Listening to America in Odessa, TX

The Huffington Post’s “Listen to America” Bus Tour made its way from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Western Texas for the 23rd stop on the 25-city bus tour across the United States to listen to the stories of Americans and hear about their hopes and dreams for the nation. The long drive was made enjoyable by a stop in Roswell, New Mexico, where we went to the infamous UFO museum which tells the story of a supposed UFO crash that happened in a field of a nearby town during the 1940’s. The story, as the museum tells it, is that the government claimed that the object which fell from the sky was not a UFO but actually a weather balloon. However, based on the testimonies of locals many years later, it is claimed that the government used this as an excuse to cover up the truth: that a vehicle from another planet crash-landed in a local Texas field. Whether the story is true or not, it was an interesting story and a must-see stop, especially if you are interested in the idea of life beyond Earth. The town of Roswell plays itself into the story, decorating and theming their homes and stores with aliens and UFO’s.

We continued our drive until we finally arrived in Odessa, Texas. The presence of the oil industry was immediate on the ride into the city. Oil pumps and other machinery lined the roads, moving in a perpetual motion as they extracted gas from under the Earth’s surface. As we would later learn the next day, the oil industry is the largest employer by far of residents from Odessa, and that people come to work in the fields from all over the world when times are prosperous. We ended the day with some delicious local barbeque food, and prepared for our activation the next morning.

The “Listen to America” event took place the following day at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. The bus and interview tents were set up outside of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, a nice building that housed a Presidential archive gallery as well as The Crisis Leadership & Learning Center, where students could be thrown into real-time crisis simulations and gain experience using critical thinking and problem solving skills to respond to national emergencies. As I walked through the halls of the presidential archive, analyzing the portraits of each U.S. President, I couldn’t help but think about how a sense of civility in political discourse has always been a fundamental and necessary part of our democracy. 

Outside, students, teachers, and community members came to have their voices heard regarding the events going on in their lives and their thoughts and concerns for the country. As I interacted with the community at the event, many of them were thrilled that the HuffPost had chosen Odessa as one of their stops, while some even expressed confusion at the idea of a large media company wanting to hear about their concerns.

“Most people only know about Odessa from ‘Friday Night Lights’,” one student said. “High school football is a big deal around here,” his friend proudly claimed. Everyone that I had the chance to interact with was kind, grateful to have their voices heard, and extremely proud to be from or to be living in Western Texas.

The highlight of the stop in Odessa was a student panel that took place in the afternoon after the activation period. A group of 5 students were prompted with questions and discussed with each other their thoughts on issues from a local to a national level. 2 of the students were international – a large proportion of the students at the school come from somewhere outside of the United States. One of the first questions asked the students to talk about their thoughts regarding political incivility. The students all agreed on the importance of having respectful conversations with the other side, given the fact that conversations tend to turn into arguments which then can turn into name calling or demonizing of those with different beliefs. “There is a division,” one student stated, “it’s labels of republican versus democrat… two teams [are] working against each other instead of one team working for the good of America.”

A student on the panel, who I had spoken with earlier that day, expressed the importance of recognizing when you are living in an echo chamber. He proposed to his peers that they should encourage their friends to get their news from at least 3 sources, and spend extra time on sources that have a different political lean or agenda than the viewer. Through this, he suggests, people can begin to understand the way that the other side of the aisle thinks, and can better connect with and talk to them about their issues and concerns.

The stop in Odessa was inspiring and gave me much hope for the young people in our country who want to bridge the gap between those with different beliefs. It was also powerful, in my opinion, that conversations with people from both sides of the aisle led to their recognition of political incivility, and their desire to make personal changes in order to better connect with those whom they disagree them. 

The National Institute for Civil Discourse, housed within The University of Arizona College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, and Huffington Post are partnering to do a bus tour of 25 cities to Listen to America. At the height of fake news, distrust in the media, political polarization, and demonization of those with different viewpoints, it’s time for the media to listen to America, and it’s time for Americans to listen to each other.

Twitter: @NICDInstitute, @HuffPost, #ListentoAmerica, #ReviveCivility