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On What to Say
After an Election

Academics' Forum

Allison S. Gabriel
University of Arizona


If you’re like me, the 2016 election couldn’t end fast enough—the media coverage was exhausting, social media was a battlefield, and the amount of tension was palpable in the air. I say this as a faculty member working at a university that is a blue dot in a red state. I knew that among my students—many of whom were voting in their first election—there were differences of opinions, and that sometimes the differences were very strong. I teach my two large sections of organizational behavior on Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, which meant that no matter the outcome, I would be teaching the day after the election, and I felt a responsibility to say something to my students. Often, I feel like there is this struggle we have to face as faculty when something is going on in the world—do we say something, or do we just proceed business as usual? I’ve never been much of the latter, and so it felt odd to consider not saying anything when I knew it was going to be the elephant in the room lecture hall. However, that Wednesday morning, I found myself at a loss of words for what exactly it was that I wanted to say. I began texting colleagues at my school and elsewhere, trying to get a sense for what people were going to say, or if they were going to say anything at all. It turns out that most people were in the same situation that I was, in that they wanted to speak, but the words were escaping them. It took me a couple hours that morning to figure out, but eventually I decided to just share my story in a way that I hoped wouldn’t alienate anyone in the room. I figured I’d share it here, word-for-word, in hopes that maybe the words speak to some other people out there.

I thought a lot about what I would say post election day. In fact, I had this conversation with several colleagues when the semester began back in August as the campaigns were reaching their peak, highlighting the fact that I would have class on a Wednesday the day after the election, and I would face this dilemma of whether to speak or whether to say silent. As I’ve said before, I would be remiss to not comment on major events happening in the world, and an election—for many of you, the first one you were able to vote in—certainly falls into that category.

As an educator, it’s not my job to impose my views and political beliefs on anyone in this room, because that’s not what civic discourse is about. Instead, I’d like to do what I’ve done before and offer a personal experience that may prove helpful. My first election happened during 2004 between George Bush and John Kerry. I was in my freshman year of college—my first semester—and found myself exposed to a litany of new ideas and information. I wouldn’t say I came from a sheltered upbringing, but I did come from a small town in Pennsylvania where my world comprised mostly people who looked like me, and sounded like me, and felt a lot of the same things that I did. I remember watching the election live—mind you, on a regular old TV that wasn’t a flat screen and probably had a VCR built in—with individuals from all over the US, and the world. Some voted for Kerry, some voted for Bush, and some just didn’t vote. But, what I remember the most was taking the time to listen to people who were on both sides, trying to understanding why people voted the way they did: Was it personal values, or the way their family voted, or was it something more? As someone who was 18 and relatively green, I found the whole experience a bit intellectually overwhelming and was committed to understand more of the issues so I could make informed judgments moving forward to guide my own vote.

Some of you today in this room are likely excited about the outcome, and some of you also likely have a lot of anxiety and fear. These are real emotions, and ones that shouldn’t be packed away somewhere, and the reality is that those emotions would be existing regardless of what the election result ended up being. What I’d like to challenge each of you with today is this: If you voted for Donald Trump, find someone who voted for Hillary Clinton. If you voted for Hillary Clinton, find someone who voted for Donald Trump. Explain why—articulate your thoughts, ideas, and reactions around the election to someone who clearly has opposition to some things that you hold near and dear, and do so in a manner that is compassionate. Often, we silo ourselves. If we’re Republican, we watch Fox News; if we’re Democrat, we watch MSNBC; and from time to time, we all watch CNN to see if they are using their holograms on live TV. But, by doing this, it becomes harder and harder to see what is happening on the other side. In case you haven’t gathered this, I am a firm believer in the value empathy and diversity—not just physical diversity but the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and values. So, if you’re frustrated, share that, and get to work to change things. If you’re optimistic, figure out why and work to make sure that optimistic view can help as many people as possible. As I said on Monday, and I’ll say again, in Eller, and in this room, we are a family. Today, we may be a family where there are differences in opinions—and some differences may be larger than others—but we should still be a family that figures out ways to lift each other up while still remaining respectful. Of course, if anyone wants to talk privately about the election, you know my door is always open. But now, today, I want us to focus—perhaps fittingly—on what we can do to make teams more effective and supportive in organizations.

After I spoke, we moved on business as usual and talked about team dynamics, and (all too conveniently) how to resolve interpersonal conflicts when they arise among team members. When the class was over, most students milled around and left the classroom, but a few stuck behind. OK—a few stuck behind because they wanted to talk about their second exam grade, but some wanted to talk about the election a bit more and my thoughts on how things were going to progress, which, of course, none of us know for sure. In this entire discussion, I never disclosed who I voted for, but found that the students coming forward were more than happy to share, and I was comforted to see the amount of compassion and empathy unfolding from people who voted for either candidate. Now, I don’t want to paint a totally idyllic picture. As a collective, we have a lot of soul-searching and regrouping to do, and I of course have concerns over what the future holds for myself and my family—both my personal family but also my academic family, too. But, here’s the thing—my grandmother (who is the most badass [can I say that in a TIP column?] woman I have ever known) was a true warrior. She grew up in Germany during World War II, escaped via a program called the Kindertransport, and lived the most magnificent, beautiful life until she passed away during my second year of graduate school in 2009. After everything she had been through, her motto was “never postpone joy.” So, as I gear up for the holiday season and what is sure to be an interesting 2017, I’m going to try to do just that, and if I can convince some students that’s a good message, too, then I’ll call this semester a success.