Some candidates are open to interpretation

Liora Barba is a senior at Macalester College studying geography. She helps facilitate the East African circle at the Jane Addams School for Democracy (JAS) through work study, and wrote this post.

On a Wednesday evening in October, participants entered Jane Addams School for Democracy ready to greet three guests for that evening’s learning circles: Minnesota candidates for the U.S. House and Senate.

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Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum and her Republican challenger Ed Matthews, as well as Dean Barkley, senatorial candidate representing the Independence Party, all came to Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Minn., to engage in an open discussion with recent immigrants, college students and other community members that decided to come out to take advantage of the opportunity to speak directly with the people that hope to represent them in office. Republican Senator Norm Coleman and the Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken and were also invited to the forum.

Hosting the three candidates that did attend proved more than enough to fill the evening as they rotated among the learning circles. Each was allotted 30 minutes per circle, and by the time formal introductions were translated from English to Hmong or Somali or Spanish, there was a finite time left for questions and answers.

In anticipation of the forum, each circle took the time to prepare questions to get discussion flowing. Brainstorming issues and topics sparked discussion within the groups on issues like immigration reform, education and health care and to articulate just what they hoped to get out of the forum. Further, it served a way to practice thoughtful and active engagement with politicians, a means of participating in the political process. Rather than watching a forum, they prepared to be a part of it.

Megan Macpherson, a senior at Macalester College who has been coming to Jane Addams since her freshman year “was frustrated by the candidates' evasion of some of our most important questions.?

Interpreting questions and answers presented another challenge in communicating clearly about the issues. Candidates often fielded translated questions and needed to offer their responses in such a way that group interpreters were able to convey a message to the group. All three dealt with this challenge differently. As one participant commented, “they were not prepared to interact in this way, and at some times they seemed condescending…the candidates did not present a vision of elected officials working with people on issues to make change.?

For other participants, it was it was the quality of the connections between the candidates and the people in the circles—more than the chance to ask candidates firsthand about their opinions on various issues—that was the real heart of the experience. The quality of that connection is up for interpretation itself.

“The most important issue was trust,? said a facilitator in the East African Circle. After Betty McCollum went around the room shaking hands with the Somali women in the group, one of the participants said “We liked her. She respected us.?

The forum presented the chance for individuals to speak directly to those that seek to represent them in office, and to gauge whether they want to entrust their votes in the candidates standing before them.

“Regardless of the way the politicians acted, I left the forum feeling very positive,? added MacPherson. “All different types of people got to ask questions. Everybody had a voice—from middle school-ers to senior citizens, from Spanish-speakers to English-speakers. That's what Jane Addams School is all about—democracy in action!?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs