Friday, May 20, 2011

Changing the Narrative

Amid all the negativity in our nation’s capital, I was encouraged and inspired last week to meet with several people who are working constructively in various ways to bridge divides.  

“The walls are high but they are not held together by very strong nails. People are willing to think beyond party lines if they are not going to be exposed.” This is the assessment of Mark Farr, the recently appointed president and CEO of the Faith and Politics Institute that aims to encourage reflective leadership among members of Congress and their staff. He adds, “I’d love to impact the M.O. in Washington, to change the narrative.”

That’s one goal of The Trust Factor 2011, a week of activities set for October 10-15. Initiatives of Change is convening it along with other organizations that are building trust at the local, national, or international level. Partners will host or co-sponsor events – forums, dialogues, workshops or brown bag lunches – where we’ll look at elements that make up trust and what to do when it’s broken, explore case studies and learn some tools. The planning process is creative and organic.

One key partner is Amy Lazarus, the executive director of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. The organization’s mission is to “engage differences as strengths to improve campuses, workplaces and communities.” Founded by Harold H. Saunders, a former Assistant Secretary of State, who has worked with citizens and communities in conflict for over forty years, the network is active on a dozen campuses. As the alumni move into the workforce, SDCN also offers programs for businesses. Saunders likes to define dialogue as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.” 

Amy is teaming up with Rebecca Davis, the coordinator for the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program at American University’s School of International Service to host an “intergenerational dialogue” as one feature of The Trust Factor 2011. Their idea is to have folks from diverse backgrounds and different generations talk with each other about their personal perceptions of trust. In keeping with the focus of the week, participants will look at issues of trust in race, religion, politics, and economics.  

Also on the planning team is Jeanné Isler at Search for Common Ground (SFCG), an organization known for its creative approach to conflict resolution in many parts of the globe. Jeanné, who heads Search for Common Ground on Race, wants to explore how film and other art forms might provide a context for dialogue on trust across racial divides.

Harold Vines sees the need to build trust at the neighborhood level. He’s an African American in his mid-seventies who until recently served on the board of the Servant Leadership School. It’s part of the Church of the Saviour network of independent, ecumenical Christian faith communities and over 40 ministries aiming to recover something of the vitality and life, vigor and power of the early Christian community. Vines, who grew up in segregated North Carolina, read Trustbuilding. He says, “It asks the question: ‘Am I trustworthy?’ I want to sit with that question a while.” He and his colleagues hope to engage neighboring faith communities and residents.

I also met with Theo Brown, a veteran consultant and trainer with extensive experience of working with national and local dialogue projects. He imagines using The Trust Factor 2011 to convene many of those who are doing the work of trustbuilding, to celebrate their work and to mobilize for sustained action. He recognizes that this is the start of a process to figure out “how to make it real in Washington, DC.”

The planners are eager for everyone’s input, so please comment on this blog or be in touch with our office.

We hope that The Trust Factor 2011 will encourage participants to think of themselves as trustbuilders. As Amy Lazarus says, “It’s not just a week, but a way of life.” If enough of us put our energy into this, we might begin to change the narrative in Washington.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Taking the Jump Together

I was struck by a remark by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s about trust,” he told a group of businessmen in Richmond. “It’s about making sure that, at the end of the day, you are going to have to link arms with somebody and take a jump.”

Warner was talking about his work with a handful of Democratic and Republican senators – the “Gang of Six” – who are striving behind the scenes to develop a sensible bipartisan proposal to deal with our massive structural budget deficit.  This approach must necessarily include both a reduction in spending and an increase in taxes. It’s a tough job and they are encountering strong resistance from leaders of their own parties who are in denial about what it will take to get the country back onto a sound financial footing. 

Across the country, at local, state, and national level, painfully hard budget choices must be made. There are no easy options. Leaders who recognize the need to reach across the aisle face the disapproval of their peers, media attacks, and the furious opposition of special interest groups. Without the trust Warner speaks of, it will be virtually impossible for groups like the Gang of Six to sustain their work and to generate the necessary will for change.

How can people of diverse political, racial, or economic backgrounds build the trust needed to work together for the common good? In my experience, trust does not require us to agree on everything. We may not even like the people we must journey with, or at least we may encounter moments of intense irritation. It does mean that we know we can count on each other and that we are prepared to share risk equally. It means a commitment to stay the course.

I worked for many years with a visionary and outspoken African American woman. Our temperaments and backgrounds could not have been more different.  We had several major rows. But we were both committed to the cause of honest conversation and racial reconciliation. We both knew that when the chips were down we could trust one another absolutely. In challenging situations, dealing with racially polarized groups, we always knew that we had each other’s back.  

Mari Fitzduff, the Northern Irish peacemaker, says that the greatest need in the world today is for leaders who can transcend the needs of their own group. Such leaders, she warns, risk becoming "strangers in their own land." Our public officials need to know that there are citizens who will offer moral and spiritual support for courageous, selfless leadership.

What if each of us were to think about a risk we are prepared to take personally in order to build a more inclusive, more just, and sustainable community? Is there someone we might approach as a potential ally – perhaps someone of a very different social or cultural background, or political viewpoint?

Are we ready to link arms with somebody and take a jump?