Charlottesville, a Divided Nation, and the Civity Counter-story

 

Malka Kopell and Palma Strand are the co-founders of Civity, a framework of bridging divides to strengthen communities.  Civity was conceived after a series of conversations between the two about citizens, civic engagement, government, and public challenges that began informally almost a decade ago.  Common Party is honored to welcome Malka and Palma as members of our Commoners advisory board, and we are pleased to reprint their incisive response to Charlottesville from the Civity.org blog. 

 

We at Civity, along with people throughout the country, have been gripped by the recent events in Charlottesville.

 

Before Charlottesville, there was Portland. Before Portland, Charleston. Before Charleston, Ferguson. The list goes on.

 

In the wake of these and similar horrific events, we along with many others are beset by questions that we turn over and over in our minds.

 

We look back: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?

 

We also look ahead: What’s next? What can I do?

 

And, even more deeply, we search for meaning: What do these terrible occurrences tell us about our country? About us?

 

From our efforts to make sense of and respond to these questions emerges a story about who we are as a society.  This story becomes our lived reality as it shapes what we do and how we interact with each other.

 

The dominant story in our nation right now is a story of division. This story tells us that America is a divided county, driven by an “us vs. them” psychology. Black versus white. Rich versus poor. Rural versus urban. Left versus right. Christian versus Jew versus Muslim. In this story, we huddle together with other people who are like us, and we fear people who are different.

 

The “us vs them” story is rampant. It’s all over the media. It’s being perpetrated and perpetuated and in some cases exploited by our leaders. It’s the subject of much discussion, many anecdotes, and much hand-wringing.

 

There is truth in this story of division. And there is a certain relief in hearing and acknowledging that truth. Remember the “post-racial” or colorblind story from not so very long ago when we elected our first Black president? Or the “everyone can make it in America” story that was out there before the Occupy movement called out widening economic divides? We’re glad that the unreality of those fables has been exposed. At least the “we are divided” story is honest, even if raw and very troubling.

 

But this story isn’t the final story: The story of today isn’t necessarily the story of tomorrow.  Nor is this story the whole story: There is more going on in the country than “us versus them.”

 

Every day, in our interactions and relationships with others, each of us contributes to the story of who we collectively are. Many times we "other" people who are different. But sometimes we reach out and connect instead. Every interaction is a moment of possibility – we can stick with saying NO to people out of fear or we can venture to KNOW them.

 

Relationships between people create our society and our culture. And even small interactions are powerful. When interacting with someone, especially someone we don’t know well who is different from us, even a “hello”, or a “thank you” or a “how are you doing?” can have a big effect. And a ten-minute conversation can accomplish even more.

 

Small interactions directly affect other people – and ourselves. They also ripple out to an even wider circle. We’ve all heard of “micro-aggressions,” right? Well, “micro-inclusions” are just as powerful.

 

Building relationships of respect and empathy with people who are different is the cornerstone – and definition – of Civity. We gave Civity a name because there wasn’t a word for it, and we need words to tell a story. We also need actions to bring a story to life: a story that offers possibilities for connection with people who are different – rather than the current story we are hearing over and over again of inevitable division. 

 

As we engage differently with people around us – with a micro-inclusion or a Civity conversation – we alter the story by contributing a moment of connection, rather than division. Every time we connect with someone we didn’t understand, or know, or trust before, we are adding to the Civity story, making it bigger, more dominant, and more powerful. And adding to the Civity story builds Civity itself. As we experience moments of connection, our belief that division is not inevitable grows, and as our belief grows we are more likely to connect.

 

This may sound like a very tall order, especially right now, but reaching across divides doesn’t mean connecting with someone you see as standing against everything you are or care about. There are plenty of divides that have grown between reasonable people who simply live in different filter bubbles, plenty of opportunities to reach out to someone who is different from you but also wants to find common ground. Even taking a small risk changes things.

 

Our Civity response to Charlottesville is not to turn away from the “us versus them” story, but also to take those small risks with those we do not currently understand, to nurture and reinforce the NO to KNOW story. Every day brings us many opportunities for interaction, opportunities to connect in a different way.

 

We invite you to join us in building Civity.  Let’s create the story together.

 

 

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