Episode 27: The Science of Depolarization (with Nealin Parker)

(Music) Society builders pave the way to a

better world, to a better day.

A united approach to building a new society.

Join the conversation for social transformation. Society Builders.

Society Builders with your host, Duane Varan.

(Duane) Welcome to another exciting episode of

Society Builders, and thanks for joining

the conversation for social transformation.

In our current sequence of episodes, we've been

exploring the science of depolarization and how we

can best bring antagonistic groups closer together.

Now, you'll be pleased to hear that

we are not alone in this ambition.

It shouldn't surprise you that if polarization is

one of the biggest problems of our age,

there will be many, many, many like-minded people

working to address that very problem.

And today we're going to talk to an expert

who is part of an initiative at Princeton University

to map out such initiatives, a task that has

already resulted in them identifying over 6700 organizations committed

to addressing polarization in the United States alone.

And they're not done.

There are literally thousands of organizations that are

not yet included in their mapping exercise.

So today's episode should help you weigh up and

consider the kinds of like-minded organizations you might

want to collaborate with as you contemplate how to

best respond to the challenges of polarization.

Now, my guest today is Nealin Parker, who

is the perfect person to address this theme.

Nealin has remarkable pedigree.

She served as a senior administrator during the

Obama administration, both in her capacity as, first,

Deputy Director and then Acting Director of the

Office of Transitions Initiatives at USAID.

Now, USAID is the agency of the

US government responsible for administering aid to

the rest of the world, America's social

and economic development agency, so to speak.

And the transitions office is the part of

USAID that is responsible for countries either currently

in a conflict or just recovering from one.

So her role here directly addressed aid

in the most dire of circumstances.

She also previously served as Chief of

Staff at the Department of Housing and

Urban Development, commonly referred to as HUD.

That means she was Chief of Staff to

a cabinet level appointee of the Obama administration.

I mean, that's really serious.

That's senior.

And currently she's Executive Director of Common Ground,

which is the US branch of Search for

Common Ground, which is one of the largest

non governmental peacebuilding organizations in the world.

Now, Nealin has also taught at Princeton University,

where she was one of the founding co-

directors of that major initiative that I referred

to earlier to map our organizations in the

United States working to bridge divides.

It's called the Bridging Divides Initiative.

And today we'll get a chance to discover

what she's been learning about the kind of

initiatives, the kind of organizations committed to depolarization.

So without further ado, Nealin,

welcome to Society Builders. (Nealin) Thank you.

It is wonderful to be here.

Thanks for having me.

(Duane) I'm so excited because today we're going to explore

how people can collaborate with others in finding their

path to helping deal with this polarization issue that

we've been talking about across these past episodes.

Now, Nealin,

before we get into that specific topic,

first, let's get the audience acquainted with you.

Of course, you're the Executive Director of

Common Ground USA, which is the US

Office of Search for Common Ground.

So tell us a little bit about who Search for Common

Ground is and what it is that this organization does.

(Nealin) That's wonderful. Thank you.

Thank you for that opportunity.

Search for Common Ground is actually

a Nobel Prize nominated organization.

It works in 40 countries around the world

and has worked for over 40 years in

trying to prevent conflict from turning into violence.

And the US piece is taking the best

lessons that we have from countries recovering from

conflict and translating them back to this country

and polarization in our context.

So the thing that's wonderful for me is that

I feel like I work with people who both

understand deeply how bad it can get and also

never lose hope knowing that it can get better. (Duane) Wow.

That is such a massive idea, this idea of

reflection, looking at conflict zones around the world, gleaning

lessons from those situations, from those crises, and then

seeing what aspects of those kind of, like, apply

to the different kind of crises we're facing here

in the United States.

What a massive undertaking.

(Nealin) Yeah, it is a massive undertaking, which is

why I'm grateful to be standing on the

shoulders of giants who've come before me.

(Duane) And in addition to the work that you

do with Search for Common Ground, you were

also one of the founding co-directors of

the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University.

Tell us a little bit about

what the Bridging Divides Initiative is.

(Nealin) So the Bridging Divides Initiative has

in some ways a similar origin.

I worked in countries recovering from conflict for years

before coming here, and I saw different strategies and

tools that people had around the world.

And one of them is to have documentation of where

political violence or war, where violent incidents are happening, so

that you can understand some of the patterns and some

of the areas that are at higher risk and then

be able to respond to those.

So at the Bridging Divides Initiative,

we did two different things.

One is we worked with an organization to try

to not only document what are the things that

are happening here, but to try to analyze that

in real time so that people could be responsive.

The other thing that we did was to try to

map out who could be responsive, who is, in a

sense, an asset for reducing the temperature, for creating a

context that was less conducive to political violence.

And so we mapped out about 6000

different organizations across the country in all

states that were doing things like building

community, that were working across differences.

And we have a variety of differences in this country.

And so it wasn't just here is somebody

who identifies as working across a political divide.

It was people who work across the varieties of divisions

that we have in a whole bunch of different ways.

And the thing that was interesting to me, coming

from working in countries that are recovering from conflict,

is so few of those organizations self identified as

what I would call peace building.

People who are working not just to end conflict, but

to build that kind of social cohesion and just society

that is self sustaining, a kind of positive peace.

That's something that is a known term and

a used term internationally and in the United States.

People who do that work sometimes

call themselves civil rights activists.

They sometimes call themselves librarians.

They sometimes call themselves democracy defenders.

They sometimes call themselves

everybody's favorite grandma.

And that range means that there are a

lot of, again, what I called assets.

There are a lot of people who are doing

the serious work of this in so many different

ways that haven't been tapped or don't see themselves

as the bigger part of this movement.

But I see them as fundamentally the only

way we get through these difficult times.

(Duane) Yeah, it's so amazing.

When I started doing the research around the polarization

theme, I was shocked when I came across the

Bridging Divides Initiative to see just how many thousands

of organizations there are just in the United States

that are dealing with this construct of bringing antagonistic

groups closer together in some way or form around,

as you say, all kinds of different kinds of

divides, whether that be religious divides, racial divides, of course

political divides, all kinds of things that are standing

in between people.

But the scale of it, over 6000 organizations

doing this work, it's just incredible to see

how strong the social response has been to

this issue of polarization, really.

(Nealin) I think that's right.

But I also think that that was a

deep undercounting of what is out there.

There are so many more organizations.

The way that we did it, the methodology

that we used was to take organizations that

had connected to a broader network already.

And the idea was we wanted to be

able to share information out to that broader

network and we wanted those organizations to kind

of be able to connect with each other.

We weren't ourselves the infrastructure that would be able

to bring everybody together, but we wanted to be

able to reach out to that broad group and

have, if there were a crisis, theoretically be able

to activate those folks to be able to respond.

So already you can tell that so many organizations are

not going to themselves sign up for as a nonprofit,

would to be part of a larger coalition.

Faith organizations in particular, I would say, are missing

from that map, and that's actually a great thing.

It means that we are undercounting the infrastructure that

we have in this country to be responsive.

And I said faith organizations, not just like

we're undercounting some marginal pieces, we are undercounting

some very fundamental and strong networks in this

country that can be responsive.

(Duane) Yeah, I noticed that as well as I

was looking through the 6700 plus organizations in

the list, there are very few faith organizations.

And as we've been discovering in our interview with

Rabbi Roli Matalon and in our interview with Andrea

Bartoli, I mean, of course, the Baha'i's as well,

it's very clear that religious communities have a very

strong engagement with this polarization issue as well.

So I see your point, but it is exciting to see

that the 6700 is the tip of an iceberg here.

There are literally many, many thousands of organizations, and

that means that wherever you live, there are probably

other people who are also concerned about this problem

and who are doing something about it.

(Nealin) Yes, my friend, that is the point.

That is exactly right.

(Duane) And so what we want to do today is we

want to give the audience a little bit of a

sense of who these organizations are, these thousands of people

across the country who are coming together in some kind

of community driven initiative to respond to the polarization.

Who are these and what forms do these take?

What are the different types of initiatives that

these organizations are taking to respond to and

combat this kind of polarization in society.

(Nealin) So I think it's going to be hard for us to

capture it in one sitting because there is so much out

there and because there's so much variety out there.

So one of the things that I would say is, like the

map, this is going to be a little bit of a tip

of the iceberg, but I hope what we can do is give

people a little bit of the flavors of options that are out

there enough to catalyze your interest to kind of go out there.

If you have an interest, there

is somebody out there doing it.

There is a running club, there is an art studio,

and they are all bringing things together in different ways.

So one of the things, if you don't mind, I'd like

to step back a little bit to where I was before

of what does it mean to be a peace builder?

What does it mean to contribute

to depolarization in this country?

And one of the things that I said before

that I'll just sort of bring back here is

that when we're looking at a healthy and just

society, there are things that kind of need to

move in the right direction at the same time.

So there are groups that are working on

faith and trust and efficacy of institutions.

So connecting you with your mayor and connecting you on

solving a problem locally, that's one body of work.

There are also people who are working

on specifically building community or on depolarization.

And then there are people who are working

on reducing hate or reducing myths and disinformation.

And all of these seem like big buckets of

things, and they are big buckets of things.

But anybody who's working on any of those pieces is

contributing to a healthy and just society, and a society

where the likelihood of violence reduces overall and where the

likelihood of being able to go through hard things and

come out on the other side stronger increases.

So that's everything from like a

really tense election to another pandemic.

If we had these pieces, people having trust in our

government, in our elections, in our institutions, people having trust

in each other and the media, and people really wanting

to reduce the incidence of violence themselves, then you get

like a self perpetuating good out there and the ability

to take hard things, have them happen, but come out

stronger on the other side.

So in terms of how do you get involved, those

are the kind of different areas that I think about.

And then what do you do?

Often you start out by just finding out information.

So getting educated is a thing to do.

If you're on this podcast and listening to it,

hopefully in your car with a nice cup of

tea or something lovely by the fire, something.

This is a moment where you are doing the thing, you

are getting educated, but there's more that you can do.

So, for example, you can learn about

somebody who thinks differently than you do.

And you may not see that as a massive action

that is responsive to this huge problem that we're facing,

but it is an incredibly important first step.

It is the first step of every peace agreement

that ever ended any war is people who think

that they don't have something in common.

Listening to each other to solve the shared problem

of ending that war, and it's the basis of

anything else that you're going to do.

So there are organizations

like Living Room Conversations.

If you say, like, I don't know

how to start even having a conversation.

They have templates.

And you can host a conversation in your home.

You can start out by attending, and then you can

host one in your home, or you can just look

at their guidelines for here's how you would go about

having a conversation, a dialogue about difference.

There are groups like the Preemptive Love Coalition, which

has become a partner with Search for Common Ground.

They host Love Anyway Feasts, and these are gatherings

where people can come together across differences and host

a dinner and learn about each other.

And anybody can be a host of something like that.

Again, if you need a little bit extra about

how you're like, okay, I can talk to people

who are different, but there are, like, politics.

Politics is too hard for me.

I can't do that because I

have too many feelings on that.

There's an organization called Braver Angels that specializes specifically

in talking about what they call the red blue

divide, but that lies on top of politics.

They kind of go beyond the parties themselves and think

about it in a little bit of a broader context.

So you can learn information about how

to have some of these conversations.

So this is like starting to like, what

are the actions that you want to take?

You can join an alliance, for example, with

Braver Angels, but you can also get involved

in what is happening in your local community.

And again, one of the things that is

so important is that that kind of, like,

weaving of belonging at the local community level.

So there is, for example, a network of librarians that

is part of the Listen First Coalition, and they host

events that are open to everybody in their town.

If you like books and you can't see

because it's a podcast, but I'm surrounded by

books and these kind of things.

And if you're somebody who wants to be part of community and

a community that is open to all people, that is a space

that is known as a really open place that anybody can be

part of, and it's a kind of low barrier to entry, you

might be like, you know, I'm not ready for big thing, but

I want to be a part of something.

Being part of building a community in your

town is actually part of the main. (Duane) What are some of the organizations that

do that, that build this kind of depolarization

effort around cooking around food?

(Nealin) So, first of all, food is a great unifier in the world.

And in our country, and there is a reason

that we say we need to 'break bread together',

not just meaning that literally, but meaning that figuratively.

And so a lot of groups, they understand

you have food as the focal point and

you are able to bring people together.

So things like Make America Dinner Again, or I

mentioned before, the Love Anyway Feasts where you bring

people together around a meal and everybody brings part

of what brings the food that makes them happy.

And that's part of what the conversation is,

the people supper or resetting the table.

There are so many organizations that really anchor in

that sense of food and cooking and community around

that food being part of what brings us together.

(Duane) Fantastic.

And there are also a lot of

organizations that focus specifically on students.

Of course, universities in particular are

like these places where these issues

are often talked through very actively.

There's an active discussion about difference.

What are some of the organizations that

are focused on bringing students together?

(Nealin) Yeah, that is such a good question.

And I think such an important group of people

in the country, not only is it because these

are the future leaders that are going to have

to pull us through, but exactly as you said,

universities can be a center of this beautiful space

where people are trying to figure this out.

And there aren't easy answers.

And so they can kind of be the front lines for

polarization or for pandemics or for any number of things.

So, yeah, there are a lot of

organizations that are thinking about that.

One that I have really enjoyed

seeing their growth is Bridge USA.

And there, there's an opportunity to join campus chapters,

which is great because it means that you can

either join a chapter with existing, or if you

want to start a chapter, then you don't have

to do this thing all alone.

There are other people who have started chapters at

other universities that can be a resource for you.

I think one of the things that I found a lot

in this work is that people think that they are an

island and they either feel like I'm working on my own,

how can I have this big impact, or I'm working on

my own and I don't know what to do.

And it can feel really lonely.

The zeitgeist of our time is

one of pulling people apart.

How can I be part of something bigger than myself?

So I really enjoy these chapter organizations that

allow people to be part of something larger,

even as they're focused at the local level.

There, there are other organizations like

campus conversation or sustained dialogue.

And I've also worked with a group called Solia that

does campus work, but online, and it connects students over

a long period of time, but it connects them online

ahead of orientation, so that by the time they even

get to the university, they have skill sets that help

them have dialogues across difference, so that the culture that's

created of that class is infused with these ideas of

how to work across difference.

And then even before you get to

university, there is the American Exchange Project,

which is a high school project.

Although if there's anybody out there who is willing

to be a host, I know that they are

looking for some really amazing hosts out there.

It is the coolest idea.

It's how to bring kids who are growing

up in one experience into the homes, the

sort of like, core of another experience.

So you can have a student in Brooklyn having

a rodeo experience from the inside out, with a

student their own age who is hosting them in

that community, or with other students who are having

this experience from across the country.

So you can either be a student who's signing up

to have that experience, or you can be a host

who's signing up to say, here's what I love about

my community that I hope somebody else gets to know.

And giving students that opportunity to learn across difference

at that age can be really life changing.

And you can get somebody, a young person who

you've got the next 70 years, knock on wood

of their lives, dedicated to making sure that other

people have the experience of working across difference.

And of course, so much of the challenge of the

divisions of our age really is still centered around religion.

(Duane) What do you see in the way of

organizations that are working to create interfaith dialogue,

to bridge those differences between religious communities?

(Nealin) Again, there are too many to be named

in a short period of time here.

So I just want to have a moment of

gratitude for the people who are working in organized

ways and also just church to synagogue and across

all of these different faith communities.

So a couple that I would mention, the Shoulder

to Shoulder Campaign, which allows you to be multiple

faiths, but they have a strong Christian community that

is being allies to the Muslim community, the Telos

Organization that has taught people how to become peacemakers.

They have a focus on Israel,

Palestine and the Deep South.

But I think one of the things that I

would say about the interreligious work is in so

many ways, it's ahead of even the polarization work.

It's teaching lessons to the rest of us

about how to do this, because so often

when people are thinking about political polarization, they're

thinking about how to change someone else.

How do I make you believe what I believe,

and that's how we're going to get along.

And the thing that I love about the interfaith

work is that it's moved beyond that concept to

how do I show respect for your beliefs?

And you show respect for my beliefs.

How do we live together with our separate beliefs in.

So, you know, groups like Interfaith America started

out thinking, really focused on interfaith work.

But because the way that interfaith work is

so transferable to so many other divisions, they've

started working on a number of efforts, including

partnerships with Habitat for Humanity.

So they're talking and working across

divisions into that local volunteer space.

So another fabulous organization working on faith with

faith communities, but really focused on attacking that

toxic polarization is the One America Movement, and

they're also creating online trainings and resources.

So that's also an easy way for you to get connected

in, even if you don't see something happening in your own

community, a way for you to connect to those resources.

(Duane) You mentioned Habitat for Humanity.

It reminds me of a whole nother universe

of these organizations which are focused on service.

So the path to finding that path to unity

is really grounded in this idea of service.

Maybe you could highlight a couple

of organizations in that realm.

(Nealin) Yeah, so volunteer organizations.

One of the things that is really important is

that we don't stop at just talking across differences.

If you have a conversation across difference, that

is a way to start what turns into

a relationship, that turns into collaborative action.

And that collaborative action is what you need to

be able to sort of make a real difference.

So one of the things that I think is

so powerful about these service organizations is that they

are starting from a place of action.

Habitat for Humanity is building houses

to be able to bring

the ethos of doing that work across difference is,

first of all, I think it's a natural thing.

But in addition to that, it's a really powerful way

to think about how to do this because it doesn't

just end at the conversation, and it's a natural way

to bring people who might otherwise be very, very different.

So somebody who knows how to hammer and somebody who

knows how to shovel may not have other things that

they know of in common, but if they need to

be able to shovel and then hammer together to build

that house, they already have one thing in common.

They already both got up that morning and said,

the thing that I want to do with the

precious resource of my time is I want to

build a home for somebody else that is a

starting place for coming together around other things.

We care about this community.

We want good things to happen here.

So Habitat gives you an opportunity for that.

Things like City Year are really focused

on bringing volunteers from experiences that are

different than where they're volunteering and allowing

that to be part of the program.

And in fact, all Americorps programs are really thinking

about themselves as how can we as individuals be

part of this bridge, but also how can the

work that we do, the volunteer work that we're

doing in our communities, be part of that?

The Red Cross and United Way are two other

service organizations that are thinking about how do we

do this work, not only with the benefit of

the community building, but how do we do it

really intentionally, thinking about how we do this build

in ways that brings people across difference. (Duane) Amazing.

Such incredible opportunities.

Now, Nealin, we've gone from people not knowing

that there are any organizations out there who

they could potentially collaborate with to a universe

where now it just seems like there's an

infinite number of organizations.

I'm sure people will feel a little bit overwhelmed

suddenly about, well, I want to collaborate now, but

which of these many organizations should I collaborate with?

How do people go about figuring

out which organization to collaborate with?

How do people navigate through that choice?

How do they find the organizations that

they're best suited to collaborate with?

(Nealin) So you should always start with what interests

you, and that will help you figure out

which of the many, many organizations are good.

But I've given you, as I said, the tip of the iceberg.

The map that exists on the Bridging

Divides Initiative website is a great place

that you can search by location.

So if you're looking for what's something near me,

or you can search by topic and area of

interest, these are places that you can find some.

Another really great place to go is the Listen

First Coalition website, and that has just a ton

of organizations, and you can click on anyone to

find out more about what they do.

And as I said, it's hundreds of

organizations that are part of that coalition.

I have mentioned only a few of them here.

So I would strongly recommend that you go

online and look at the list of coalition

members there to give you an idea.

(Duane) And we'll have links for these

on the description for this podcast.

This is the a note for my listeners.

If you look at the description of the podcast,

you'll see the URLs for both of these directories.

(Nealin) Great. Thank you.

(Duane) So now we have thousands of organizations, but

I'm sure there's a lot of variability in

the quality of the programs that are there.

How do people know how much thought and discipline and

how well structured any of these programs really are?

(Nealin) That is a really good question and a

discerning question, and it is not the case

that all organizations are created equal.

I would say that the ones that I've mentioned here

are ones that have been vetted, but there are many

more beyond that I wouldn't want to discount.

I think one of the things that I would look

to is, do you feel like you have done enough

research on the organization itself, so you can look at

the website and then you can do, as you would

with any other organization, a search of that organization.

Do they come up in the news in any way?

If it's a really local

organization, they probably won't.

But then you can also start where

I said before, you start by learning.

So you can start by downloading a resource guide

and see if that resource guide resonates for you.

And then all you've lost, really, if you look

at it and you say, really, this doesn't actually

feel like it solves what I'm looking for, and

it's not really what I'm interested to.

All you've really lost in that moment is the time it

took for you to download the thing and read over it.

And in some ways, that might actually

help you be a bit more discerning.

Anyway, the thing that I would say about this

is it is a little bit like you are

going to know if you walk into.

If you walk into an experience and you don't

feel like you are any more comfortable now than

you were before, or if you walk into an

experience and you feel like actually this feels not

good, that's something just to listen to.

This kind of work is the kind of work that

fills people with connection and belonging and joy and hope.

And I'm not saying that it isn't hard sometimes.

In fact, it can be very hard.

But if it doesn't have those elements to it, if

you don't feel that, then that's something to listen to.

Don't lose hope.

There's probably another organization out there

that you can collaborate with.

(Duane) So a little bit of experimentation, experiment.

Try something out.

Reflect, engage in some reflection on it.

And then if it does work, share with

some of your friends, share it with others

so that they can also benefit from that.

(Nealin) That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

In general, I would say that my experience has

not been that there are bad organizations out there.

It's actually been much more of a problem

of people not knowing the organizations are out

there not being connected to those organizations.

So I can only say yes to sharing

the information of the ones that work.

That's actually a gift not only to you and your

friends, but one of the things that our country is

looking for is success stories, is stories of people who

at the local level are doing this right.

Please do share those experiences.

Bring more people in and help them feel like they

are connected to something bigger than that one experience.

(Duane) Nealin, a big change that has been happening in the

Baha'I community lately really has been much more focus in

the challenge of our times, if you will, at the

neighborhood level, where before we would be thinking much more

at like a city level or a very large group.

Now increasingly we're figuring out how

to engage in dialogue with neighbors.

We're working and collaborating

at the neighborhood level.

What do you think the benefits are

of that kind of neighborhood focus?

That neighborhood level of focus.

(Nealin) I'm really excited to hear that.

And there's been designated a

national crisis of loneliness.

And the change for people feeling belonging

happens so often at the smallest levels.

Family, friends, neighborhood.

And feeling like there is community

at that neighborhood level is doable.

It's tangible.

It's a place where you can make the difference

and where you can actually see the difference.

It's also a place that often doesn't have governance in

place to try to fill that void, if you will,

or provide some of those services or bring people together.

And so it's a place that needs us.

It needs individuals who are

committed to building that connection.

I think one of the things that I would

say is also the case is that we need

to think about what is the definition of neighborhood

and how do we make sure that we aren't

re upping divisions by focusing on a neighborhood as

it exists right now, but instead thinking about calling

people into neighborhoods and bringing diversity into those neighborhoods.

And I really do mean diversity in as

many ways as you can think of it.

If there is a community, and quite frankly,

in our country, there's the big sort, there

is increasingly homogeneity in our communities.

And people who have a bit of an echo

chamber online, that's something that we talk about a

lot, but they're having more and more of an

echo chamber in their own community.

So the work to me, at the community

level, at the neighborhood level, is both intra

neighborhood work and also inter neighborhood work, and

making sure that we create physical spaces that

naturally bring diversity to them.

(Duane) That is such a great point, Nealin, and

I hadn't really thought about it that way,

but if you think about the way that

often divisions are cultivated at that neighborhood level.

When we're faced with that scenario, what is it

that we can do to really kind of help

provide a bridge to bring diversity into that neighborhood

where it may not naturally exist that way?

(Nealin) Some cases, I think there is a need to physically

go to other places and make sure that you have

a greater understanding of what it's like for somebody else,

which is why I really love the american exchange program.

But in other cases, diversity does exist in your

community or very near your community, and so you

can just define it in a slightly different way.

It is the case in some places that there

are entirely different communities on either side of railroad

tracks or on either side of streets.

But if you define your community as something that

crosses those very minimal barriers, then you may find

that you actually have a very diverse community.

You may live in a community that has an

elder care resource in the middle of it that

nobody is really visiting or incorporating into the community.

And so you would get a different sense of who your

community was if you were bringing some of that in.

As I said, some of it is

about unearthing the diversity that you have.

And other times, it is actually important

to look beyond your immediate community.

We live in a digital age, and it

has a lot of downside, but it has

an opportunity to reach beyond your physical space.

That is something in many

ways unique to our generation.

Just like a quick trick on how do you find diversity

in your community if you're in a place that has public

transportation or it has public spaces where people come?

I, for example, periodically take

taxis and periodically take buses.

And the conversations that I have on public

transportation give me insight into what is happening

in worlds that I would never otherwise see

and are a real opportunity.

So just putting yourself physically in spaces where

other people may come can give you a

different vision of what your community is.

(Duane) So, Nealin, the Baha'I community, as

you know, is a global community.

Don't think just big cities.

You know, visualize villages in the Democratic

Republic of the Congo and the Highlands

of Papua New Guinea, you know, literally all over

the world, small communities, but everywhere.

And recently, the Baha'I community adopted this goal

of having a single priority for communities worldwide,

which is this focus on society building, which

will be the singular focus for Baha'I communities

for the next 25 years.

So Baha'I really want to learn a

lot about how to engage in society building.

So what suggestions would you have for

the Baha'I community, given that new focus,

if you will, for the community?

(Nealin) This is amazingly good news for me, and

I am just so excited to hear about

that prioritization and also that framing for it.

I so often hear this framed in a kind of

negative valence of fear of like, we are falling apart

and we need to do something about it.

But the positive focus on who we are and who we

want to become, that is in and of itself powerful.

It sounds to, I just to hearken back

to your earlier podcast with Peter Coleman.

He is one of the people in

our country doing academic research that I

think really speaks to this positive focus.

We're not trying to figure out how to avoid war.

We're trying to figure out how

to build a positive peace.

And that focus on where do we

want to get to actually matters.

If you can see it, you can get there.

And maybe conversely, if you can't see it, if

all you can see is what you're trying to

run away from, it's very hard to get there.

And again, this sort of

like, are we anti authoritarian?

Are we anti civil? War?

Is a lot of what you hear, and I know that

you have a global listenership, but in the United States, that's

a lot of where the focus is right now.

And there is a lot of good information around that.

I would like to throw out one piece

which Search for Common Ground worked with organizations

about, I don't know, five dozen organizations around

the world trying to build.

What are the pieces that we need to bring

together for a country to be healthy and resilient,

to sort of like, bring people together?

And I earlier referenced this a little bit.

It's the 'Peace Impact Framework'.

And there are five things that they

found that countries or communities that were

strong and healthy and self sustaining had.

And they looked at these five different things, and

they found, like, for example, countries that did well

through the last pandemic weren't the richest countries.

They weren't the strongest countries militarily.

They had something else.

And the five things were they had low levels of

violence, which you might think of as a little tautological,

but don't for a second, because violence is a very

complex thing, but it is a self perpetuating thing.

So if you can reduce any kind of

violence, then you help create the space for

the other work that you have to do.

The second is trust in each other.

So we were talking about polarization, building

that community, building, belonging, reducing polarization.

And when I'm talking about polarization, I don't

actually mean that we disagree on issues.

That's always going to happen.

And, in fact, that's really healthy, and

you want that kind of disagreement to

help you come to an understanding.

But you need to have people see each other as human.

And when you get to the point where you dehumanize

each other, then you're out of a healthy space.

Third is that people need to feel agency

about solving problems that matter to them.

So if you feel like you can do something about

a waterline that's busted in your backyard or race relations

in your country, both of those, if they are salient

to you, if you can make a difference on them,

and if you can have greater equality of opportunity that

will help make a healthy and just society.

The next one is connection to institutions and to

feel like those institutions are trustworthy and effective.

So in the United States, there are a

lot of people who don't feel trust in

our security sector, our police force.

They don't feel trust in our elections,

they don't feel trust in our government.

And not having trust in any of those things actually

makes people want to take on those functions themselves, but

in a way that doesn't have the checks and balances

that you want to see in a country.

So working on educating people about local government

resources or about what is fair and not

fair in an election, those are our contributions.

And finally, the last one is a little

bit harder to conceive of, but it's the

way that money flows in a society.

So the explanation that I often give about the United

States is think how much money is going into campaigns

that remind us of all that we don't share.

So, political campaigns that tell us why we shouldn't like

each other, why it's an existential important issue to not

be like this other part in the United States versus

how much money is going into this to remind us.

And everybody in the United States can

easily say, oh, not the same amount.

There are many more resources going into

dividing us than bringing us together.

So if you can start to shift the

way that money flows, then you have a

sustainable way of bringing a country together.

So that's called the peace impact framework.

And it's been a way that's been really helpful to me

in trying to think about what are the different kinds of

work that we need to do to bring a country together

that's kind of like the big picture level.

It sounds like Peter talked a

little bit about contact theory.

Contact theory is at this really micro level where

you have got to connect to somebody across difference.

That can be your starting point.

We're going to be healthier and stronger as a society.

If we figure out natural ways to bring difference together

in a collaborative way, where that difference is part of

what success looks like, I don't think that we want

a world where we don't have that variety.

Maybe some people do, but I don't.

And I actually don't think that any of us

are seeking a kind of monolithic world out there.

So then we have to accept

that there's going to be difference.

And what we want is to have that

difference, be able to live in harmony.

And again, as I said, I feel like my experience

with the Baha'I community, and also the interfaith community more

generally, is that there is a real understanding of that

and a profound set of internal beliefs that allow you

to naturally create that in your community.

So at the micro level, understanding more about contact theory

and more about what it can do and also some

of its limitations, as I said, it's not enough just

to come in contact with somebody else.

The thing that I often really, really encourage is

that second piece where you have collaborative action and

where it's not just we should talk to each

other across difference, because I think that's morally good.

It's that when we talk to each

other across difference and come together to

make change, it's actually more successful.

And there is a way, like in

the measuring of what success looks like.

It's not just, oh, Bob and Sally talked

to each other and they had skills.

They've learned skills about how to talk to each other.


There's a whole group of people that

are going to think, that's awesome.

There's a whole group of people that are

going to say, I actually don't really care

if Bob and Sally talk to each other.

I have this other problem that I want to get solved.

I have racial issues that I care about.

I care about climate, I care about whether

our village is connected to the market.

I care about all of these things.

But in each of those circumstances, you

can usually find where talking across difference

is going to make that work better.

You want your village to be connected to the market.

You've got to go down the

road that crosses another village.

And if you don't know how to talk

to that other village, it's going to be

really hard to get your resources to market.

That's one example that is played

over and over and over again.

We exist in a world with each other.

We need to figure out how

to work out those differences together.

(Duane) So, Nealin, if you were in a community and

you were trying to figure out what to do,

how to engage with and how to collaborate with

other people, like minded people like you.

How would you go about doing it?

(Nealin) I would start by listening to your

podcast, and then that's good advice.

I mean, it was a joke, but it wasn't totally a joke.

So the first thing that I would do is that

I would do some asking around in the community, and

I would ask people who are your connectors, who has,

in a sense, who has authority, who has constituency?

Those are kind of big words, but it's basically

like, who's somebody who gets things done and who

are people who help bring people together?

And I would ask that about individuals, and

I would also ask that about organizations, because

you could find out things like, you know,

what really brings people together in this community?


And often it's things like music and sports and food

and fun that are the things that unify a community.

So there's already work happening, and I would want

to make sure that my first steps were working

on supporting the things that already existed and not

replicating the things that already existed.

And then from there, I would talk to those people

who bring people together and find out what is it

that you find works and what doesn't work, and what

do you need to be even more successful.

And I would at the same know I'm me.

So I've been doing this work for a while, but there

was a reason that when I started working in the United

States, the first thing I did was to map out what

everybody else was doing and to try to talk to them

about what was working and what did they need to do.

So I did that.

I tried to do it on a national level.

I would do the same thing in any community,

anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world.

But then I would also take the knowledge that I

had from having done this and try to connect.

So, okay, you're saying it works really, really well

to bring people together over food, but maybe the

person who's bringing people together is like, yeah, but

sometimes we don't know what we want to talk.

I don't know how to sort

of broach some of these conversations.

Well, there are organizations out there

that have lots of resources.

I mentioned before, Living Room

Conversations that have online resources.

And if that's the problem, then you've

got something that you can share there.

If there are problems, like, well, I've got

people who are interested, but I don't feel

like they're ready to get into a conversation,

but they want to learn something.

There are groups like all sides or the

flip side that actually can email you information.

You can say, here's how I see things.

And they will email you stories that are

really well thought out, the best case view

of that story to your inbox.

So again, who knows what the problem is?

The people there will tell you what they are.

And from there you can kind

of connect to these other resources.

Or you can say, actually, the problem isn't

these other resources, it's that there isn't a

public transportation system to get them there.

And then that gives you an opportunity

to say, well, what if we work

across difference to solve that problem together?

That's where I would start.

(Duane) Nealin, this has been so much fun and you've done

such a great job in persuading us that there really

are other people out there that we can collaborate with.

And hopefully what the audience will take away from

this is that desire to find some other organization

that they can collaborate with and learn from, reflect

on, experiment with, and then share with others what

their experience is like so that we can gain

momentum in this business of collaboration around finding like-

minded people to pursue these tasks with.

(Nealin) I feel confident that we can and I'm so

grateful to be here with you and all of

your efforts to make that more likely.

(Duane) Thank you so much for joining us on Society Builders.

That's it for today.

Now in our next episode, we're going to look

back at all the guidance we've been receiving from

the world's leading luminaries in the science of depolarization.

And we're going to try to bring

some synthesis to what we've learned and

how this relates to our Baha'i principles.

Wow, that's going to be a real challenge, right?

I mean, we've been learning so much.

So make sure you don't miss that episode.

That's next time on Society Builders.

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