Bridging (Political) Divides--And Beyond
As last week drew to a close, I wasn’t planning to write another blog post in 2022. Then, my wife and I were asked to attend the annual gathering of the Bridge Movement Alignment Council at the end of last week because AfP’s Executive Director had to go to other events that day. We went not knowing what to expect but knowing that we had not yet found the sweet spot(s) in which our network of global peacebuilders who worry about the threats to democracy here at home could do powerful work with organizations that were explicitly created to literally bridge the divides in our polarized country, protect our democracy, and solve (m)any of our pressing substantive problems and do so on a regular basis. The Council itself is the brainchild of one of its more ambitious members, Listen First, which both runs its own programs and coordinates broader bridging efforts.
For what should be obvious reasons, we like what they do and vice versa. However, we are more like distant cousins who are fond of each other than political twins—identical or otherwise.
Gretchen and I did not come away from the inspiring event with answers to any of our questions. Yes, we were impressed by the diversity of approaches and perspectives that flashed across the Zoom screen and by the fact that the bridging movement includes a significant number of self-described conservatives. And, the network was working on some promising projects, including defining metrics against which they could measure their progress.
Still, it was not clear how my community that tends to focus on addressing specific issues more than “merely” bridging divides fit in and how, precisely, our robust and growing field could work with theirs. I found myself being skeptical of what was being proposed because it didn’t go far enough despite the fact that we indeed anchor all of our work on the assumption that we need to find the constructive things we could and should do together.
So, earlier this week, I decided to deal with my skepticism by having a long conversation with Joan Blades, who is a veteran activist and organizer, co-founder of Living Room Conversations, and by far my favorite person in the (political) bridge building world.
We didn’t figure everything out. However, the conversations over the last week or so reinforced my sense that bridging work is important, that it is not enough, and that there are, in fact, ways for us all to work together, few of which are being discussed—let alone planned—as we head into 2023.
In other words, I got my New Year’s Resolution!!!!!!!!!
Importance of Bridging Work
It didn’t take attending the BMAC session for me to see why bridging work is so important. In fact, given the polarization and policy-making paralysis that is gripping our country, it probably is the most important thing we have to do if we want to overcome any of the complex problems we face as we near the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century, something that the even larger Bridge Alliance.
I have no desire to get into the complicated debate over what has caused our system to deteriorate to the point that American democracy—which we once liked to tou as the model for the rest of the world—is in jeopardy. However, that is where we find ourselves.
The organizations who took center stage last week are doing their part in two key ways each of which relies on a slightly different entry point along a specrtrum.
Some are convinced that bringing people together, per se, is the place to begin. The core work ofListen First, which organizes the larger BMAC asks its participants to literally do what its name suggests. Living Room Conversations brings people together in their living rooms and beyond for fairly short, guided conversations that bring people together across ideological and other lines as a first step toward overcoming our divisions. Other, like Braver Angels or Resetting the Table, hold longer and more intense conversations. But, as Joan put it, these groups all have one thing in common—the focus on building new, positive relationships at the grass roots level.
At the other end of the spectrum, others try to produce policy change. The event last week was facilitated by two of the stalwarts in the field, Convergence and the Consensus Building Institute. I had the privilege of working with Covergence’s founder, Rob Fersh, at Search for Common Ground in the early 2000s when we almost succeeded in getting legislation passed that would have created a United States Consensus Council. Rob then created Convergence to continue that work by hosting high level discussions among policy makers aimed at building consensus that could lead to legislation, work that continues under David Eisner following Rob’s retirement.
Anyone concerned about the state of American democracy, would have breathed a sigh of relief after last week’s event because we literally spent time with dozens of organizations that brought left and right, young and old, urban and rural, whites and people of color, and a lot more into the same space and helps the people who make up the diversity that is America begin to find common ground.
But It’s Not Enough
As has always been the case when we meet with members of the bridging community, we were convinced that what they opposed was not going to be enough—far from it. In fact, four “missing pieces” stood out.
Who wasn’t there. There were a lot of people representing a lot of organizations in the room. Missing, however, for the most part were people whose bridge building work led them to focus on a single set of issues such as climate, race, gender, economics. Missing, too, were service organizations like Rotary and other service organizations. And the corporate sector.
In other words, there are huge holes in what the BMAC even envisions covering on its own. To see what I mean check out the last three or four installments of the Beyond Intractability Substack newsletter. In those posts, my peacebuilding friends Guy and Heidi Burgess try to figure out what we will need to do to fully restore American democracy—a topic I’ll take up my self early next year.
Too many silos. The word silo has become one of the most damning four letter words in the social change world of late. The fact is, however, that while we may all profess the need to do truly intersectional roots, we all tend to default back to the kinds of initiatives that drew us into social change work in the first place. Perhaps because it’s what we know best or where our funding comes from. Still, it’s frustrating when I see groups like those we met with primarily view the world through a single lens—in their case bridge building. Of course, we at AfP tend to retreat back into our silo—peacebuilding. And, when the opportunity to reach out across silos comes along, all often we work on the assumption that our own work needs to be at the heart of what we all do. Again, it’s not just the professional bridge building organizations. We all do it. Too much of the time. If nothing else, it leads to a lot of reinventing-the-wheel and not even noticing what our social change “first cousins” are doing.
Grass roots. Most of the groups who were at last week’s events embrace a theory of change that starts at the grass roots and emphasizes the need for sweeping cultural change. From what I could tell, however, few of the organizations that made it onto center stage last week have significant or ongoing grassroots organizations that start by building bases in individual communities and then could be taken to scale. And, the groups that have done so like NAFCM, the TRUST Network, or Resetting the Table got relatively short shrift. Instead, emphasis was given to national organizations and coalitions. All aspire to having grass roots networks around the country. Few have come close to getting there. Fewer still have thought consciously about how you go about building a national (let alone global) movement that can produce the kind of cultural or policy-oriented paradigm shift I’ve been ranting about since the 1960s. Again, I’m not pointing the finger at the bridge building community. I’m pointing it at all of us—myself first.
Resources. The last few years have seen an explosion of groups like the ones who showed up last week. For good or ill, few of them have the funding and other resources they will need if they want to reach the kinds of goals I’ve been talking about throughout this post. That’s true despite the infusion of new funding, most notably from the New Pluralists network and organizations in the corporate world who have taken their own DEI and ESG responsibilities seriously. That’s not just evident in our lack of funding but in the fact that most Americans are unaware of the efforts that are already underway at both the national or local levels.
None of this is to downplay what the organizations I met with are doing. It is vital. But it is not enough. Had I been asked to give my advice last week given what I’ve said so far, it would have been something along the lines of what I have to say in the last two sections of this post.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There really is a need for individuals and organizations to fill those gaps that are too big for likes o the BMAC, AfP, or any other organization that I know of. It includes the kinds of things I’ve been trying to do by putting forward the idea of a connecting the dots community, but it will require far more than any single, aging, activist-scholar could hope to provide.
I am not suggesting that the bridge building community (or any of the others I could mention) should stop doing what they are doing, because their efforts make sense.
Rather, I think that there has to be a (somewhat) separate but (somewhat) overlapping network of individuals and organizations that engage in what I’ve called catalytic convening. In plain English, we have to start bringing together organizations like those mentioned here (including the “missing’ ones form the previous section) in a way that helps them see the need to work together and helps them find the resources that make doing so possible and—eventually–easy. It isn’t just bringing people together as the word convening suggests. Rather, the emphasis will have to be on the catalytic side of the phrase in which we help today’s already committed activists find potentially more powerful ways of working together on what the Judy and Peter Blum Kovler Foundation calls “America’s neglected needs.”
While that has to happen among national leaders in Washington and beyond, it has to have a strong base in local communities (and perhaps online communities) in which thought leaders and activists figure out what works in a given part of the country and/or on a particular set of issues. There are some experiments going on already. We are part of a group that works on racial healing organized by Rotarians in the Portland (OR) metropolitan area. I am working with leaders of Zebras Unite to not only build their local chapters but create intersectional initiatives in cities like Columbia SC where many of the kinds of organizations that could and should be working together already have a strong base of operation.
It’s probably not going to be an established organization like BMAC or AfP that takes on this role, because we do tend to view the world through our limited lenses and/or fall back on our traditional ways of doing things.
I am beginning to see some initiatives along these lines, the most notable of which will almost certainly include the first round of projects that the New Pluralists end up supporting. But it will also require the support of corporate and philanthropical donors at the local level, which a number of national and local foundations are already doing in individual cities and counties around the country.
I doubt that organizations like BMAC or AfP or any organization that has its home in any of those silos to be able to do this on their own. While I have been doing a bit of this through my “connecting the dots community,” it is far more than any single individual can hope to accomplish, even someone with more time, energy, and resources than I have.
Some of those discussions are taking place, some of which I’m involved in but the need to ramp them up was heightened by the discussions we had last week. And as their scope increases, the role that this aging scholar activist will play will inevitably shrink and that of better resourced and better connected groups like the institutions behind the New Pluralists will have to expand.
Oh. And One Last Thing
Talking with Joan and hosting a session on Ukraine the week before with my friends at Stranger’s Guide reminded me of one more thing that should be particularly important at this time of year when people from so many different faiths and background are celebrating.
Yes, our work is deadly serious. We are trying to save democracy and make ours a more just and productive society.
And that’s no laughing matter.
The seriousness of the challenges we face should not, however, lead us into the trap of convincing ourselves that we have to be, well, deadly serious while we do the work, which takes me back to my conversation with Joan Blades or my frequent conversations with Abby Rapoport, co-founder of Stranger’s Guide.
Rest assured that they take their work very seriously. However, they also have a lot of fun doing so. Stranger’s Guide’s issue on Ukraine is filled with delightful factoids, including the revelation that Ukrainians never given friends an even number of flowers. Similarly, my conversation with Joan was filled with lovely side discussions about how we were spending the holidays or what having grandchildren is like—which we have but she doesn’t (yet).
In other words, I was reminded that our work should also be joyous. And filled with humor. The songs of Tom Lehrer in my youth. The cold opens of Saturday Night Live for the more than fifty years since then. The weekly romp through the news of Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me.
But go to AfP’s annual PeaceCon. People will laugh and joke in the hallways. But our sessions—including the ones I’ve led—tend to be deadly serious.
Maybe it’s time for us all to get a life.
After all, the world famous Second City improv group also has a highly successful organizational development practice, Second City Works.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.