Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
President Biden campaigned on “restoring the soul” of America. His campaign slogan, “Build back better,” promised an end to deeply entrenched partisanship. Days before his monumental inauguration to the presidency, millions of Americans were praying that this toxicity plaguing our country will begin to dissipate under stable leadership, and that—with a new president—our political system will become functional.
“We need to work together to give each other a chance to lower the temperature,” Biden said back in December. “We may come from different places, hold different beliefs, but we share in common a love for this country.”
It’s hard to find hope in these words, especially after Trump supporters, aiming to overturn the certified election results, raided the U.S. Capitol building, causing members of Congress to flee—a first in our history. So here we are after the inauguration hoping not just for forthcoming legislation to improve our schools or pay down our national debt, but that this administration will save our democracy. This is not a new concern, just one that now has higher stakes.
For decades, we have relied on our presidents to unite and heal America’s divisions through bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle.” Yet over the years we’ve only become more divided. And now we find ourselves here.
What, then, do we do when the grip of extreme partisanship continues to squeeze the life out of our democracy to the point of inciting violence, even after the inauguration of a president committed to reversing this downward spiral?
In 2016, a wave of bridge-building organizations across the country created an infrastructure to foster dialogue between disagreeing Americans. I started one of these groups, the Different Together project at GLIDE Memorial Church in San Francisco. I’ve seen how conversations across the lines of race, class, politics, and religion can have a transformative impact on a community.
We can’t outsource the work to heal America’s divisions; not to a president, nor to anyone else in the halls of power. This is our work, our responsibility. For those who want a healthy, peaceful democracy that solves seemingly intractable problems, this is our moment.
We must immediately take these three simple steps to prevent further hostility and violence in America:
Let Your Anger Build Bridges, Not Burn Them
Anger is a source of energy. To tap into it for productive purposes, I suggest downloading a meditation app (Insight Timer or Down Dog Meditation, for example) and taking a few minutes every day to clear your mind and calm your nervous system. Doing so transformed me. No longer am I a prisoner to anger that previously simmered in my idle body. I now use anger to fuel my desire to build peace and make valuable change in my community. Not only does this connect me with other people of goodwill, this also grants me the opportunity to challenge beliefs I oppose, and do so in a way that leaves us open to future dialogue. Maybe you’re too angry to build bridges right now—that’s OK. For those of us who are ready, we will work on your behalf.
Focus on Your Community
Join a nonprofit or church and lead or assist an effort to host inclusive community conversations. Rather than solely focusing on the theatrics of politics, we must also engage in our local communities. What would a vibrant democracy look like in your community? For me, it looked like a group of people who strongly disagreed with each other gathering to begin the process of ongoing dialogue about the very things that divide us from one another. Because civic engagement has been on the decline for many decades, hosting a community meeting among people who otherwise may not talk to each other can make meaningful change.
Look for the Helpers—and Join Them
Mister Rogers’ mother told him to “look for the helpers” in the news—the rescue teams, the medical personnel—who rush in to help during a crisis. “If you look for the helpers,” Mister Rogers said, “you’ll know that there’s hope.” When it comes to increased violence and hatred plaguing our country, there are many communities across the country actively working to heal what divides us from one another. Find them and join their efforts: Different Together, Living Room Conversations, and Braver Angels, just to name a few.
This won’t always be easy. Even though I’m a proponent of these bridge-building conversations, I’m not immune to the frustration and anger that bridge-building work can evoke. Overall, I’ve learned that if we are to heal division and prevent it from degenerating into utter mayhem, then we need to muster a gritty perseverance that builds bridges even when it’s uncomfortable.
I accept this work as my responsibility, a way to give back to my community and country. You and I can do this together. Our ripple effects, our joint efforts—no matter how small—will make a difference.
J. Christopher Collins is the founder of the Different Together project at GLIDE Memorial Church in San Francisco, California. Chris is a native of Texas and a graduate of St. Edward’s University in Austin and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service at New York University. Dedicating his entire career to public service, in 2017 Chris started Different Together and has created opportunities for courageous conversations among people who don’t share the same views about politics, religion, equality, race, or social class. Chris lives in San Francisco with his wife, Jen. He is the author of Mending Our Union: Healing our Communities Through Courageous Conversations