Chronicle of Philanthropy publishes polarization op-ed

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

Above is the link to read the article online - below the copy version.

Four ways that nonprofits can tackle a growing U.S. Divide

Polarization is arguably our country’s biggest challenge and it appears to be worsening every day. While many foundation leaders and other nonprofit executives fret about the vitriol in our debates, we need far more energy and investment in efforts to help more Americans find common ground.

Until nonprofits do more to help people learn how to talk to one another about solutions, we cannot tackle our largest challenges - race, climate change, homelessness, education, health, and so much more.

To understand what is needed, we must all understand the difference between debate and dialogue. Steinar Bryn, a longtime scholar at the Nansen Academy and a five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his work in the Balkans, very succinctly sums up the difference between dialogue and debate and by implication the enormous work that lies ahead.

Debate’s goal is to win, while dialogue is to understand, he notes. Debate is about convincing, dialogue is about explaining. Debate is about arguing, dialogue is about listening. In debate, to change your opinion is a sign of weakness, while in dialogue it is a sign of maturity.

Organizations such as Search for Common Ground, Radical Empathy, and others have been working to promote these ideas in the United States. However, much more needs to be done to prevent polarization from worsening.

Below are a few proposals and programs which could start to install this culture of dialogue in the United States.

University Student Exchanges

Going abroad as a university student has become a rite of passage for many young Americans, with the most popular destinations being Europe and Asia.

While it may be hard for Bay Area students to think of the draw of Tulsa or Kansas City, they’d be surprised by how much they would learn and discover by spending time in a different region of the country. But it will probably take more than a suggestion to encourage students to treat domestic exchanges just like study approve.

That’s why colleges should make it easy to transfer academic credits earned during this type of exchange, and forward-thinking institutions should move now to lead the way.

It’s not just colleges though that can promote the idea. City leaders can take a page from what they do to attract businesses to locate there: Promote livability.

Strong universities, good transport links, cheap housing and a well-rounded cultural offer could entice students to experience different cultural and political geographies in the United States. Colleges are a great place to encourage more of these exchanges, but the same ideas would work with high school students.

Make Sister Cities a National Program, Not Just International

After World War II, President Eisenhower heavily promoted Sister Cities International whose mission is “to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time.”

These types of exchanges are crucial. While they have brought the world closer together and have been dramatically facilitated through air travel advances since the 1950s, there may be some significant room for cities and regions in the U.S. to start cooperating with each other.

“Cultural” exchanges between an artist in Missouri and an audience on the coast would be very practical and significantly cheaper than the sporadic exchanges between a medium-sized town in Arizona with its counterpart in Asia.

One may argue that cultural exchanges do take place when musicians and theater groups tour the country, but sister cities in the United States could do so much more to build alliances that stretch across political and state boundaries and lead to a deeper understanding of that region.

U.S. National Games - The Olympics for 50 States

Every four years, we see a hint of what a real world community looks like when the Olympic Games and World Cup bring people from around the globe to compete in the same sports.

That same model could be launched in the United States as a way to build unity across a common bond, with states competing against each other.

The thought of a South Dakotan David taking down a Californian Goliath in surfing would move me to think about the bigger picture. The Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Games comes to mind. While the athletes failed in the competition, they won the hearts and minds of many who watched them.

What if a red state and a blue state combined forces for a bid to host the event somewhere in the geographical middle of the country? That would send the right message about how to work together and could be an economic boon to states who must be constantly creative develop their economies.

Bridge Museum - Promoting dialogue in a cultural space

With a mission to inspire future bridges builders and a vision of a more connected, less polarized society, my colleagues and I have been working to build the world’s first museum dedicated to the bridge - as both structure and concept.

The Bridge Museum takes the timeless metaphor of the bridge and transforms it into a mechanism to try to understand the “other” through the launch of a six-month 4,000+ square foot exhibition in Oakland, Calif. in late 2019.

In addition to promoting dialogue as a tool for improved community relations, the Bridge Museum will be a place where people from communities that lack sufficient access to science, art, and math studies can learn more about STEAM disciplines and consider career paths. Our goal is to teach and inspire the next generation of scientists to engineer our century. For us, having an empathetic child who understands the built environment has enormous value to society, potentially for the next two generations.

The Museum will have three major sections: structural, symbols, and conceptual.

Structural themes will include “environment, materials and ingenuity,” while the symbols will highlight historical events on bridges, with themes of race, ethnicity, and community. The conceptual section will focus on ways to shape narratives and understanding among people with longstanding differences in views and background.

These efforts – and many more – are needed because Americans are wasting billions of dollars and hours talking past each other, in the community, throughout society and most certainly in Washington.

No problem will be solved if opposing sides cannot sit down and start a real dialogue focusing on our commonalities and be ready for compromise for the greater good. We need a sustained full-court press to bring together our nation, starting immediately, with

philanthropy playing its part.

Richard R. Dion is the Executive Director of the Bridge Museum.

© 2020 Bridge Museum 

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