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Dialogue Across Differences: Mobilizing a Wider Base

by Maia Duerr

(Originally published in Fellowship Magazine, Fall 2010)

We live in a society that, by all appearances, is characterized by polarization and divisiveness — Tea Party candidates whose platforms are based on fear of the other seem to be gaining ground across the country; subtle and not-so-subtle racism aimed at President Obama, coming from both conservatives and progressives; and the proliferation of biased news outlets like Fox. We are a nation in the throes of toxic hatred.

Or so it seems. As Steve Chapman writes on Reason.com in an article titled “America Only Seems Polarized”: “Stop watching cable TV news channels and listening to politicians. Using them as a gauge of how divided we are is like using the National Hockey League to estimate the level of violence in America.”

In fact, a 2008 survey from the National Opinion Research Center found that the largest ideological group is moderates, even though extremist voices get the most coverage.

And yet there is some truth in all this. It’s common for many of us to interact only with people who think like us, which stretches the perceived divide further.

I believe that no matter how hard progressives work on issues that are important to us, until we can find ways to build bridges rather than walls and learn how to communicate effectively with the majority of Americans who yearn for more civility in public discourse, we won’t gain much traction.

One of the most important things that the global peace and justice movement can do is to reclaim what it means to be a decent and engaged citizen. One of the ways we can do this is by creating opportunities for dialogue across differences and building relationships with those who may not, at least initially, be on the same political page as us.

For example, I envision a cadre of people trained in mediation and dialogue skills working in places like Arizona to facilitate constructive conversation around issues like immigration. This would take a brave group of people, who themselves are able to hold multiple truths and find ways to bring people together rather than divide them. Some organizations that do this include the Public Conversations Project and the Zen Peacemaker Community with its “Bearing Witness” vigils in places like Rwanda and Auschwitz.

Grounding these dialogues in the wisdom that comes from our faith traditions, guided by principles of love and non-duality, can only help in this effort. More than ever, the faith-based approaches that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., forged are needed for a sustainable path to social transformation that mobilizes a wider base of people. But they need to be combined with more savvy about organizing methods and new media realities.

Organizations like stone circles and The Movement Strategy Center, and foundations such as the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation, are right in the middle of this equation, dedicated to bringing together effective organizing strategies with the deep well of spiritually-based action and transformative practices. I believe this is the future of activism.

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