Still Doing Democracy!

Still Doing Democracy! Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good

JoAnn McAllister and Jim Smith

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions: Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinion?”                                                      Terry Tempest Williams, 2004

We live in a contentious era when civility and civic life are diminished every day. Individuals coalesce into groups with distinct views of reality that are defended even when evidence to the contrary exists. If you are like us, you are concerned about the lack of dialogue and the hardening of opinion and may be asking: “How do I talk to family, friends, or neighbors who have different ideas about the social, political, or environmental challenges we face? How can I work with those who have different ideas about the meaning of the nation’s core values of equality, freedom, and liberty and the commitments ‘to form a more perfect union,’ and ‘promote the general Welfare’? Even though there have always been social and political struggles, some that ‘shook the foundations,’ there have also been times when the country was more united in the pursuit of these ideals. Why are we so divided now? How did we get this way? What creates such different beliefs and opinions? Can we find common ground with those who see the world from a different point of view? Are there some who benefit from this divisiveness? Can we confront those who seek to undermine our democracy? These are challenging questions. You are probably also asking: “How can I make a difference?” and “How do I start?” Still Doing Democracy! Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good is our response to these questions.

We believe that we can make a difference. First, though, each of us needs to decide to participate because democracy is not won and done. The ‘perfect Union’ is created through the continuous engagement of the people, the “We the People’ of the Preamble to the Constitution – our national mission statement. We fulfill this responsibility by engaging with others in an ongoing conversation about what constitutes the ‘general Welfare.’ When the national dialogue about these commitments has broken down in previous eras people also retreated to their respective camps. And, the retreat then was, as well, energized and sustained by special interests that benefitted from division. To overcome the current fragmentation of our bonds, many more of us need to re-engage in the work of democracy. We need to understand and strengthen relationships with those who share our perspectives and we need to understand  and seek to build bridges with those who have different perspectives. And, finally, we need to confront the forces that seek to divide us, if we are to create a more ‘perfect Union.’

We believe that each of us can talk to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues and participate in conversations in the larger community about our different realities, our conflicting values, and, yet, work for ‘the general Welfare.’ Of course, such conversations require that participants be open to seeing the world from another point of view. First, it helps if we understand our own view of the world, what shaped it, and why it is so important that we often refuse to listen to others. Then, we need to listen to others and learn how their perspectives have been shaped by different backgrounds and contexts. In this exchange we may learn to appreciate how differences of class, race, gender, education, region, religion, and many other categories we use to identify ourselves are so hard to bridge. We will not be able to reconcile all perspectives, but we will discover common ground with many people. We also believe that we can challenge the groups whose philosophies, policies, and intentions undermine the values and commitments that are the core of our democracy.

Still Doing Democracy! Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good is a guide to help you develop your own responses to difference and challenging the forces that divide us. It is a framework with practical tools to 1) understanding different perspectives and why they divide us, 2) learning to listen to and appreciate the diverse perspectives of others 3) analyzing the beliefs and strategies of individuals and organizations that seek to limit the power of the people and alienate us from one another, and 4) taking action for the common good. In developing this framework we have integrated insights from our studies in human behavior from the natural and social sciences. We also bring our work as educators and our engagement as social justice and environmental activists and advocates over several decades. We share a perspective distilled from our personal stories, too. As “blue collar” crossovers, attaining graduate degrees later in life, we are committed to taking what we have learned and applying it to the real world where our working-class families tried to live the ‘American Dream.’ We think our background brings the overlooked lens of class, that is, status based resources, education, and legacy, to the issues we discuss. We do not think our backgrounds mean we know the way ahead, but like others crossing borders we have learned to look both ways.


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