How Next-Door Neighbors With Opposing Political Views Stayed FriendsTroubled by the national discourse, the Gateses and Mitchells use signs to ‘send a message’ of civilityThe Mitchell and Gates families, longtime next door neighbors, don’t let politics interfere with their close friendship.
Clare Ansberry | Photographs by Ross Mantle for The Wall Street JournalOct. 20, 2020 12:08 pm ET
The Mitchells, lifelong Democrats, planted a Joe Biden sign in the front yard of their suburban Pittsburgh home. The Gateses, who live next door and are lifelong Republicans, put a Donald Trump sign in theirs.
Another homemade sign stands in each yard. It reads: “We (Heart) Them” with an arrow pointing to the other house. In the middle of each heart are the words “One Nation.”
“There’s so much hate,” says Chris Senko Mitchell, who came up with the idea. “We want to send a message.” The message, say members of the Mitchell-Gates households, is this: People on opposite ends of the political spectrum can actually like each other and be civil.
The question, for many people, is how.
Signs with arrows, reading ‘We (Heart) Them,’ stand alongside opposing political signs in the Mitchell and Gates front yards in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Millions of Americans are alarmed at the bitter split in the country, with 9 out of 10 Americans saying incivility is a problem and two-thirds saying it’s a “major” problem—according to a 2019 poll by public relations firm Weber Shandwick taken before this year’s tumultuous events.
“People know how wrong this division is and actually want out of it, but they don’t know what to do,” says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, former executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. The institute, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization set up to promote healthy and civil political debate, offers programs on getting along despite differences.
People can start by listening attentively and with an open mind, says Dr. Lukensmeyer. Too often, people interrupt others or mentally prepare rebuttals while another person is talking.
“Listen long enough to understand how that human being came to hold the view they hold. If someone says something you don’t believe is factual, don’t respond in conflict or try to convince them otherwise,” she says.
The Mitchells—Stuart and Chris—and the Gateses—Bart and Jill—met 14 years ago on their suburban street in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., and quickly bonded. Each couple has three children, roughly the same ages, who often walk to their neighborhood schools together and swim in the Mitchell backyard pool. The families share a love for hockey, the boys playing on the same team and the dads serving on the high school hockey board. When the Pittsburgh Penguins play in the NHL playoffs, Stuart sets up a big screen and projector in his driveway, and the families gather with others to watch.
“Our lives are intertwined,” says Stuart. “We call each other family.”
From left, Chris Senko Mitchell, Stuart Mitchell, Jill Gates and Bart Gates and their six children. They gather Monday evenings for dinner.
Although they generally don’t talk about politics, they know where each household stands. When Barack Obama ran for president, Stuart, who is biracial, put a floodlight on a big Obama poster hung on his porch. Both families joked about his “Obama shrine.”
“They are pretty far left and we are pretty far right,” says Jill.
So how do they get along?
They don’t argue. They don’t label each other. They listen to each other’s perspective, look for common ground and recognize that reasonable and good people can reach different conclusions.
“I think it boils down to respect,” says Chris. “We have no desire or illusion that we are going to change them or each other’s minds.”
They also rarely bring up issues that are more divisive than others, like abortion.
The subject came up only once, soon after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. The oldest boys, along with Bart and Chris, were in Virginia for a hockey tournament. Jill and Stuart were watching the game live-streamed at her house. After the game, they started talking about President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, her stand on abortion and efforts to have her approved before the election.
Jill, a Catholic, opposes abortion and supported the nominee.
Stuart, who was raised Methodist and grew up in Brooklyn, was familiar with a time not long before when abortions were illegal and performed dangerously in the streets and in bathrooms. “We are not coming from the same place,” says Stuart, who was also concerned about an unbalanced Supreme Court.
“He grew up in New York City and saw way more difficult situations than I was ever exposed to,” says Jill. “We listened, had our discussion. It was never heated and it was over.” The next morning, Stuart came over with his cup of coffee and they watched their boys’ next match.
From left, Bart Gates, Jill Gates and Stuart Mitchell talked in the Mitchell home on Monday.
The families also look for common ground. Stuart, a banker, and Bart, an accountant, often talk about the economy, its ills and ways to address them. “We have a lot of shared ideas about what is wrong and whose needs need to be addressed,” says Bart. “We differ on the best way to handle it.”
Both agree the country’s debt levels are too high, that more revenue is needed, but disagree on how much individuals and corporations should be taxed and where spending cuts should be made. They agree many Americans are struggling and need help, but don’t agree on what role the government should play.
The “heart” sign was prompted by a conversation over a weekly dinner together, a relatively new tradition they call Monday Mixer.
Last month, when school began remotely, the families, who had been in each other’s bubble since the pandemic hit, began eating together every Monday night, taking turns hosting and cooking for six children and four adults.
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One recent Monday, Jill was hosting the Mitchell family. They talked about school, children, hockey, the delicious Chicken Alfredo and chocolate-chip cookies. The conversation turned to yard signs.
The Mitchells said someone stole their Biden sign.
The Trump sign was gone, too, but not stolen. Jill said she felt pressured to take it down when once-friendly people started walking past her without saying hello. “I was being shaded, and I knew it was because of my Trump sign,” says Jill.
The more they talked that evening, the more disappointed and upset they became about the growing hostility nationally and locally, and the impact it could have on their own children.
“I’m going to make a sign,” Chris recalls saying, one that showed they loved their Trump-supporting neighbors. Jill said she wanted to make one, too, declaring affection for their Biden-supporting neighbors.
Along with making a public statement, they wanted to show their children that people can choose to get along despite their differences. “Our fundamental job as parents is to be a good role model for our children,” says Bart. ”We don’t see them as Democrats. They’re the Mitchells. We know they are good people who live next door. We love them.”
Good signs make good neighbors: the Mitchell front yard, left, and the Gates home, right.
At first, their teenagers were mortified. “They came home and said, ‘Oh my God, Mom. What the heck is this?’” says Chris.
Now Gillian, her 14-year-old daughter, doesn’t mind. “I’m not a voter, but I think people should be mature and not argue all the time or fight. Fighting just leads to more fighting.”
The couples say they haven’t had any backlash from their handmade signs. Stuart says he receives texts from people about work or hockey. At the end, they text “BTW, I love your sign and the Gateses’.”
Advice From the Mitchell and Gates Families
Stuart: Accept that you don’t have to be right. I thought I was right all the time growing up. If you don’t think you have to be right, you listen more.
Chris: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
Bart: Recognize that the other person deserves respect. Be willing to consider their opinion.
Jill: Don’t be so quick to judge someone because of the political sign in their yard.
Write to Clare Ansberry at firstname.lastname@example.org