Is our nation in crisis? Civil discourse, the foundation of any functioning democracy, increasingly eludes us, and it feels as though people from opposing ideologies are less able to work together.

With each day that passes, we’re becoming more divided as a nation. Social media makes it all too easy for individuals to exist in echo chambers, consuming news and opinions that bend toward our own ideologies, and sharing and amplifying posts that dismiss and denigrate anyone who thinks differently than ourselves.

It need not be this way. We believe it’s possible to reverse this trend of division, and that change begins by equipping the next generation of citizens with the skills that are necessary to hold productive and civil discourse with others who think differently, or who hold different perspectives based on their lived experience.

Our collective hope for the future is the reason we each made the decision this year to partner with Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement and to introduce our students to a collection of school-based programs based on the belief that:

• Diversity of thought and experience is a source of wisdom that should be valued rather than feared.

• Young people have the desire to be civically engaged members of our communities.


• Young people can be trusted to lead conversations that bridge the divides on the most pressing issues of our day.

• Young people have the capacity to work creatively and collaboratively across differences.

While all Third Thought programs have the potential to bring students together to consider multiple perspectives, we’re particularly excited by the Can We? Project, an experiment in revitalizing democracy committed to working on-site in Can We? partner schools. Our goal is to create spaces where students and teachers can learn and practice a discrete set of skills that allow for respectful dialogue across political and other differences.

Founded by Waynflete in 2018 as a weekend retreat, The Can We? Project has developed Can We? in the Classroom, an annual cycle of activities that take place in partner schools across the state.

Trained facilitators from the project’s three partners – WaynfleteMaine Policy Institute and Narrative 4 – work with participants through a series of activities that ultimately grapple with political discourse but that begin by asking participants to reflect on their own identity and lived experiences; consider the perspectives, identities and experiences of others; ask questions for deeper understanding, and determine common ground on which they collaborate. Along the way, participants are asked to consider the foundational concepts of America: democracy, freedom, liberty and justice, and to consider what would need to change in order to ensure liberty and justice for all.

Both of our schools – along with Gorham High School and Waynflete – have students who recently participated in an introductory Can We? Project in-school retreat, and we’re pleased to share the feedback from participants has been positive. Across our schools, 96 percent of respondents felt they had a chance to share their personal ideas and thoughts with others, 100 percent felt others were willing to listen to their thoughts and ideas, and 91 percent reported they had a chance to practice the skills of “deep listening” or “listening to learn.” Nearly 100 percent of respondents stated they would be likely to continue with future Can We? Project activities, with many students stating that they “want more students to have this experience.”

As educators, we’re predisposed to believe in the intelligence, wisdom and leadership qualities of the young people with whom we work. Our students’ recent involvement with the Can We? Project bolsters our hope for a future where respectful disagreements lead to productive discourse that once again becomes the foundation of a well-functioning American democracy. We hope that more schools across the state will participate, and that in doing so, our students will provide an example for the rest of the country.

If you’re interested in learning more about how your students can participate in The Can We? Project or other Third Thought Initiatives, please contact John Holdridge at

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