“What we have now is a deficit of empathy, not a deficit of resource.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA, 7th district)
How can truth reveal itself? How can we fight against the polarization we experience as a nation and move toward peaceful resolution? These are the questions many ask privately but struggle to find an answer. We must to discuss possibilities and explore existing resources.
In our current political atmosphere, which pits one side against the other, truth cannot find a way to reveal itself. A dichotomy is set with every topic: You are either with us or against us. The United States is already a perfect country or you are unpatriotic. Science is truth or a conspiracy. Of course, and we all know that the truth lies somewhere in between, but somehow we have elected and then allowed many of our leaders to promulgate this lie. So how do we get out of this state of affairs that tears families and communities apart?
The truth is difficult to discern as any Quaker will tell you, especially when there is a lack of trust on each side of an issue. It is easier to avoid confrontation and to blame others. So where do we begin? We can start with the question as to whether or not the United States has yet to live up to its full potential. This does not mean the United States is a bad place, simply that it can improve. What do we want our nation to strive for? Our history is littered with uprisings from different groups all asking to be treated equally. From Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Suffragettes, the Haymarket Square Riot to the Civil Rights era people asked to be treated equally and continue to do so today. And predictably, those in power push back. How can we approach the problem differently?
The late African-American historian Vincent Harding (who worked closely with Dr. King) asks the question, “Is America Possible?” in an essay he wrote relying on the powerful poem by Langston Hughes “Let America Be America Again”. Harding takes the poem stanza by stanza explaining how America is made up of people from all races and creeds, but the America that Hughes writes of is not meant for him as a Black man. Yet, Hughes longs for the America that the founding of the country was based upon, one where all are created equal.
In her introductory essay for The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones says “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” These authors point to the fact that while the founding ideals are good, they have not been perfectly realized. And, that it is the work of those oppressed that has moved our country closer to when America can be America as the founding documents envisioned. The work of Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dolores Huerta, Russell Means among many, many others illustrates that the hard work of moving the United States toward a “more perfect union” frequently comes with movements that get tired of waiting. Dr. King’s non-violent movement was incredibly powerful and led to many changes, but ultimately he died a violent death. This is our history. It is too far-fetched to say that most Americans do not endorse violence. So how do we move forward?
Harding goes on to say, “We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know how, after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that, in a sense, invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions so that we can then figure out, “How do we put these things together to create a more perfect union?” Here he asks the key question. How can we listen to one another and hold one another up so that we can move into the work of making “America”?
As an eternal optimist, I propose that empathy and dialogue are the tools we have that can move the United States toward a more perfect union. While they are not a panacea for change, they offer a solid basis from which to create it. So many Americans believe that those of a different political persuasion are evil, crazy, or worse. Yet, if many of them sat down with one another, they would find that they have something in common from which to build connection. And, once we start to see the humanity in one another, we can begin to see each other as real humans rather than enemies. That is not to say that you will come to agreement with everyone in the room on all topics, more, that you will feel connected to those who have different opinions. If I understand your experience and motivations for behaving a certain way, then I am less likely to demonize you.
We see an excellent example of this phenomenon with Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist and C.P. Ellis, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan working together to integrate Durham, North Carolina’s schools in the early 1970s. They started out as adversaries and ended up friends, but it was not an easy process. They participated in a process called a charette where they were responsible for designing a community process over a two week period for integrating the schools and reducing violence. Charette is just one model. There are many other types of community dialogue processes to address all types of concerns and issues. Braver Angels brings together those who identify as red or blue for facilitated discussion. Everyday Democracy uses a Dialogue to Change method by having community stakeholders meet over a period of weeks to discuss an issue and develop a plan for change together. The only drawback to these dialogues is that the communities must request them, so those who do not happen to be involved are not aware of the resource.
The tricky thing about dialogues is that they need skilled facilitators so they do not devolve into uncomfortable shouting matches. Fortunately, there are organizations that provide facilitation and training. Essential Partners is one group that has been training folks for over 30 years. The Bridge Alliance Education Fund is a group of over 100 organizations that work toward the open-minded collaboration of citizen voices toward solutions. Living Room Conversations is another group that hosts online facilitated discussions on over 80 topics.
These organizations are all non-profits that rely on grant funding and volunteers to function. What if the Chambers of Commerce and city and county governments supported these types of organizations and provided real community dialogue events for their communities? Yes, we have open meetings where constituents can give their input on community planning, but anyone who has ever attended one of those meetings knows that they can turn ugly in a hot minute. The lack of preparation and facilitation is what causes these problems. If communities held facilitated dialogues BEFORE the open meetings, they would have already hashed out many of the issues and come up with ideas that are palatable. Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?
In the meantime, if you are feeling hopeless about us as a nation divided, consider joining one of these initiatives or simply sign up to participate in a conversation. You will find that your faith in humanity will be restored as you connect with people in real-time. It is a powerful experience.
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