MAHTOMEDI — U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum sometimes saw opposing political signs on her family’s lawn during her childhood in South St. Paul.
That’s because her father was a Democrat and her mother was a Republican.
“But at the end of the day, I knew when they went in to vote, they were voting on shared values: wanting to make sure that our community was strong, that we had good schools, that we’re caring about the environment,” said McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District.
She shared the memory Monday, Nov. 21, at the Mahtomedi High School media center while speaking to about 25 students involved in Students for Change. The student-run club, which isn’t affiliated with the high school, is led by senior Josie Thompson.
The club typically meets at The Wild Bean coffee shop in Mahtomedi for its monthly gatherings.
“Students for Change is designed to address the common tendency to steer clear of controversial conversations to avoid the possible discomfort affiliated with disagreement. In order to create change in any setting, difficult conversations have to be had,” Thompson said, before inviting McCollum to take the podium.
McCollum spoke about her experiences navigating contentious topics throughout her career serving in Congress. She was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 and won reelection earlier this month. She said it’s a skill to be able to converse with someone about a difficult issue without making that person feel intimidated or judged.
“But when you’re having the conversation, you still have to be true to yourself,” she added.
The congresswoman referenced the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 and how the aftermath of that incident reignited conversations about police brutality against Black people and racial stereotypes often attributed to Black people.
Conversations about racial, cultural or religious issues are more challenging when people approach the topic without knowing people who come from different backgrounds. She recalled how there weren’t many Black people where she grew up in South St. Paul, though there were segments of the population made up of Mexican Americans and Jewish residents.
“You should seek out people who are of different faiths, different backgrounds and different experiences, because your world is going to grow right along with it,” McCollum said. “The more you know, the more informed you’ll be on what you want to do with your life and your decisions.”
Alex Buckingham, a junior, asked McCollum to discuss the biggest challenge she’s faced working with people across the political aisle, especially in light of partisan polarization. McCollum said it’s getting to agree on the same facts and distinguishing them from opinions or false information.
As an example, she spoke of Republican and fellow Minnesotan U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s opposition to McCollum’s bill, introduced last year, to protect almost a quarter-million acres of land in the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It would ban certain types of mining in that area to protect the watershed.
She said Stauber has claimed in committee and on the U.S. House floor that the bill would ban taconite mining — something McCollum said the bill wouldn’t actually do.
“It’s hard to have a discussion with somebody when they’re going to muck it up with whatever they think will win the argument for them,” McCollum said.
She also bemoaned how school board candidates across Minnesota have recently been asked about their stances on critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools, even though the advanced academic theory typically isn’t discussed in those grade levels.
Social studies teacher Janine Nelson asked what McCollum’s advice was for students when they’re looking for sources of basic, factual information.
The congresswoman suggested the Union of Concerned Scientists for information related to climate change. She also recommended the BBC’s smartphone app for getting news happening around the world and libraries for print sources of information.
Amiah LaFrinier, a senior, asked how to go about having a conversation with someone who LaFrinier knows doesn’t share the same beliefs as she does.
McCollum first suggested asking the other person what their opinion or belief is, then quietly listening to them talk about it. She also encouraged people who disagree on something to find another basic point of agreement before continuing to discuss a given topic.
The lawmaker told the students they represent the future, and urged them to “explore everything” and “challenge authority.”
“I need you to do it in a way that moves us forward when you do it — not just have a blowup or a confrontation as you’re moving forward.”