Sam Bueker and Allonah Ashworth didn’t exactly hit it off at first.
Bueker, head of his student government’s activism committee at Wellesley High School, told Ashworth he thought the Confederate flag represents racism and betrayal.
A member of the Teenage Republican Club at her high school in Lake Charles, La., Ashworth fiercely disagreed. She had grown up with that flag, she said. “I didn’t fear it. It was a part of where I came from.”
Bueker, who is white, admits to having gotten “snarky” about the issue. “And I got offensive in return,” said Ashworth, who is Black. “Where I’m from, you don’t take stuff like that.”
It was a shaky start that showed the challenge of a Boston-based project trying to connect young Americans from opposite sides of political, cultural, and socioeconomic divides.
The American Exchange Project, or AEP, began with online conversations among a diverse group of pandemic-idled high school kids from Wellesley, Concord, Sudbury, and Palo Alto, Calif., and from Kilgore and Cotulla, Texas, Lake Charles, La., and other places.
This month, 18 of those students are spending two weeks visiting each other in their hometowns and experiencing some of the ways their daily lives diverge — working on a ranch in Texas, seeing alligators on the Louisiana bayou, going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
“If you want to humanize other people, you’ve got to get them into contact with each other,” said David McCullough III, AEP’s founder and grandson of the historian and author. “What we can do is get kids respecting each other and we can make them feel a little bit a part of these towns that they discover on this trip.”
Bueker and Ashworth ended up becoming good friends, though with a lingering competitive streak that culminated in an online push-up contest. (Bueker won.)
He’s the son of an academic and a lawyer and lives in a town with a median household income of close to $200,000 and where Joe Biden got 78 percent of the vote for president. She’s the daughter of a nurse and a crane operator and, until her family was forced to move from Lake Charles to Houston by Hurricane Laura last year, grew up in a city whose median household income is $36,001, and in an area where Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote last year.
He’s a fencer whose medals cover the dresser in his bedroom, and was on the sailing team and in the photography club. She’s a power lifter.
“Fencing?” said Ashworth. “We’re mainly into football. The most exotic things we’ve got are probably wrestling and fishing.”
These are some of the differences that reinforced their preconceptions of each other. Ashworth “used to think people from California had blue hair and wanted the government to do everything.” As for the participants from Massachusetts, she said, “I don’t know why I thought people from Wellesley would all have a particular type of accent, which they didn’t. And they thought the same thing about us. They said, ‘We thought you’d sound country.’ And I said, ‘Country? I don’t live in the country!’ "
On the first call, “we were walking on eggshells,” Bueker said. “No one wanted to say anything that would start a debate.”
But as they talked, they realized they had more in common than what separated them — their favorite subjects in school, arguments they had with their parents, what they did in their free time, music, movies, TV.
“Its like talking to my friends,” said Bueker, who is 18 and headed to Cornell in the fall, where he plans to major in government on the way to law school. “We had normal conversations about everyday life.”
He’s learned, he said, “that the people on the other side who are normally just percentages on election night are people like me.”
Some of the AEP students looked up each other’s home values, and Ashworth, who is 17 and going into her senior year in high school — she aspires to enroll at Texas A&M and become a pharmacist — was amazed when she saw Bueker’s.
But after a while, something else surprised her. The kids from Wellesley “act like us,” she said. “They don’t act like boujee rich kids.”
International exchanges have long existed for high school students. There are also programs such as Seeds of Peace, which began by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian 14- to 16-year-olds at a summer camp in Maine and has grown to include teenagers from other conflict zones. Another, called Millions of Conversations, was created by a Muslim American to encourage contact among Americans in the majority with those in ethnic and racial minorities. And people with opposing viewpoints increasingly find ways to meet and talk on apps including Clubhouse.
But AEP describes itself as the first-ever national domestic exchange program. The idea began when McCullough embarked on a 7,000-mile road trip as part of a project while he was a student at Yale (he graduated in 2017), meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds, and “saw how divided and unequal our country was.”
He said he “just made friends with people who have nothing in common with me,” including a rancher nicknamed Hornet because he had been shot in the neck at 19 with a .22 Hornet hunting rifle, and realized “we could both have a cheeseburger and a Budweiser and talk until 2 o’clock in the morning.”
That American high school students need the equivalent of a study abroad program to understand their fellow citizens is an irony not lost on people involved in the effort.
Glenn Young, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Kilgore and another member of the board of AEP, likened it to an annual service trip he runs to Honduras — except “much more cross-cultural” than that.
Americans have become more ideologically segregated than ever, according to new research at Harvard that used geolocation data and the addresses of every registered voter in the United States to conclude that, in most places where they live, Democrats have “almost zero interactions” with Republicans. And it’s not rural or suburban areas that are the most politically homogeneous, but largely Democratic cities like New York.
This echo chamber means that “we become more set in terms of our political and ideological beliefs,” said Julia Minson, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School who studies the psychology of disagreement.
Fewer than a third of Democrats say they have friends who are Republicans, according to a survey by the American Enterprise Institute, compared to more than half of Republicans who say they’re friends with Democrats. More Democrats than Republicans have ended friendships over politics, the survey found.
“We’re all to blame for the problem, as much as we might not want to admit that,” said McCullough. “Our reaction should not be, ‘It’s more their fault than mine.’ It’s, ‘What can we all do to find a solution?’ "
A growing number of colleges and universities are also starting domestic exchanges, often as part of their study-abroad offices.
“It’s a redefinition of what we mean by global,” said Nick Gozik, former director of the Office of International Programs at Boston College who this year moved to Elon College as dean of global education and oversees a program there called Study USA. “We’re talking about a skill set that includes empathy and an ability to understand others.”
AEP is meant as “a generational cure,” said Young, a self-described conservative Southern evangelical preacher who grew up in the oil fields of Louisiana. “We didn’t get here overnight. The adults aren’t going to get together and have one conversation and everything’s going to be great. It’s going to take a generation to turn the ship around.”
That’s one of the reasons for the focus on teenagers, said McCullough: “They haven’t grown that far apart yet.”
The students clearly are concerned about the politics of the country, and many became involved through political science and history classes. Bueker was taking AP US history and his mother, Cathy Bueker, is an associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College who teaches about race, ethnicity, income inequality, and immigration; Ashworth was involved in her high school’s political science club in addition to being a member of the Teenage Republicans.
The online hangouts began with pre-arranged topics, called lesson plans, often around political or social issues, but “the lesson plans went out the window in the first minute,” McCullough said. Instead, the students were encouraged to mostly talk about the things they had in common in their daily lives and about where and how they grew up.
“In the beginning, because most of the members were political science kids, they were theming it around politics, but after that we started talking about other stuff,” said Ashworth. “It was just talking about myself, which I’m pretty good at doing,” Bueker joked.
The early takeaway, McCullough said, which now underpins the project: “Kids realize, wow it’s really different, but there are a lot of things that are similar.”
There’s no cost to students to participate or for the travel; AEP is so far funded by relatively small individual donations, many of them in memory of Harvard economist Robert Glauber, its cofounder, who died in February. The Moody’s bond-rating service, on whose board Glauber served, pitched in $10,000.
McCullough hopes to dramatically expand the project and has verbal commitments from 40 communities from Scranton, Pa., to Kenai, Alaska, to join beginning in the fall.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the culture shifts to a point that every kid spends 10 days to two weeks doing this?” McCullough said.
There are also plans for an alumni network to maintain contact among the students after they move on.
“My great hope is that the friendships will continue,” McCullough said.
This summer’s participants say they are embracing the role of trailblazers.
“I don’t think this one trip is going to change anything,” said Bueker. “I think it’s going to prove that this can work. It’s an important first step in making first us but ultimately more Americans more understanding of each other.”
As for Ashworth, when she comes to Boston, she’s looking forward to trying something she’s heard about from her new friends here.
“I’ve never had Dunkin’ coffee. Apparently it’s, like, a thing,” said Ashworth, whose regular caffeine fix is from Starbucks.
“We all like coffee,” she said, “just different types of coffee.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.