “I don’t think I would call myself one, but I know we see the future a little differently… and I’m okay with that, if you are.” “Thanks, Mom,” Natalia says, smiling. “I actually think it’s good that we have different views about this. Like, it keeps me sharp. I just wanted to make sure that you take me seriously, so we can have real conversations about this.” “That’s for sure,” her dad agrees. “You are serious about this. I have a lot to think about with this democratic-socialism stuff. And we have a lot more to talk about too, apparently,” he smiles to his wife. Natalia pulls up the Unboxing America website on her phone. “So which box should we get next? Gender Identity?”



Description Unboxing America is a service offering kits that helps families unpack political issues and navigate tensions due to political differences. The service sells kits for exploring a wide variety of current issues, with materials curated by incredible educators, designers, and political scientists. Families can purchase single kits for holidays or special gatherings or purchase a bundle of kits that act as a curated learning plan. Boxes are sent to families through the mail. Unboxing America kits guide families through interactive lessons and structured conversations around issues. The service seeks to eliminate family political tensions by both strengthening relationships and fostering awareness of varying political beliefs. The initial target audiences are families divided within liberal politics; boxes will address popular issues that Gen Z cares about and their parents don’t really understand, like Universal Basic Income, Gender Identities, and Democratic-Socialism. From there, the service can expand by addressing other ideological issues and divided demographics, as well as by responding to current events. Background Americans feel anxiety about gathering with family and friends for yearly events. This is evidenced by the holiday help articles with tips for navigating politics at the dinner table. It has been satirized on Saturday Night Live1 and addressed by the New York Times with an “Angry Uncle Bot” — a chatbot created by psychiatrist Dr. Karin Tamerius that helps you practice good (and bad) responses to family members who try to provoke political arguments.2 Families that are grappling with social and political 1 Beck Bennett et al., “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” Saturday Night Live, Season 41 Episode 6, aired November 21, 2015, (New York, NY: NBCUniversal, 2015), 2 Karin Tamerius, “How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over the Holidays,” Opinion, The New York Times, November 19, 2018,



polarization are microcosms of the national problem and have clear incentives to overcome their problems. Unboxing America fills a niche underserved by counseling and coaching, fitting into existing family gatherings and placing more ownership in the hands of families. Opportunity Space Currently, the primary competitors for Unboxing America are family therapy and cross-partisan meetup groups like Better Angels. However, family therapy is expensive, and families need to admit that their political tensions are causing problems in order to go. Cross-partisan meetup groups have limited availability of events and are not personal for the family.

fig. 51: The service sends physical boxes with interactive materials for unpacking current issues.

Background and Learnings In its original conception, Unboxing America was a subscription service called TimeOut that sent sportsthemed mediation kits to families struggling with political tensions. Time Out’s mission was to restore our faith in our daily-life teams, our families, in order that the team mentality would scale to the size of the nation. The sports analogies aimed to re-introduce and reinforce the idea that families should be each other’s teammates, as well as to bring a playful energy to the activities. Based on this concept, I had a list of assumptions, corresponding hypotheses, and questions, shown on the next page.

To test these, I had conversations with friends who previously shared that they experienced varying levels of stress at family gatherings due to political differences in their families. Revisiting these friends’ stories was eye-opening, and I am grateful to them for sharing. I keep them anonymous in the quotations below for their privacy. From these interviews, I gathered that the most acute interactions generally came between younger and older family members, and younger family members were not particularly invested in engaging the older family members. “My grandparents won’t change their minds, so there’s kind of no point in bringing it up,” said one of my interviewees. While another interviewee agreed that her older family members were unlikely to be persuaded to consider other political beliefs, she did feel that engaging with them was important, particularly when “[they say] something at a family gathering that the younger generation hears, it is important to call out injustice.” However, all interviewees expressed special respect and consideration for their parents, and much more openness to engaging around political issues. One shared, “my mother is the person I look up to. . . . [She is] so remarkably selfless. I’ve learned that her moral compass is pointed in a different direction than mine because she has a different worldview. But it comes from good intent, and good intent is positive.” Another asserted that “[p]arents are always willing to hear their children,” In his family, his mother is the instigator of political conversations with her parents, who hold more conservative views. This insight led me to shift the target audience of Unboxing America from broader families struggling with political tensions to parents and children navigating political differences. To simplify and better communicate the concept, I dropped the sports analogies. These interviewees advised that the most important thing is remembering that the people with different views are your family — they are good people with good intentions.




HYPOTHESIS 1 At least one member of each target family would be a champion for the product.

HYPOTHESIS 2 Families have or wish to establish rituals for family gatherings.

MOTIVATIONS At least one family member recognizes and wants to heal family tensions.

MOTIVATIONS Families want to enjoy their time together by creating positive memories.

ABILITIES The “champion� has power/influence in the family to get other family members on board.

ABILITIES Families can get together multiple times per year, or regularly over multiple years.

TRIGGERS Learning about the service from their children. Searching for resources on navigating political differences @ holidays. HYPOTHESIS 3 There are target moments when stressful tensions arise. These moments can be avoided, but family members would ultimately feel more comfortable if the moments were addressed and resulting behavior changed. MOTIVATIONS Avoiding triggers eventually causes as much stress as addressing triggers. ABILITIES Family members are able to have conversations about triggers if guidance is available. TRIGGERS When previously avoided triggers arise, reactions can be unexpected, which increases stress.



TRIGGERS Holidays or family events. Traditions. Nostalgia.

HYPOTHESIS 4 Other members of the family would be open to participating MOTIVATIONS Other family member trust the first family member and are opening to trying the product/other family members also want to avoid stress at family gatherings and want to work together to accomplish it ABILITIES Family members can be physically together for an extended period of time (2-4 hours). Family members can communicate with each other, and be open and authentic at least 50% of the time. TRIGGERS Holidays. Champion family member brings everyone onboard.

fig. 52: (top) Proposed sales plan and pricing. fig. 53: (left) A sample activity.

Evolution of the concept

make them better.

Families provide a wonderful context for practicing skills that can serve to depolarize elsewhere, if only we can make it bearable. However, finding activities for families to do together proved challenging. Families are unique, and my interviewees from politically divergent families seemed uncertain about introducing new activities. Additionally, everything I came up with seemed to have as much potential to make things worse as it did to

I had already been ideating around board games and—having received encouragement from Products of Design Chair Allan Chochinov to create an evil game—thought why not lean all the way in to making things worse and create a board game that would be guaranteed to make everything worse? With the goal of combining as many polarizing factors as possible, Escalation was born.




Escalation Description

Escalation is a family board game designed around a vision of the winner being the last person standing because everyone else got so angry that they left. I scaled that vision back a bit for that sake of making a product that people might actually purchase and play, but the basis is the same. The rules and actions are derived from a list of variables that make people frustrated, particularly in the context of politics. The Design Process To figure out what Escalation might look like, I began brainstorming with a couple of friends. We asked ourselves, “What escalates games? What makes things go bad?” We also made sure to extrapolate to politics, identifying forces that make politics particularly frustrating. Here is what we came up with: I had never made a game before. It was daunting. I conducted secondary research into game design, talked to other students who had made games, and tried to co-create as much as possible with peers. Ultimately, the design for the game came after I developed a few separate elements and experimented with putting them together. From there, it was a matter of prototyping and playtesting the game.



»» »» »» »»

Disrespect Name-calling Interrupting Unfairness/power imbalance »» Time constraints »» Differing facts or rules

»» »» »» »» »»

Physical fighting Intractability Unwarranted agression Unpredictability Violation of norms or established rules

fig. 54: The Escalation board, tiles, tokens, and gamecubes.

HOW TO PLAY Setup Each player chooses a color of tokens. Divide the number of squares on the board (64 squares) by the number of players and give each player the corresponding number of tokens of their color. Ex. for two players, each player gets 32 tokens. For four players, each player gets 16 tokens from their chosen color. For odd numbers, divide and round down. Depending on time, skill, and speed of play desired, you may decide to make the board smaller. We recommend trying 6x6 or 5x5 grids. Take the yellow tiles and place each one face down in its own square on the board. They should be shuffled and randomized. Play 1. The oldest player starts. On each turn, roll, bounce, or toss the game cube onto the board. One of four things will happen:

a) Landing outside the black border: Any roll that lands outside the black border can be grabbed by anyone. b) Landing on a yellow tile: The player who rolled picks up the tile and acts according to the instruction on the tile. Use the next page as the tile reference. Discard each tile after use. c) Landing on another player’s token: the player whose turn it is has the option of swapping that token for one of their own, if they have a token already on the board. d) Landing on their own token: no action is taken. 2. Play continues counterclockwise. However, if the die lands outside the border and is stolen by another player, play resumes counterclockwise from the player who stole it. If another player plays an Interrupt tile, play similarly resumes from the player who played the tile. 3. The game is won when any player gets four pieces in a row (in any straight line horizontally, vertically, or diagonally)




You have 10 seconds to knock as many other players’ pieces off the board as possible by rolling and landing on their tokens. You do not get to place any of yours on the board. If you land on your own token, you must remove it as well. If there are no other tokens on the board besides your own, save this tile and use it on a future turn.

Choose any other player and add a verb in front of their name (ex. Lying Hannah). Call them this new name for the remainder of the game (and after, if you want). Each time you draw a NAME CALLING tile, change the verb.

Choose the token of any other player on the board and remove it from the board. This token cannot be played again. Replace it with your own. If there are no other tokens on the board besides your own, save this tile and use it on a future turn.

On your next turn, you have five seconds to complete as much as you can. All other players count down from five. Your turn starts when you pick up the die and immediately moves to the next person when time is up.


Save this tile and use it whenever you want. When you throw the INTERRUPT, it stops the other player’s turn at any point and makes it your turn.

Sit out your next turn.

Another player (not the one who flipped the tile) gets to play a token in the tile‘s spot. Whoever reacts first gets it.

Rotate the game board 90 degrees.

Collectively, all players must change one rule.

Hooray! You get to go again!


fig. 55: Turns begin with rolling the black cube onto the board. fig. 56: Things can get heated!

Outcomes + Learnings Many people I with whom I spoke about Escalation really wanted it to have a positive purpose. They would ask: “But then it brings families together to talk about their anger, right?” In its current incarnation, it does not. It was designed as an evil game, and that is what it is. Play-testing it confirmed its ability to get people rather riled up and frustrated with each other. The Name-Calling tile, in particular, proved to be surprisingly infuriating. At the same time, it’s actually pretty fun to play. However, as a thought experiment, Escalation did enable me to explore these forces that push people to the edge and how we might use the edge to help players learn and grow. In team-building, we often devise activities that we know will frustrate and challenge groups. By getting groups to confront real issues through arbitrary activities, facilitators can help groups better prepare for the real situations in which these issues might arise. To make this happen successfully, the facilitator must be careful—pushing individuals too far can deeply damage a group. Escalation theoretically aims to get players angry enough that they leave the room, which likely means that players have surpassed feeling challenged and are instead feeling threatened—they are no longer in a place of development, and instead

are in a place of survival. For Escalation to work as a team-building tool, players would need to stop and debrief when they recognize that they are running into detrimental team dynamics. Without a basis for recognizing detrimental behaviors, or opportunities or tools for debriefing, the game could just escalate and escalate. Escalation highlights two key elements of team-building that can allow individuals within groups to navigate escalating situations, such as the stressful and often unproductive tensions that arise across political differences in families. The first element is recognizing one’s own challenge zone before feelings of being challenged turn into being threatened. In a close-knit team, members can recognize the challenge and panic zones in others as well as their own. The second element is the debrief. Once family members are feeling challenged, but not threatened, it is an optimal time to debrief the experience in order to grow from it. One of my interviewees observed that her family can momentarily forget politics when they come together to help out on her parents’ farm, but she lamented that the benefits are short-lived. “I think it needs a debrief,” she told me. “The tension is still there. We need a debrief to talk about how we all just came together [for farm work]. Not necessarily about politics.”



fig. 57: Postcards blowing in the wind from Reply Forward, my public-engagement event around refocusing public energy from political issues of the present to our ideal futures.



6 | FUTURE STRATEGY Future Strategy


Co-Creating the American Future


Reply Forward




The Future Strategy Description Once people in America have accomplished something together, it becomes much easier for them to talk about next steps for the country. Ideating around the future is the crucial third step for countering social and political polarization in the United States. The future, by definition, breaks us out of the present and everything that needs to be fixed and done and talked about today or yesterday or years ago. If I said, “Fifty years from now, I hope we have a Democratic president and high taxes on the wealthy,” it sounds a little silly, right? Imagining the future can release us from partisan and ideological thinking. Without allowing ourselves to imagine an ideal Future America, finding motivation to act toward that future America becomes a lot more difficult; defensively moving away from dystopian future Americas, which seems to be at the root of much ideological action, is not the same as moving toward an ideal one. This strategy is about aligning on a vision for the future



collectively, starting with fostering future-thinking on an individual basis. This aims to depolarize the conversation and ignite motivation to act towards the ideal future, as a team. Evidence In the book Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance unpacks the pessimism of rural American society, saying, “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society.”1 This statement is echoed in disadvantaged communities across the country, and increasingly in more privileged communities. The Future Project, a large New York City-based non-profit that works with disadvantaged high school students across the country, recognized this statement 1 J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, (New York: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016), p. 193

and the corresponding issue that schools were failing to ask students what their ideal futures looked like. In response, this organization sends coaches, called Dream Directors, out to schools to ask just that. By asking this question, Dream Directors remind students that there is a positive future; while it might be difficult to obtain, it’s out there. Dream Directors also work to expose their students to new opportunities, places, and ideas, to help them access a wider breadth of visions for the future. So far, The Future Project has reached 35,000 young people across the country, 97% of whom demonstrate growth in “critical mindsets correlated with longterm thriving, according to nationally validated scales.”2 For these young people, thinking about the future has had amazing effects; how can we bring this to the context of the United States at-large?

2 “Our Impact,” The Future Project, last modified 2018, accessed May 6, 2019,




Co-Creating the American Future Workshop




In November, I hosted two workshops called Co-Creating the American Future as part of the design research process for my thesis. The workshops began with a facilitated discussion about our frustrations with and hopes for America. This was followed by personal, paired, and group ideation around what our ideal futures look like for the country, as well as a conversation about the significance of having a shared vision. Finally, these visions were made real with each person creating their own future American flag and using it as an artifact to consider what the aligning values would need to be for our ideal Americas to exist.

For this co-creation session, my research questions were as much around “can people imagine the future?” as “how?” and “what kind of futures do they imagine?” Ahead of the workshop, I listed the following goals:


»» Gain understanding around challenges to thinking beyond the present state of the country. »» Gain understanding around the effects of developing a future vision on present perceptions. »» Gather a small sample of future visions of the country. »» Probe feelings on the possibility and necessity of developing a shared vision for the country. »» Test whether or not a shared vision is possible for a small group. »» Gather a small sample of aligning values and symbolism needed for ideal futures.

Participants While one of my goals was recruiting for political and social diversity, this proved challenging. Fortunately, for the first workshop I was able to partner with Make America Dinner Again (MADA), which allowed me to become a host and recruit individuals in the New York City area who were already interested in having these sorts of conversations. I also shared the event on a couple of different Meetup pages. Ultimately, the participants ended up being mostly liberal (thank you to our one brave libertarian), but certainly fell along a left-wing spectrum. During the actual event, however, I intentionally did not ask participants to self-identify their political beliefs. It only came up when one of the participants asked the group. Without knowing participants’ political ideologies ahead of time, they were surprised to find alignment on possible futures, but also more nuance— participants who discovered that they identified as ideologically congruent were a bit startled when they had to confront the places where they disagreed.



Planning To give the workshops the necessary vibe, I needed to prepare the right tools. I needed participants to not only feel open, fun, friendly, and a little silly, but also respected, a bit formal, and important. Fortunately, I have a lot of fun creating experiences like this; they are like puzzles where you have to think about the precise details of each piece needed to fill a hole. More about this can be found in my program planning resource, Beyond Trust, Teamwork, and Communication.


Arrival, tone-setting, introductions (20 minutes) Go-around: discuss hopes and frustrations for the present (20 minutes)

Ideal futures worksheet + paired discussion (30 minutes)

Creating flags + group discussion (40 minutes)

Debrief discussion (40 minutes)

For the first workshop, where I had specifically partnered with MADA, I needed to figure out how to host a dinner gathering. The location I had originally wanted fell through, my apartment was too tiny, and I was on an increasingly tight time and money budget... so I finally decided to host it in a classroom at my school.



fig. 58: (clockwise, from above) I timed things so that guests could help with dinner preparation as they trickled in. fig. 59: The table looked elegant, transforming the room from a small classroom to a fine family dinner. fig. 60: I also prepared two posters with prompts to engage guests before we got started. While guests were shy about writing on them, they did enjoy discussing the questions. fig. 61: The first guest, Hugh, helped with setting the table. fig. 62: Matching dinnerware and American flag napkins set the scene.



In both workshops, the collateral I created for each activity was critical for both getting the results I needed for my research and keeping the event fun and cohesive. In the second workshop, where I did not have the benefit of preparing the room beforehand, these artifacts really made the workshop.

fig. 63: (top row from left) Having participants read flag facts aloud helped the group transition into the flag activity and open their minds to the idea of creating their own flags. fig. 64: The table laid out with flag-making supplies. I intentionally curated the colors of cardstock and other supplies to encourage participants to think well beyond the current flag.



fig. 65: (bottom row from left) Poster prints of state, national, and international flags provided inspiration. Participants had space to sketch their ideas before making them. fig. 66: All of the assets working together. fig. 67: A participant holds a poster showing all 27 iterations of the American flag.



While I had been originally planning to provide cloth and felt for flag-making, my advisor Allan Chochinov persuaded me otherwise. He reminded me that I needed to make it easy for participants to make flags that would look good, and that I should be thinking in my event-planning about how I would want everything to look in the photos and videos. This was new for me, since I had previously done most of my experience design in outdoor settings with existing props, where I did not need to worry at all about documentation. This was a fun added challenge, and I took Allan’s advice. The flag poles were his suggestion. I made them from some prefabricated wooden awards plaques from Michael’s, wooden dowels, and wooden beads to top them off.

fig. 68: (left) The plaques and dowels coming together. fig. 69: (above) Metallic spray paint and wooden beads to finish.



Before participants created flags, they filled out a worksheet to scaffold their thinking. The worksheet asked them to first characterize present-day America, according to their own experience and interpretation, using the questions “Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?� to guide their thinking. Then, participants answered the same characterizing questions while imagining their ideal future Americas.

fig. 70: (left) Participants fill out the worksheets solo. fig. 71: (below) We then use them for partnered and group discussion.

The responses, some of which are shown on the next page, were fascinating. In particular, participants aligned around who and what they wanted America to be in the future: they advocated for people who involve themselves in the betterment of the country to be accepted as American people and saw a future America that would be economically sound, but without the pressure of being a global economic leader. 6 | FUTURE STRATEGY














The flags symbolized many different values. However, participants felt that none of the values were necessarily exclusive of the other values.

“I want the flag to stand for our individual liberties.”

“We’re fractured. The lines shouldn’t be so straight and clean.”



“We’re a billion points of light, but unified in a circle.”

“The land is the most important part of America.”

“Many different backgrounds, but that makes us America.”

“It’s 3D . . . We don’t know how many stars are on the other side.”

“It’s a character map, and it’s not perfect. Like us.”

“We may be far apart on the circle, but we have a common center.”



Learnings Not everyone was ready to get on board with developing a shared vision for the future. One participant remarked that still having a country despite everyone having different future visions was what made America, well, America. Another participant brought up concern about the possibility of needing to compromise his vision for the future to accommodate someone else’s, particularly if the other person had a differing vision for racial justice. Other participants did express more openness to compromise, but with opti-

mism derived from the fact that within the workshop, no compromise was necessary—no one’s vision for the future was exclusive of anyone else’s. However, despite trying to invite socially and politically diverse participants, my sample size was fairly small and homogenous. The success of the first two workshops convinced me that the workshop was worthwhile, but the questions within it needed to be asked many more times across the country and across more diverse populations to begin to aggregate a vision from it.

fig. 72: At the end of the workshop, using her flag to illustrate the values of her ideal future America.



Passing the Torch I am happy and grateful that I was able to get this workshop further outside New York City. When I shared a follow-up with the organization MADA—with whom I had partnered to get participants for the first workshop—the heads of the organization, Justine and Tria, were enthusiastic about the workshop. Through Facebook, they shared my webpage with their national network of hosts, and a Denver-based MADA organizer contacted me shortly thereafter. The organizer, Ben Gray, hosted the workshop on March 19th. He coordinated with me ahead of time and made no changes to my proposed schedule or assets, which I had reformatted to make them easily replicable and printable at home. Ben and I debriefed after the workshop, and it was really heartening to hear how the worksheets and flag-making enabled his ten participants to have discussions about the future. His workshop highlighted accessibility needs not raised in my first two workshops as well as new ways to sequence the questions. Similar to my fall workshops, his participants mostly fell along the left side of the ideological spectrum, but still surprised themselves at the amount of nuance separating their liberal positions. Their conversation mostly centered on issues tangential to immigration: the ethics of Amer-

fig. 73: The MADA Denver group holding the flags of their ideal future Americas.

ican companies who shift their businesses abroad, as well as changing the text on the Statue of Liberty and what that might mean for other historical monuments. Overall, Ben said that it was a “well-thought-out, well-planned, well-communicated” workshop that he would certainly consider doing again, although in a longer half-day format instead of a three-hour event. I am continuing to seek other opportunities for Co-Creating the American Future, in order to continue advancing these questions about the future across the country. Acknowledgements Thank you to the participants Jack, Alexia, Miguel, Erin, Joseph, Jon, Hugh, Bailey, Lacoy, and Nick, as well as to Make America Dinner Again and The Future Company for the support. Thank you to John Boran and Nick Smith for production and photography assistance.



Evolution For my spring experience design project, I knew that I wanted to engage the broader public in New York City in a public place and that I wanted to continue asking people to imagine their ideal futures. Though I considered asking other questions, the ideal futures question continually felt the most resonant and intriguing to my interviewees and peers. To differentiate it from the fall workshops, I wanted it to be actionable; communicating these future visions to elected officials seemed like a great way to bridge the worlds of my thesis, countering the polarization that exists in many ways between society and politicians. From all of this came Reply Forward.






Reply Forward Description Reply Forward was the public engagement component of my thesis, and the name of the larger movement I wanted to surround my one-day experience. The Reply Forward movement seeks to shift the political conversation in America toward the future and invite more voices to join. On March 23rd, I brought Reply Forward out to Washington Square Park in New York City—a historic location for political activism. By definition, a movement is “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.”1 I felt it was necessary to frame Reply Forward as a movement, rather than an event, because the questions I was asking needed to advance beyond the sidewalks of Washington Square Park. Doing this meant finding people who were not only willing to share their political beliefs but also willing to send their responses to those capable of developing and changing our nation. Early ideas My three main objectives for this experience were to (1) prototype a collaborative vision for the future, (2) engage underrepresented voices, and 3) communicate this vision with elected officials. The event itself went through several iterations. At first, I was inspired by quilts, with their historical precedence and cultural inclusivity, and conceptualized Patchwork, a public quilt-making event where each 1 “movement, 3”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 9, 2019)



square would represent the ideal future America of an individual or group. After making the squares, there would be a public event to sew them all together. Ultimately, it felt like there were too many moving parts for that experience, and so I sought ways to simplify. The next idea was for a public story-making experience, where prompts would encourage participants to add one sentence to a collective story of the public’s ideal future America. The stories would then be packaged and sent to the Mayor’s Office. Public story-making is a wonderful and cathartic activity, so I would certainly love to try an event like this another time. The primary reasons I opted not to do this version of Reply Forward were (1) it required more explanation for and coordination from participants, and (2) I wanted participants to be able to take the activity home to share it with more people. This meant that the activity would need to be almost as effective individually as communally. That was how, on the third iteration, I arrived at Reply Forward as a postcard-writing event. A year prior, Nicole Katz, CEO of Los Angeles printing company Paper Chase Press, spoke at Products of Design and shared that the most effective way to contact elected officials was by mailing hand-written correspondence—most elected officials claimed that they always read their mail. Postcard-writing presented itself was a simple-but-powerful way to engage the public through an easily shareable means of communication.




fig. 74: (previous top) Initial public quilting concept. fig. 75: (previous middle) Public story-making concept with postcards on strings. fig. 76: (previous bottom) Final concept mockup. fig. 77: (above) User journey map.



I developed a user journey map, aiming to attract participants with the physical structure, provide an exploratory experience that would feel both personal and communal, and leave participants feeling motivated, connected, and hopeful. The experience centered on having participants share their answers to one or more prompts by writing or drawing on postcards. The postcards would be gathered and sent to the New York City Mayor’s Office at the end of the experience. This was a way of saying to the Mayor, “Hey, we know you’re in government trying to work toward a better future America. Well, here is our ideal future America. We are asking this question and you should too.”

Reply Forward had three main objectives: Having people walk away with a sense that

(1) there is a future, (2) our individual and collective voices matter in it, and (3) that we can share it with each other.

In planning the experience, I stayed attuned to the transitions: moments between and surrounding the individual touchpoints of the experience. Planning for these moments by designing additional graphic, physical, or experiential elements was what allowed the experience to flow smoothly on the day of the event. These elements included things as simple as branded name tags for my nine volunteers, and as complex as using TV wall mounts to make the physical elements easy to assemble and disassemble.



Branding and Graphics The Reply Forward brand references both modern icons used in email communication and classic symbols of postal communication by marrying the red arrow with the postage stamp. The arrow, and the name of the movement, are derived from two standard email correspondence actions: replying and forwarding. Replying typically involves responding to a received message, while forwarding means passing the message along to others. Placing these two actions side-by-side reveals the goal of the movement as well as the direction. Combining the iconography of replying and forwarding yields the red reply arrow, flipped to face the same direction as the forwarding arrow. The typography also seeks to harmoniously match retro and modern, pairing the serif typeface Athelas with the contemporary sans-serif Avenir Next. Athelas carries the dignity of the movement as the header typeface, while Avenir Next makes it approachable and enjoyable as the body.

fig. 78: Logotype study and variations.



With these elements, I designed invitation covers for Instagram, Facebook, and Eventbrite to be reminiscent of postcards and other mail. I also designed stickers to brand the packaging of the small boxes of crayons I provided for writing on the postcards. The crayons were chosen to lower the barriers to creativity for participants, prevent people from writing essays, and to give away at the end of the activity. Putting a URL on the branded assets meant I needed to actually have a website. To my disbelief, the domain name was available, so I bought it and made a simple landing page, learning how to use Squarespace in the process. The website made the movement feel official. Despite that the postcards were a core element of the event, I struggled to find a place to get them printed and to choose a type of paper. Eventually, I went to Staples, decided not to get them printed in their printing department, and on my way out spotted some printer-friendly pre-made postcard sheets. Sixty sheets of paper yielded 240 postcards, and it only cost $36! That is about an eighth of what it would have cost to get them printed elsewhere. I chose a textured matte paper that would work well with the crayons.

fig. 79: (from the top) Branding on giveaway crayon boxes. fig. 80: The crayons gave the event a more playful, creative vibe, despite the political focus. fig. 81: Close up of the textured paper. fig. 82: Landing page at




My ideal future America looks like... The moment I first felt American was when / The moment I first feel American will be when... I am making America a better place by...



For the prompts, I chose three statements, assuming people would gravitate toward at least one of the three depending on individual preferences. The prompts were: These prompts were intended to depolarize and inspire optimism in participants. They were also designed to engage non-Americans or non-citizens as well as citizens. In promoting this last idea in class, I realized that I have strong feelings about it. People often think that my thesis, by definition, is about Americans. To me, it is not limited to people considered legally or socially to be Americans. Anyone who is in this country interacts with government and politics in some sort of way. Anyone who is here, and even people who are not here, are represented in government by someone, so everyone should consider having a voice in it. Everyone’s voice should be considered. There are plenty of Americans who cannot vote, so there are a lot of ways we need to be rethinking who gets to be civically active and how. Reply Forward aimed to promote the expansion of who is invited to communicate with elected officials.

Physical Elements The physical components of the experience were probably the most important designed elements. I drew inspiration from voting booths, wondering how I could make something that felt non-partisan, yet political; important, yet accessible; and again personal, yet communal. I also knew that I needed it to be transportable, easy to take apart and reassemble, with a writing surface and storage, and it needed to be highly visible while requiring minimal instructions. Also, about two weeks before the event, the parks service called and kindly reminded me that it needed to not fall over and kill anyone. Ah yes. Thank you. I did some sketching and came up with a large frame structure on about my third iteration. I imagined how it would look with postcards blowing in the wind on the clotheslines. The actual day of the event ended up being very windy, so this aspect of the vision became reality.

Before coming up with this final design, I made a quarter-scale model out of acrylic. This was immensely helpful in figuring out how this thing would need to come together, how to join things, and what hardware I would need. Making this also helped me understand how to incorporate the writing surface into the structure. I added an angled storage desk to the prototype and wrote some of my other adjustments right on the model. And then I made it. Putting everything together on my own was challenging, but it was a challenge I wanted. To get through it, I played a nonstop track of self-encouragement in my head, continuously telling myself that I could do this and, well, I had to do this. At the same time, the hours I spent building this on my own were mindful moments for me. Watching the elements come together over the week was uplifting and a wonderful reminder that I am now the kind of designer who can take on this project with confidence, when a year ago it may have seemed impossible.

fig. 83: (below) An illustrated mockup.

fig. 84: (above) Quarter-scale prototype made from laser-cut acrylic.



fig. 85: (below) Carrying lumber nearly twice my height. fig. 86: (below) Painting the vertical supports.(above)

fig. 87: Every piece needed to be smooth to touch. fig. 88: (above) Assembling the long desk/storage area. fig. 89: (opposite top) The complete structure, out in the park. fig. 90: (opposite bottom) Interacting with the structure.











Outcomes We had around 200 people engage with us in some sort of way over the course of the five hours we were outside, whether it was pausing to examine the postcards on the clotheslines, chatting with me or my volunteers, or stopping to write and add their own. At the end, the clotheslines were full and we had run out of postcards. This was amazing, since I had printed 240 to start. We were encouraging people to take postcards home to send on their own time, as well as leave one with us, so running out felt promising. After the event, I scanned all the postcards and counted around 177, reflecting an impact that surpassed my expectations but matched my hopes.

fig. 91: (previous) The event in full swing. When people were not writing postcards, they often stuck around to chat with my volunteers or read the other cards on display. fig. 92: The clotheslines were full towards the end of the day.



fig. 93: Postcards from the event.



There were some particularly nice moments, like speaking with a Florida school teacher who had taught a number of international and immigrant students over the years. She described how she worked to make her classes welcoming to her students who sometimes spoke very little English, teaching every student that each one of their classmates belongs. “In fact,” she said, “I’m on my way to meet two of my former students now.” Another man came by who had worked as a clown his entire life. He never filled out a postcard, but he stood and watched and spoke with one of my volunteers for nearly an hour. A woman laughed when she showed me her postcard, saying, “My kids hate it when I do this, but I quoted [the rapper] Nas. ‘Why shoot the breeze about it when you could be about it?’ That’s why I started volunteering in the park here. Trying to be about it.” Josh, a young man doing community service in the park, stopped and spoke with me for awhile. He harbored a lot of pessimism about the future, having faced a great amount of adversity in the first 19 years of his life. However, he recognized seeing kindness and had some positive visions for his own future. Josh also had some of the most specific and actionable ideas for ways government can systematically help disadvantaged groups, including better enabling citizens with criminal records to find employment. And, as I had hoped earlier, the installation attracted participants who were citizens, non-citizens, immigrants, visitors, right-wing, left-wing, young, and old.

fig. 94: (next three spreads, in order) “I am making America a better place by” fig. 95: “I first felt American when / I will first feel American when” fig. 96: “My ideal future America looks like”















Learnings My biggest learning is that a picture is worth 1000 words. That is to say, I think helping people get more granular with their responses will be much more impactful, and drawing instead of writing can force that to happen. Alternatively, I could have asked people to “tell me a story about when…” in order to elicit more descriptive responses. A number of participants wrote sentiments like “I am making America a better place by… being accepting and kind,” which are very nice, but not particularly impactful. Most people think they are being “accepting and kind,” but a more specific story about it can better serve to challenge people by making them think about when they are being accepting and kind, and to whom. As I mentioned before, I intended these questions to be depolarizing, but I need a more diverse sample and more interpersonal engagement to learn if they actually were. Some participants used the prompts to not only differentiate themselves and their beliefs (which is fine) but also to continue perpetuating the wedges that make politics polarizing. In other words, they tried to use the prompts to further disengage, rather than engage. There was one man who most embodied this. He came up and loudly proclaimed that his ideal future America would be, “not socialist!” as if daring anyone to challenge him. He went on to more or less lecture me and two other people at the event about how bad communism is (he seemed to believe that everyone thinks communism is cool these days) and how free speech is

punished on college campuses. He shut down attempts to make the lecture into a conversation until the two other people chose to walk away. I continued trying to engage with him, trying to gather an understanding of what his ideal future America might look like, if not communist or socialist. However, his responses kept turning into personal accusations, saying that I must think communism is so great and that I have never tried to give a dissenting opinion at school. When I responded that I don’t (to the former) and I have (to the latter), he dismissed it. Ultimately, I too left the lecture/conversation after he made a comment about my age and my “beautiful smooth skin.” While this interaction was disappointing, it was also kind of fascinating, and highlighted aspects of social psychology that I hope to delve into further in the future. Finally, this experience demonstrated that optimism makes us happy. I know this sounds simplistic, but seeing people walk up to a political installation with trepidation and leave with a smile… I don’t think that happens often enough. This experience also highlighted the importance of the first two strategies for my thesis. After bringing these questions out to Washington Square Park, I do not think we are ready to imagine a collective future. We still need to first meet each other and realize that we can accomplish things together.

fig. 97: The final step of pinning the postcard to the line, making one’s individual thought part of the community.



I have a million thank yous for this project: »» To Emilie Baltz for advising and encouraging »» To my nine volunteers, for serving as event staff and camera crew: John Boran, Stephanie Gamble, Bart Haney, Seona Joung, Shin Young Park, Catherine Stoddard, Yufei Wang, Sherry Wu, and Elvis Yang »» To Nick Smith, Carly Simmons, and the VFL staff for helping with the production »» To Yangying Ye for brilliantly realizing that we can have a relationship around a U-Haul truck »» To the SVA Alumni Society for believing in the impact of this project



fig. 98: In pursuing this thesis, I needed to also ask and answer this question for myself.



7 | MOVING FORWARD Imagining Dystopia


Imagining Protopia


My Vision




Moving Forward So, what does the future hold? In the spring, we were tasked with imagining two future scenarios based on our thesis topics—one protopian and one dystopian. Writing these helped me identify the specific elements of present-day polarization that are guiding us toward destruction, or joy.

dystopia (noun) — an imagined world or society where people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives1 utopia (noun) — a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions2 protopia (noun) — a state that is better today than yesterday3

To contextualize each of these worlds, I employed the speculative design STEEP model, which involves first imagining the Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political forces influencing the world at the time in which it exists. I also identified key events that would result in my imagined future. Both futures occur in the year 2080. I then wrote both of these worlds in the form of narrative excerpts, centering on characters. Both were difficult to write, but for different reasons: the dystopian future sounded a lot like the present, and I needed to push myself to write it further into the future. The protopian future was difficult because it was tough to imagine a future that really would be joyful for as many people as possible. However, writing these convinced me that, for better or for worse, both of these futures are possible, and there are concrete steps we can take in either direction. I hope we can rally around a protopia.

1 Merriam-Webster, s.v. “dystopia,” accessed May 7, 2019, https://www. 2 Merriam-Webster, s.v. “utopia,” accessed May 7, 2019, https://www. 3 Michael Shermer, “Utopia is a dangerous ideal: we should aim for ‘protopia,’” Aeon, March 7, 2018,



fig. 99: Dystopian future references. From left: Stormtroopers from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, handmaids from The Handmaid’s Tale, a burning book from Fahrenheit 451.

fig. 100: Protopian future references. From left: Wakanda from Black Panther, faces from National Geographics “Faces of the Future,” a worker in the 1930s’ Work Projects Administration looks at a paycheck.




Imagining Dystopia Context SOCIAL Social cleavages have increased to the point where your likelihood of meeting strangers is at an unprecedented low. Women have been stripped of most rights considered today to be human rights. TECHNOLOGICAL Screen addiction is rampant, automation has surpassed our ability to adapt to it, and lack of regulation had led to technology as a primary means of mass control. ECONOMIC Income disparity has increased to the point where the bottom 90% have been forced to choose: live in squalor or serve the authoritarian government. Many have chosen to become part of the authoritarian system in hopes of leading better lives for their families.



ENVIRONMENTAL The environmental crisis goes largely ignored. East coast populations have been forced inland, dangerously crowding some urban areas and leading to unregulated development in formerly natural areas. Natural disasters are growing in intensity and frequency but are dismissed by the government as “healthy population control”—especially since they primarily affect the forgotten poor. Most agricultural innovation has been focused on synthetic foods; many areas have become dependent on these as farms across the country struggle. POLITICAL Authoritarian, religiously motivated rule. America has come to be viewed by other nations as a terrifying example of a humanitarian crisis, but its military power, secrecy, and strategic trade alliances have prevented any other world powers from intervening.

Cara slipped out of her doorway and into the darkened streets of what had formerly been called Bethesda. She had grown up here, almost 21 years, and not given it a real name, besides “Former-Bethesda.� Bethesda was a funny word. She had been taught it by her grandparents, who had been there forty years ago when the Government took the street signs away, and the maps, and the digital way-finding platforms. It happened subtly, suddenly; most people thought it was done by vandals until they realized it had been organized by the government. No one was sure why. She walked briskly, head down, hood up. Her parents had taught her and her sister how to fight, knowing that they would need to protect themselves as women. Cara was good at it, too. It was the only reason she felt safe enough to venture out into the streets, unaccompanied by a man. Still, she noted out of the corner of her eye a man walking on the opposite side of the street, clearly engrossed in some virtual game on his headset. She did not want to become part of it. After about ten minutes, she reached a long awning on the side of a building. It was unclear why the authorities had allowed this awning to remain, despite their constant surveillance, but the Resistance had taken advantage of it for the time being. It helped that they had painted



the top to resemble the sidewalk below it, effectively disguising it to the casual aerial camera drone. Suddenly, she heard a soft, but rapidly approaching, mechanical hum. She diverted her path, rounding the corner onto a different block. The hairs raised on the back of her neck as she heard the drone come up behind her and slow, matching her pace. “Please, remove your hood,” commanded the vaguely female voice. Cara did as it instructed, and it flew over her to hover in front and scan her face. She allowed this; she had no record and it was too much struggle to remain out of the Government’s census. Better that they know who you are. “Cara Kinsin,” it stated, trying to be personal. “Where are you traveling?” “I am helping at the detention facility,” Cara stated. She was headed there later that day. Better not to lie. It was, however, a 30-minute walk from where she was. The drone calculated this as well. “You are 30 minutes away from there. This was not the fastest route from your residence. Please explain.”



“Exercise,” replied Cara cheerily. AIs typically knew what “exercise” meant but did not fully understand it. It remained an excellent excuse for Resistance fighters. The drone hesitated, calculating, but could not come up with another logical piece of dialogue. Awkwardly, it stated, “Goodbye,” and flew off on its rounds. Cara waited a moment until the drone was out of earshot, then returned to the awning. Passing by the first two entrances, she drew a key and quietly unlocked a narrow door. Inside, up a dark staircase, she pushed open another door into a bright, windowless room. The incandescent light bulbs were a blessing, offering warm relief from the white LEDs and glowing screens that illuminated the rest of her environment. Seated around a table were six of Cara’s Resistance allies. They had named themselves after the Resistance fighters from an old film called Star Wars, an eerily prescient story. The tension in the room was palpable—not because of any particular conflict within the group, but because coming together was always



tense. Gathering in person was not a common practice, and this small Resistance group had just begun to do so at the urging of higher-up organizers. They hesitantly, probingly, discussed the events they had witnessed that week in the neighborhood: the disappearance of more of the elderly (people who remembered the world before this government), the DHS’s slaughtering of eight participants attending a secret school, the increasing number of individuals turning toward the drug of technology to escape their destitution… After a point, Cara decided to put an idea out into the open: “We need to know who else should be on our side. We could make a tag to put near safe doorways and locations.” “We still don’t know enough yet. We’re not ready to recruit,” countered Argo, eyebrows drawn together on their androgynous face. There was a pause. Then Cara spoke, softly: “I think we need to vote.” The air chilled at this utterance. Voting was what had led them into this nightmare, when half the country had been brainwashed by propa-



ganda put out into the digital world by the Russian government. These deceived voters were in proud, incredulous denial about the extent of their entrenchment, and the complicit tech companies and government used this to their advantage… and, eventually, their downfall. The Russian government’s propaganda inspired these voters to usher in increasingly authoritarian regimes, until they had given up the freedom that the Russians had promised with each election. “Voting” was a word that no longer had a meaning. And yet, there was no word to replace it.




Imagining Protopia Context SOCIAL Population growth is stable. Communal living is increasingly trendy and successful. While prior generations were primarily concerned with independence and individuality, the next generation is identity-confident and concerned with belonging. TECHNOLOGICAL AI has replaced 50% of human jobs in the past fifty years. Digital is everywhere, and it’s super fast. This has led to non-digital objects being valued for their slowness, symbolizing elusive permanence. Biomaterials are still novel, but quickly becoming ubiquitous. ECONOMIC The gig economy of the 2010s has gotten more extreme: 80% of the workforce are independent workers. Rapid trans-national transit has made this increasingly possible. Collective goodwill, wage-leveling, and decreased reliance on capitalist economies have helped usher in another economic golden age of employment and prosperity. Everyone can afford communal living; independence costs more.



ENVIRONMENTAL Most people live in urban clusters. Rewilding projects are a primary focus of the national service and are occurring across the country, as well as within cities. Communal living has increased satisfaction with lived environments. POLITICAL Colloboration is the core value of local and national politics; AI, data analysis, new bureaucracies, and robust communication make this possible. Most politics is handled at the local level, if possible. A national service requirement has helped bring the country together in the past 12 years. Between this and a historical ruling that gerrymandering is unconstitutional have mostly resolved issues of representation.




ZDay | 150 million Americans stop working in protest of the ineffective policy-making and systemic corruption in the national government.


Gerrymandering | the Supreme Court rules that gerrymandering is unconstitutional and algorithms are developed to reshape districts by optimizing based on representation.


Record wildfires | Wildfires ravage western half of US, displacing almost 50 million people. Money pours into agricultural innovation and urban development.


Education innovation | Leads to dramatic improvements in schools across the country and shifted the focus of education from information to collaboration and problem-solving.


Birth of the national service | The national service begins as a federally-sponsored opt-in program.


National service mandated | The national service becomes a federally-mandated program, with unprecedented public support.


Extended terms | Constitution is amended to make presidential terms eight years by default.




IMAGINING ZDAY ZDay, 2028. 150 million Americans stopped working in protest of the ineffective policy-making and systemic corruption in the national government. Led by GenZ organizers, ZDay was instigated by the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination of a moderate candidate despite the overwhelming popularity of the progressive candidate for the 2028 presidential race. Despite its name, ZDay lasted for nearly six months, with many of the protesters migrating across the country to volunteer in some of the neediest places, particularly at the US/ Mexico border. Others coalesced to purchase farms in rural areas and buildings in urban areas, and established communes. The stock market took a dive, but local economies strengthened, and Pew reported an increase in happiness and well-being. With ZDay coverage taking over national news during the election year, the two major parties lost a lot of media support. The national sentiment began to portray the two major parties as outdated and out-of-touch with the public. In November of 2028, the progressive candidate was written in to ballots across the country to narrowly win both the popular vote and the electoral college vote. A record number of progressives were voted into office along with her. This ushers in an imperfect, but hopeful eight years. Lasting effects: major parties are viewed as outdated and out-of-touch; communal living grows in popularity; the humanitarian crisis at the US/ Mexico border and in several South American countries become the foreign policy focus.



The year is 2080 in the United States of America. It is a year that many experts have been referring to as another “Golden Year for Democracy.” They are referring to the incredible positive energy that has been swelling in the country as the November election approaches. A sense of trust and pride has carried the vast nation through the summer; other nations across the globe note this with a mixture of astonishment and mild amusement. As one expert put it, “There are more voters than ever before, and the country is filled with unprecedented optimism. The candidates truly exemplify the warmth, friendliness, and humility that we trust they will carry into office.” Granted, Kamal Ashinto-Tony already knew where his vote was going in November. The presidential election was all but decided, with almost all policy concerns sorted on the collaborative web and relayed to key decision-makers. Keishia Toraz was the favored candidate but had extended offers to the other candidates to join her staff if she is indeed elected. Most voters agreed that her on-screen appearance and public-speaking abilities would serve that country well, domestically and abroad. At age 26, this was Kamal’s second presidential election. The previous five United States presidents had served two terms, and the last president had amended it in the Constitution to make eight years the normal, with an optional revote after four years. It lengthened the election media cycle



and enabled candidates to act on a longer time scale. Public approval for the change was high; it worked well thus far. Kamal watched the global news—which showed a segment on candidate Toraz’s visit to a medical center in a Delaware community—as he sipped his tea and ate his breakfast. It was seven o’clock in the morning, already sunny on what promised to be a hot, dry summer day in Denver. His co-hab, Hapi, had already left to go play soccer with her team before work. She would be staying with her other partner tonight—just as well, since Kamal was off to another week-long work opportunity in Chicago that day. Since they were not raising children, Kamal and Hapi still pursued more fluid work opportunities like this one. Finishing his morning routine, Kamal grabbed his long, white linen sunrobe and left his and Hapi’s apartment in downtown Denver. On his way out of the 30-story co-op building, he bumped into Fraz and Sissel. “How are you?” they customarily greeted each other. Fraz and Kamal nodded at each other’s cambium pendants as well; their pendants were growing more similar each day, revealing that Fraz and Kamal had been in the same national service unit just two short years prior, and had followed each other to different work teams in Denver thereafter.



After catching up (which they did most mornings), Fraz and Sissel hopped onto transports taking them to their work teams in the city. Kamal headed for the hyperloops, strolling through the verdant walls of Denver’s skyscrapers.



My Vision I know I’m an optimist, but I truly believe in the possibility of countering social and political polarization in America. I believe that a brighter future is possible for everyone without adequate access to opportunities for upward mobility, for whom the American Dream will remain a dream unless something changes.

For each strategy and piece of the definition, there are opportunities for change at the levels of ourselves (intrapersonal relationships), interpersonal (direct relationships with others), communal (group relationships), and contextual (environment or event-based relationships).

In order to do this, the United States needs to reunite. It needs to see itself as a team—a group that works together toward a shared vision for the future.

And, in case you did not already realize it, this book is about you. It is also about me. The strategies lay out what we—everyone in this country, regardless of citizenship status—can do in order counter this defining problem of our political age.

This definition contains all of the answers, including the strategies I shared in this book: A team is a group, which will begin to form when we have unlike people meet each other. A team works together, which means taking collective action. And a team has a shared vision for the future, meaning that we need to develop this vision to start.



At the conclusion of this book, I hope you ask yourself the three questions I posed with Reply Forward: What are you doing to make this country a better place while you are here? What makes you feel like you belong here / what would make you feel that way? What does your ideal future America look like? And, I would like to propose that you respond to this first question by pursuing new opportunities to meet others who you would not otherwise meet. Find ways to do things together, even and especially things that may not seem that profound, like getting groceries. Finally, give yourself permission to visualize your ideal future for the country. Get granular and force yourself to think only about what is there, not what isn’t. Draw it, share it with others, and ask them to share theirs with you. If we dare to imagine it, we can get there. Together.



fig. 101: My ideal future America.



8 | ACKNOWLEDGE -MENTS Acknowledgements


Image Sources


Works Cited




Acknowledgements These past two years have given me more than I can even express in this book I never expected to write. There are so many people to thank for moments large and small that got me through and helped me grow into the person typing this now. Thank you, first and foremost, to Allan Chochinov for forgetting to critique my product design group during my senior year of college, thereby forcing me to attend his guest lecture where I learned that there was indeed a place for people like me to become the people we want to be — a place called Products of Design. Thank you for your kindness, guidance, vision, and vulnerability throughout these two years. Thank you to my PoD family. The feeling is too complex for me to express in words, so I will just list your names: Eugenia Ramos Alonso, Ben Bartlett, Rhea Bhandari, John Boran Jr., Zihan Chen, Evie Cheung, Kevin Cook, Gustav Ole Dyrhauge, Tzu Ching Lin, Micah Lynn, Sophie Carrillo Miranda, Phuong Anh Nguyen, André Orta, Ellen Rose, Carly Simmons, Antya Waegemann, Xuan Wang, Runshi Wei, and Yangying Ye. Thank you to Alisha Wessler, Marko Manriquez, Krithi Rao, and Kristina Lee for support well beyond your descriptions.



Thank you to John Heida, Maya Ragazzo, Oya Kosebay, Tak Cheung, Chester Dols, and Elizabeth Meiklejohn for your friendship and guidance as I learned how to make ideas real. Thank you to all of the PoD faculty and friends. Thank you to the PoD alumni. Thank you to Kristin Janecek for your editing partnership. Your support motivated me through this writing process and consistently amazed me. I get why people rave about their editors now. Of course, thank you to John for the referral. Thank you to the SVA Alumni Society for granting me a scholarship award to help fund this body of work, particularly Reply Forward. Thank you to Carly and Xuanny for daring to spend more time with me than we already did, face all of the trials of 4B together, and provide much-needed love and support over this past year. Thank you, Mom and Dad. And Alex. And the dogs. And the rest of the family. I am always grateful. Lastly, thank you to my partner in everything, Nick Smith, who loves books.



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“How TV and Service Projects Impact What Americans Believe About Inequality.” Political Research Digest from the Niskanen Center, 24 October, 2018. Hawkins, Steven, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon. “Hidden Tribes Report.” 2018, Hawkins, Steven, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon. “Hidden Tribes: Midterms Report.” 2018, Howard, Philip K. The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government. W. W. Norton, 2014. “Interpreting the 2018 Election.” Political Research Digest from the Niskanen Center, 20 November, 2018. “Is Your Team Too Big? Too Small? What’s the Right Number?” Knowledge@Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, 14 June 2006, Iyengar, Shanto, et al. “The Home as a Political Fortress: Family Agreement in an Era of Polarization.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 80, no. 4, 6 Sept. 2018, pp. 1326–1338., doi:10.1086/698929. Jones, Robert P., and Daniel Cox. “‘Merry Christmas’ vs. ‘Happy Holidays’: Republicans and Democrats are Polar Opposites.” PRRI. 2016. Kahan, Dan M. “Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition.” SSRN Electronic Journal, ser. 164, 24 May 2017. 164, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2973067. Kelly, Chris, and Sarah Schneider. A Thanksgiving Miracle, NBCUniversal, 21 Nov. 2015, Beck Bennett et al., “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” Saturday Night Live, Season 41 Episode 6, aired November 21, 2015, (New York, NY: NBCUniversal, 2015), Kettl, Donald F. Can Governments Earn Our Trust?. Polity Press, 2017. Lee, Dave. “The Chatbot Taking on Seattle’s Sex Trade.” BBC News, 25 Nov. 2017, technology-42120800. “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 21, 2019) Mason, Lilliana. Uncivil Agreement. University of Chicago Press, 2018. McGonigal, Jane. The American Future Gap. Institute for the Future, 2017, The American Future Gap, Miller, G.E. “The U.S. Is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World.” 20 Something Finance, 2 Jan. 2018, “movement, n.3.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, definition/movement. Accessed 9 May 2019. “Optimism about America.” The Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media, 07 May, 2018. https://www.stitcher. com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/54375918 “Our Impact.” The Future Project, 2018,



Phillips, Erin. “Palms Up - Mindful Living - Utne Reader.” Utne, Ogden Publications, Inc, Aug. 2011, www. “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., June 12, 2014, Reitman, Janet. “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.” New York Times, 3 Nov. 2018, FBI-charlottesville-white-nationalism-far-right.html. Sabin, Sam. “How One Entrepreneur Is Using a Facebook Chatbot to Keep the Police Accountable.”, 7 Aug. 2017, Shah, Punit, et al. “From Heart to Mind: Linking Interoception, Emotion, and Theory of Mind.” Cortex, vol. 93, Aug. 2017, pp. 220–223., doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.02.010. Shermer, Michael. “Utopia Is a Dangerous Ideal: We Should Aim for ‘Protopia.’” Aeon, Aeon Media Group, 7 Mar. 2018, Smith, Mitch, and Monica Davey. “Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly Move to Limit the Power of Incoming Democrats.” New York Times, 15 Dec. 2018, Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017. Tamerius, Karin. “How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over the Holidays.” New York Times, New York Times, 19 Nov. 2018, “The most important idea for understanding American politics in 2018.” The Ezra Klein Show form Vox Media, 23 July, 2018. “The surprising story of how American politics polarized.” The Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media, 30 July, 2018. “utopia.” Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 9 May 2019. https://www.merriam-webster. com/dictionary/utopia Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy. Harper, 2016. “Where Jonathan Haidt thinks the American mind went wrong.” The Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media, 26 November, 2018. “Who’s More Afraid of Democracy: the Center or the Right?” Political Research Digest from the Niskanen Center, 20 June, 2018. “Why online politics gets so extreme so fast.” The Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media. 06 August, 2018.



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