Now that the 2020 election is history, we are left with many questions, but one of the biggest seems to be ‘how do we unite a divided nation? This is always difficult in a democracy that calls for compromise and understanding, but is now even more urgent. We should not expect our politician’s to suddenly step up and do this; it is the responsibility of all Americans. However the question remains, ‘How do we do this and what is it that divides us so? To get to the core of this question we must be willing to step out of our own comfort zones (be they physical or relational) and try to understand one another as Americans.
Soon after the election I tried a little experiment. As a conversation would come up regarding the impact of the election on minority communities (ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, etc.), I would drop an occasional “those people” when referring to minority communities. I would slip in a comment such as “Those people need to understand….” This was much to the horror of my friends and other like minded people. At the same time it has been quite common to hear the same people (myself included) use “those people” when referring to folks who voted for the opposing candidate. Suddenly the use of “those people” was acceptable. So I began to wonder; ‘What do we mean or express when we use that phrase? What I concluded is that it stands for people or communities we do not know or don’t understand, or even worse, don’t want to understand. All this leads to is fear of the other and gets in the way of a meaningful dialogue.
After the election results were in, maps were posted to show how people voted. With the map of the US color coded blue for the Democratic votes and red for Republican, it was quite obvious how the divide played itself out politically. Most of the metropolitan areas and large cities were blue, Suburbs were a shade in between and the rural areas (much larger in land and smaller in population) were red. This was also easily seen if you were to drive from a city like Minneapolis to Milwaukee. Biden signs dominated the city, a smattering of both in suburbs, and primarily Donald Trump signs in rural and small town areas. If one was to listen to the rhetoric coming from these differing areas it was not and is not uncommon to hear those who live in cities refer to out-state people as being less educated, xenophobic, bigoted bumpkins, right wing religious zealots. I have heard this frequently, and again. However this is a rather simplistic and shallow view of my fellow Americans, and will certainly do nothing to help heal a divide. On the reverse side it is not uncommon to hear those in less populated areas where there is less racial or ethnic diversity, refer to city folks as elitist, selfish, socialist, lazy government sucking tools of a mainstream media and big government that wants to take our freedom and rights away. Again this is a rather simplistic and divisive view that is directed by a lack of understanding.
So where can we begin to build a bridge across what divides us. As with many of the problems that lie ahead, the solutions will belong to our young people. Therefore, they must be given opportunities to explore what is happening beyond their own world and the rhetoric they hear in the communities they live and associate with. Just as in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, it may be our school system that becomes the societal tool used to bridge the divide. Hopefully it will not have to be a Supreme Court ruling that will make this happen, but common sense approaches used by schools, teachers and students. While the media and social media have been used as tools to divide, new ways to communicate outside of our chosen boundaries must be created. Different ways to engage using both electronic communication, as well as face to face encounters should be offered. Civil dialogue opportunities, where our students are encouraged to listen and ask questions of each other need to be developed. Young people’s voices need to be heard in the greater conversation, “What does it mean to be an American?”
I would propose that schools and our communities begin to explore several avenues to make this happen. These could include:
1. Using electronic connections to create class room exchanges between urban, suburban and rural schools. There are many examples of this happening between schools in different countries, set up to learn about each other’s cultures, but few exist to support exchanges within one’s own state or our country. With most schools being connected to the wider world through the internet, this would not be too difficult.
2. Creating actual exchange programs for urban/suburban youth to visit rural areas or the reverse. This could be modeled on Rotary Club or other international exchange programs but for a shorter period of time. These programs ask young people to step outside of their comfort zones and explore new cultures and ways of life. This ultimately helps develop tolerance for other points of view.
3. Inquiry based writing projects within social studies, language arts or other appropriate classes. Gathering information about communities that are different than one’s own opens up opportunities for students to look deeper into what it is that helps define the values and identity of others.
4. Short term community exchanges. Opportunities could be provided for groups of students to visit each other’s communities for short periods of time, say a long week end. Typically when out state kids come into a city it is for sports related reasons or for a larger shopping selection. Instead, they could dine at ethnic restaurants; visit stores run by different ethnic minorities and attend arts related performances that are run by different minority groups. At the same time, city / suburban kids could visit rural and out state areas for a weekend and eat in the cafes, shop in the downtown areas and visit places such as farms or small businesses and companies that are not typically visited by “city kids”.
I am sure there are many more ideas that would promote a positive dialogue between young people versus one that is destructive and built on mistrust and misinformation. We should not waste too much time “preaching to the choir” but redirect that energy to listening to the different. If we all do this we may actually learn something. And if this proves too difficult for adults, it will have to be our youth (who are often more willing to try new things and take on challenges) to step up and do this. This is imperative if we are to build a cohesive country that is not divided by hardened ideological positions.
If you are interested in setting up an exchange program with your school contact Chris Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can find out more information about the services Chris offers at Beyond The Walls Education