The Ziesing family will gather in Marin on Thanksgiving night for the first time since President-elect Donald Trump's victory. If politics is broached, the conversation could heat up. Mom and Dad voted for Trump, while their three daughters voted for Hillary Clinton.
Shelby Ziesing, 24, is the oldest daughter and the most vocal liberal in the family. Before the election, she texted her parents a warning.
“If you vote for Trump, and he wins, I won’t speak to you for four years," she threatened. She was bluffing, although she and her mom have shared few words since election night.
The Election Sparks a New Precedent
For most of her life Shelby has avoided political battles with her parents, but the election season emboldened her. When her father made a comment she found racially offensive she finally snapped, staying up all night to type him a letter on her laptop.
I’m sorry that we’re fighting. You may think it’s not worth fighting about but to me this is essential to who I am and not something I can just get over ...
Shelby is a fifth-grade teacher at a diverse elementary school in Oakland. She prides herself on a curriculum dedicated to social justice. So it's not surprising that she tried to teach her dad about white privilege line by line.
We live in a country where our voices are listened to. We live in a town where we feel safe most of the time. And can be reasonably assured that the police will protect rather than harm us. For many many people none of these things are true.
Her father, Hunter Ziesing, is a lifelong conservative from the Northeast with strong convictions on immigration, taxes and big government. He's also a competitive cyclist who worked on Wall Street for 20 years.
At the end of the letter Shelby challenged her father.
It is an ongoing task for me to understand the lives of people who are different from me. I want you to join me in that task.
Hunter said the letter hit home. "One of the things that I have always appreciated about Shelby is that she has brought my attention to a lot of things I have overlooked, from her being a vegan, to respecting the planet, to human rights issues," he said.
Hunter listens to Shelby, but he is reluctant to speak with the media. He almost canceled an interview because he found KQED’s website too liberal. Eventually Hunter agreed to join Shelby and me for a brief conversation in the living room of her shared Oakland apartment to discuss his views.
“To me the important things are the economy, because I think ultimately America was built on capitalism," Hunter said. "And I just don’t think the progressive movement can fund itself to take care of all the things that people like Shelby want to do for people.”
A Surprising Move
Hunter wanted to show Shelby that he was willing to try and understand her perspective, so he offered to attend a protest rally with her at Lake Merritt in Oakland after Trump's election victory.
Shelby wore a cardboard sign on her back calling for action from white people. Hunter wore a red hat that said Make America Great Again.
“I’m amazed how peaceful it is," said Hunter in an iPhone video Shelby took on a grassy hillside near the lake. "People mostly just want to be heard and get their messages back to Washington.”
Protesters held hands and chanted by the shore's sunny edge. Hunter talked to as many people as possible. "I told every single person I voted for Trump!"
Finding Common Ground In Opposing Views
He tried to allay people’s fears about the future, telling them Trump’s loud bark and outrageous rhetoric are worse than his bite.
“Trump’s not a politician," Hunter said. "So when he comes out and says all Mexicans are rapists, and Muslims just want to blow us up, I don’t think that’s what he meant. Let's work through this stuff. We are still one country.”
It's not that simple for Shelby. "I’m definitely critical of this idea of unity because I think a lot of people right now who are calling for unity just want people to be quiet," she said. "And that is not what unity looks like."
When Shelby and Hunter debate it's civil, but they rarely find common ground. But Shelby keeps trying because occasionally she finds a crack in her father's beliefs, she said.
"My family will listen to me when they might not listen to somebody else," she said. "And I hope that I can act as sort of a messenger for people who they might not otherwise interact with.”
At tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner in Marin, the family has agreed to shelve political conversations until the dust settles. Shelby said it makes sense to step carefully because bridging the divide will take time.