Graham Center 
Student Voice

By Hali McKinley Lester 

The venomous rhetoric that has dominated the American political landscape over the last year troubles me. I often feel overwhelmed with concern for our country's future. How can we overcome our crippling divides?

This year’s National Campaign Conference, hosted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, focused on reconnecting America and identifying the root causes of national divisiveness. When I learned of the opportunity to attend the conference through the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, I was all in, anxious to learn strategies to bridge the partisan divide.

At the conference, we heard from political leaders who reminded us that the challenge of moving our country forward falls squarely on our shoulders. While leaders of past generations can offer advice and knowledge, it is our job to stand up for what we believe in and take action. This is our future, and we will decide how to shape it.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke of the many lessons of the past and highlighted stories of inspiration to remember as we look toward a brighter future. Congressman Joe Kennedy encouraged us to find ways to create bipartisan cooperation and work with those across the aisle — reiterating the importance of shared purpose. We often have similar goals, even when we have different ideas about how to achieve them.

We categorized current issues in the U.S. into three topic areas: citizenship/civic engagement, media and social media, and inequality. Our group tackled the issue of inequality, focusing primarily on education, both informal and formal, as a means of reducing structural inequities.

We proposed a re-envisioned curriculum for middle school students that places emphasis on respect, tolerance and diversity, and includes a U.S. history component that is fact-based and addresses the historical foundations of inequality. We also discussed the need to expose students to diverse ideas and perspectives through recommended readings and films that feature and/or are authored by the many diverse cultures, races and ethnicities that comprise our country.

I appreciated the conference's commitment to creating community-based action plans to address the issues identified. It is easy to identify problems, but to dissect them and propose solutions creates real meaning and motivation. It was refreshing to walk away with concrete ideas for action.

The conference certainly challenged the notion of "apathetic millennials." I met other young leaders from across the country who renewed my faith in the potential for progress and prosperity. With this group of committed young people, I am confident we can and will begin reconnecting America.

Attending this conference furthered my appreciation for institutions like the Bob Graham Center, where the value of collaboration and public service are at the forefront and bright young students are encouraged to learn and share their ideas.