From the start, it was an audacious idea: Take a dozen or so liberals from Maine and a dozen or so conservatives from Mississippi, combine them all into an eight-week Zoom course on politics, core beliefs and everything in between, and see what happens.

“My ultimate goal is to challenge folks to think in new ways,” Mike Berkowitz told me in an email back in February. “It’s my modest attempt to work on the us-versus-them orientation that is crippling our citizens, our Congress, and our country.”

Berkowitz, a retired Maine public school teacher, is a longtime instructor at the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Commonly known as OLLI, it’s a place where older folks turn for later-in-life education, intellectual stimulation and, perhaps most important, social interaction with others who see retirement not as a time to slow down, but as an opportunity to keep growing.

But this course, even by Berkowitz’s exacting standards, had challenge written all over it. Titled “Conservatives and Liberals, Not Conservatives Vs. Liberals,” it aimed to take participants where too few of us dare go these days – to weekly, two-hour gatherings designed not to confront or convert those on the other side of the Great Political Divide, but simply to better understand them.

The last class was on Wednesday. The course worked. Sort of.

To counterbalance the Maine liberals, Berkowitz looked to the OLLI program at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg – he chose that location because he’d long noticed that if you Google “USM OLLI,” you were as likely to get the Mississippi website as the one here in Maine.

But almost immediately, Berkowitz ran onto a glitch: While he had so many liberal Maine applicants that he had to turn some away, enrolling 12 conservative Mississippians through the OLLI organization there wasn’t that easy.

Maybe it was because liberals are generally more attracted than conservatives to senior learning programs like OLLI. Or maybe, as Berkowitz put it in an interview last week, “some people heard me as saying, ‘I’m assuming everybody from Mississippi is conservative, if not a redneck.’ And so I think a few individuals were turned off by that.”

In the end, the perfect balance Berkowitz had envisioned proved unachievable. The Mississippi group, which started at 11 but in the end shrank to seven or eight, included only three or four people who identified as staunchly conservative. By the time the course got underway, the brave conservatives who did sign up found themselves in a distinct minority.

One of them was Saundra Lockwood, a native Mississippian and the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. She retired after 30 years as a civil servant with the U.S. Air Force, holds a bachelor’s degree in music education, a master’s in business administration and is still working toward her Ph.D. in psychology.

But Lockwood, outspokenly conservative and proud of it, may best be remembered by her classmates as the one who, during a discussion on unwanted pregnancies, declared that “the best form of birth control is for a woman to keep her knees together. It’s that simple. Just keep your legs closed!”

Lockwood said in an interview on Thursday that she felt some of the Mainers were simply “regurgitating what they heard on CNN.” But truth be told, she said, it was a fellow Mississippian – a “good ol’ boy conservative,” as she put it ­– who rankled her most.

“He came in with an agenda and he was determined that he was going to be the star of the show,” she recalled. Much to her relief, the man stopped showing up for the course after only a few sessions.

Overall, Lockwood said, “I think it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I didn’t feel intimated.”

Rob Petrillo of Westbrook retired in 2014 after teaching at Biddeford High School for more than 30 years. He skews left politically and saw the course as an opportunity to look beyond the stereotype of the Deep South conservative and get to know real-life people whose views might not align with his own.

“I think I came away basically unchanged in any of my deeply held beliefs or values about politics or social policies,” Petrillo said. “But I think I understand a little bit more clearly why someone might feel a certain way,” such as supporting Donald Trump, despite his personal shortcomings, because he placed three conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dave Gauthier, a Rhode Island native, spent 30 years working in Mississippi and Louisiana shipyards before his retirement a few years back. He’s conservative, a devout Roman Catholic and teaches OLLI courses himself in Hattiesburg – not on politics, but on such religious topics as the role of angels in Scripture and ancient biblical scholarship.

“In south Mississippi, those are popular courses, they’re well attended,” he said. “Can you do that at Maine OLLI? I don’t know.”

Looking back on the first political course he’s ever taken through OLLI, Gauthier said he often felt, as a member of the conservative minority, that “if I didn’t say something, nobody would.”

So he spoke up. In fact, in one class, Berkowitz allowed Gauthier to explain in detail – again focusing on Trump’s Supreme Court appointments – how his strongly held views on religious freedom shaped his support for the former president.

Did he win over any Trump opponents? No.

But did everyone listen respectfully to what he had to say? Yes, time after time. It was that opportunity to be heard – and to hear others – that Gauthier appreciated most about the course.

“Somewhere along the line (in this country), we’ve lost the ability to have conversations,” he noted.

Kathleen Carroll of Westbrook, a retired school social worker who identifies as a liberal, felt empathy for the conservatives in the class “because there were fewer of them.”

But Berkowitz’s calm, measured approach – questions carefully constructed to avoid conflict rather than stoke it, for example – fostered an atmosphere of civility across the demographic spectrum, Carroll said.

“It was a good contrast to when you see liberals and conservatives talking in public, like on TV,” she said. “You often just see name calling and just sticking really hard to your opinion.”

What Carroll learned from this course, by contrast, was that when you tread more carefully, when you’re polite to someone with different views, something good happens.

“You hear more that way,” she said.

It’s a theme that ran through all my interview with participants: The more we listen before speaking, the more we get to know another person beyond their political label, the more likely we all are to find common ground.

And to a man and woman, the classmates credit Berkowitz for keeping the temperature under control as they tackled such hot-button topics as political partisanship, human needs, abortion, the media’s impact on politics and society, and navigating our regional differences.

Berkowitz is now setting his sights on a new-and-improved version of the course, this time drawing from OLLI programs at Louisiana State University and Auburn University in Alabama. He plans to recalibrate the classes to allow more time not just for people to express their views, but also to delve into why they hold them, what factors in their lives most influenced how they now see the world around them.

Berkowitz also will be less naïve than he was heading into this course. Finding a dozen rock-ribbed conservatives in Mississippi and a dozen deep-blue liberals in Maine may sound easy, but the reality is that we’re all more complex than that.

Meaning the war between the stereotypes – with one side all blue and the other all red – might be somewhat of a mirage?

“It is a mirage,” Berkowitz replied. “But that won’t stop me.”

Nor should it. In a country seemingly paralyzed by political warfare, long live the peacemakers.


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