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Theresa – let me introduce myself. My name is Salim Matt Gras, and I’ve lived in Hamilton for a twitch more than four years. I don’t affiliate with a political party, but most people who know me would paint me as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. That said, I’m honored to include in my network of close friends people whose views are often wildly divergent from my own.

From everything I know of you, I imagine you probably identify as a conservative and a Republican. That’s okay by me. Fact is, I’d enjoy having a civil conversation with you about those things we disagree about… and those things about which we agree.

For a long time I’ve believed that we all have a lot more in common than we have apart. I’d be willing to bet, for instance, that you love your family and want to keep them safe – wish to be treated with courtesy and respect – want to do more for the homeless and downtrodden among us – and believe in paying your fair share of taxes. Me too.

That would be the easy part of our conversation, I imagine: more difficult would be the part where we share what we disagree about. But there, too, I think we could enjoy a civil conversation. My experience teaches me that all it takes is a genuine curiosity about another’s point of view – and a recognition that we all have a strong desire to be heard. There are simple techniques that can be easily taught to help us listen to each other in such a way that we truly do feel heard. I’d be glad to share these with you.

Theresa, I write to you now because of the … kerfuffle… about our Hamilton school children staging their walk-outs last Wednesday in honor of the 17 people shot down recently in Florida. I gather that you feel strongly about this – that you think our children were ‘led’ to do this by school administrators and teachers. To be frank, I think you’re wrong: everything I’ve read and heard tells me that school children across the United States are staging similar walk-outs, and that what we’re seeing is the birth of a movement similar to the one in the 1960s that led to the end of the Vietnam War.

I believe you also think this movement is a political thing, an us versus them thing, a Democrats versus Republican thing. I don’t: what I’m hearing from our children is that they’re fed up with being potential targets for some madman’s bullets, and that they are, once and for all, demanding that something be done to keep them safe. Theresa, I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine what it must feel like growing up in a culture where ‘active shooter drills’ have become a commonplace part of school life. I think that’s something which must inflict grievous psychological harm on students everywhere, and it’s something I would very much like to be able to do away with. What do you think, Theresa?

You’re an elected official, Theresa, whose job is to represent everyone in your district, of whatever political persuasion. As you’ve pointed out, your First Amendment free speech rights are as protected as anyone’s – and I’d be the first to defend them. I’m curious, though, why you’d deliberately spread untruths about the union representing Montana’s teachers and school personnel, claiming without substantiation that it’s part of some ‘radical left’ and that it’s working ‘against our constitution and for socialism and communism.’ And I’m troubled that you’d use the disparaging term ‘little snowflake’ to refer to a Hamilton City Councilor with whom you disagree – a woman who was trying very hard to remain polite and keyed into the issues being discussed which included, among other things, protecting her young student daughter. Don’t you think that such language ill befits someone elected to state government?

I think these are all issues that should be publicly aired, Theresa, and so here’s what I suggest. Let’s meet sometime for coffee. I promise to be civil. I promise to listen to you with curiosity and respect and I think I can promise that you’ll feel heard. Who knows, we might even come away friends - and we'd surely come away with a deeper understanding of what's important to both of us. Worth a shot, don’t you think?

With respect and consideration,

— Salim Matt Sean Gras. Gras lives in Hamilton. He is a board member of the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance and Montana Human Rights Network.

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