I am a volunteer neighborhood leader in a small city in northern California. For the past ten years, I have been a part of a group of community leaders who have been working to overcome divisions and improve our ability to work together here in our city. We have been able to create a non-partisan organization that has united all sectors of our community, from conservative evangelicals to liberal secularists, in a common effort to create a better kind of politics in our city. Based on this experience and with a determination to find a way to respond to the growing divisions in our nation, we have a message for you, for citizens like us across the nation.
First let’s all admit the stark facts: too many of us are now divided into adversarial camps with separate sources of information and different leaders working to cement our divisions. Our trust in each other and in our public institutions is low and declining. Our division and the mistrust have made it impossible for us to find the common ground we need to meet our challenges both at the local and national levels. We are unable to help our communities devastated by globalization, unable to address the concerns of our youth including the challenges of gun violence and climate change, unable to create a fair and comprehensive immigration policy or agree on a way to overcome past and current injustices and make everyone feel valued and welcome in our nation.
Fellow citizens, we know that these facts and the current gridlock in our governments are the result of the divisions in our communities and the adversarial camps that we have willingly joined. We know that too many of our current leaders are working to maintain these divisions as a part of their strategy to stay in power. It is time for all of us to take responsibility for this crisis, to step out of our camps, our parties, our interest or issue groups, and take on, in a fuller way, our role as citizens. It is time for us, as citizens, to meet with those who differ from us and work to find the common ground we need to meet our challenges. We don’t have to give up our beliefs and our values; we just need to take on the responsibility ourselves for finding ways to meet, share ideas, and get to know other citizens outside our camps.
Most importantly, we need to take these opportunities to meet with those who differ with us to begin the work to find the common ground we need to get things done –the common ground that our leaders are telling us does not exist. This work to find common ground is the responsibility of all citizens in a democracy. It is the work that we gave up when we organized ourselves, or got organized by leaders, into camps and delegated our responsibilities to distant leaders. This is the work that can restore the fundamental requirement for a democracy: citizens themselves taking responsibility for and engaging in the work to find common ground. When we take up this work, we will reconfirm our belief in our founders’ declaration that “all are created equal”. We will reconfirm our belief that all of us have unique and significant lives that deserve to be respected and that working to include everyone’s voice will give us the best chance to meet our challenges.
And more than this, we will need to use the common ground we will find to demonstrate by our actions that we can work together meet our challenges. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we can solve our affordable housing crisis; we can find ways to reduce gun violence; we can do something about climate change, and more. It will not be easy to meet any of these challenges, but we will show once again that communities working together in a democracy can accomplish great things. And, it is exactly the experience of working together and getting things done that will really give us a chance to get to know each other and deepen our respect for each other’s gifts and our great diversity. It will re-establish our bonds as fellow citizens that cannot be broken by those seeking to divide us.
The best place for us to take on this fuller role as citizens right now may be in our local communities, in our towns and cities, our neighborhoods, in our schools, our faith-based and community organizations. These are the places where we can meet our neighbors face-to-face, get beyond the partisan labels, get to know each other, and learn how to work together.
Are you skeptical about our ability to find common ground? Are you unsure about our ability to listen to and learn from each other? Do you wonder if we share common values deep down? If we want to maintain our democracy, we have to take on the responsibility now to find the answers to these questions. Our willingness to take on this responsibility to reach out and rebuild our communities may be the only way out of crisis that we now face.
If your community is like ours, as you begin this work you will find that most everyone is looking for a better and more democratic politics that can bring us together and get things done. Listen to their good ideas, share yours, and you will discover, like us, that there is a wide lane of common ground that will let you accomplish great things right in your neighborhood. And, if you are like us, you will also find that sharing common ground without having the organizations that will allow citizens to work together will not suffice. So, join and spend some time helping build the community and neighborhood organizations that will be the key to engaging everyone in public work. Remember, if you are interested in climate change, housing, homelessness, gun violence, immigration, or any other pressing challenge, then doing the work to build your neighborhood organizations and your city’s ability to work together may be the most important thing you can do. This is the work that will develop the common ground, the commitment, and the engagement we need to meet all our challenges.
If we work together now and relearn how a democracy can work in all of our towns and cities, then we will gradually be able to find and elect representatives who understand this and will know how to restore our ability to work together in Washington. Let’s resolve to make 2020 a year of hope and healing, starting in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities.