Bridging the Great Divide: What Politicians could Learn from Teen Philanthropists

Photo courtesy Teen Giving Project, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a program of the JTFN Foundation Board Incubator.

By Alana Hollander

In a world where bipartisan cooperation seems as common as traif with wings, perhaps our governance would be wise to observe the conversations teen philanthropists are having with one another. In doing so, politicians may just figure out how to reintroduce civil discourse back into our country.

Earlier this year, the political discord was so extreme that the United States government shutdown for the first time in 5 years. No matter your political affiliation, I think it is safe to say that we all want our representatives to move forward with their work and find a way to move past these continued stalemates.

Part of what is so challenging about our democratic structure is that decisions on policy and law are made using majority rule voting. According to Seeds for Change, a nonprofit organization that dedicates their time to fostering group cooperation, “Voting creates a majority and a minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers. If most people support an idea then it will be voted in, and the concerns of the people who opposed it can be ignored. This situation can foster conflict and distrust as the ‘losers’ feel disempowered by the process.” While voting is a fundamental construct of our democracy, in order to bridge the divide, politicians should be working harder to create conditions for consensus.

In Jewish teen philanthropy, teen philanthropists make big decisions about how they can create a collective impact. Together as a group, they identify common goals and craft a mission statement in order to focus their grantmaking. This entire process is guided by consensus, which is no easy feat! If we take a moment to really think about what that means, in order to reach a mutual agreement, every person in the room must have a voice, and anyone who is present is seen as an equal valued contributor. While voting is quicker and in some ways is easier, teen philanthropists are committed to making decisions informed by their entire group instead of a majority.

How do they accomplish this? How is it possible for everyone to have a voice and yet still reach one conclusion? Jake Miller, a JTFN Youth Ambassador, stated that “a large part of the process is being intentional about how you represent your ideas.” Through active listening, teen philanthropists respectfully acknowledge their peers. They will set high expectations for everyone in the group, challenge one another, ask pressing questions, and they wait for all perspectives in the room to be shared. Prompted by a facilitator, participants use different tools and rating systems to come to their final decision. Issues and challenges are not approached in terms of “yes” or “no” but rather, “what is your level of agreement, or disagreement.” In thinking about where they stand on an issue, participants can express the full scope of their viewpoint and agree or disagree in levels that reflect a gray area as opposed to “black or white.”

But it doesn’t end there. By engaging in some of these more difficult and heated debates in a safe space, teen philanthropists continue to build their skillset which will inevitably enable them to have deeper and more meaningful dialogues. It will prepare them to engage in political discourse and to sit across the lunch table from someone who may completely disagree with them; they are ready and armed with the ability to take a step back, to listen to a political adversary and to hear and understand their opposition. They will know the importance of research and due diligence that will help inform their opinions, and respond in a meaningful dialogue.

When Congress finally voted to reopen the government in late January of this year, it was only after one senator introduced the idea of using a “talking stick” to manage their debate. This special tool with Native American origins was once used among tribal councils to maintain a peaceful forum. The stick would be passed from person to person and only the individual in possession of the stick was allowed to speak. Today, this custom has been integrated into classroom learning. As early as preschool, children have been taught how to actively listen to their peers using this ancient practice. By incorporating this simple yet effective method, the small group of senators worked together to create conditions for consensus; everyone in the room shared their perspective and because interruptions and outbursts had been prohibited, each individual was able to share their ideas and be fully heard by their colleagues.

This small encouraging moment, unfortunately is overshadowed by an overabundance of instances that are handled from a place of mistrust and blame. Perhaps it is time our leaders turned to teen philanthropists and remember how to engage from a place of respectful opposition; a place where they can step back and hear other perspectives; a place where they can find the value in what they do agree on. On the other hand, confidence in our leadership is very low at this moment in time. If they are not up to the challenge of working together, it seems to me it is only a matter of time before these teens will rise up. Even this past February, 6 teen activists in Kansas found a way to run for office through an age restriction loophole. Contrary to initial presumptions, these teens were serious about addressing the broken system that came before them and serving the needs of their community. One of the candidates, Jack Bergeson (D), who’s platform was to introduce tax reform for lower and middle class families in Kansas stated, “I may be too young to vote, but I am not too young to see the problems in Kansas that the government should be, but is not, working to fix.” Joseph Tutera Jr. (R), a 16 year old sophomore from Rockhurst High School critiqued current political leadership saying, “the incumbents in government have not done what is needed, and that is why I am running.” Like Bergeson, Tutera is committed to making constructive policy to address the economic issues facing their state; he boasted that he is the Republican candidate for #TheNewGeneration.

Looking ahead, I wonder how much could we accomplish with a Jewish teen philanthropist at the helm, someone guided by their values, willing to truly listen to all those around them and someone who knows how to bridge the divide.

Alana Hollander is the Program Associate for the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN), the central resource for the field of Jewish teen philanthropy. JTFN strives to create generations of engaged, empowered, and experienced Jewish changemakers and givers. Interested in bringing Jewish teen philanthropy to your community? Contact us at