In a meeting shaped by the still lingering pandemic, a remarkable thing happened earlier this month. High school students from across the American South spoke candidly and passionately about the struggles, divides, and nascent social changes taking place in their communities. And adults actually listened.
In an event called “Across County Lines,” supporters of Millions of Conversations came together to hear the hopes and frustrations of teenagers from Tennessee, Texas, and Alabama – specifically about the divide between rural and urban America. It was simultaneously an act of bravery and love of community by these young people, to enter a national, public platform and speak so honestly about their home towns.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the dialogue that developed that day was that despite their differences – race, gender, locale, accents – these young people were not very different from one another. And neither are we.
One looks at the current zeitgeist in the U.S., the constant posture of division and outrage, and wonders how we got here. Truth is we’ve had a lot of help.
Major institutions that dominate our national dialogue are designed in many ways to emphasize division and tension while confirming our biases. Both major political parties are guilty of this as are media outlets large and small. Consumer internet and social media companies are at the top of the list, serving us content that only reinforces our preexisting worldview about each other.
That is why work like the event Millions of Conversations hosted with that thoughtful group of high school students is so vital to the future of the republic. In order to heal the divisions gripping and ripping the fabric of this country, we must push past the accepted channels of communication and information. Social media companies, legacy media, and political parties certainly still have much to offer us as a country. But we, the people, can no longer allow that to be the only way we understand each other.
Outside the centers of power, people are people in America. What does that mean? It means we all pretty much share the same basic concerns and priorities. We want to pay our mortgages. We want our kids to get a decent education, grow up healthy, and find happiness. We want quiet weekends where we can spend time with family, maybe worship as we please, and quietly spend a few hours with the people that matter the most to us.
Despite the seemingly endless narrative pushed on us from every quarter that we are somehow very different from one another we actually are not. Our resources, privileges, education, origins, skin color, and religions might be different. Our sense of place might be radically different. But in the end, we are all people simply looking to make our way in the world.
At Millions of Conversations, we ask you to pledge to listen to one another. But that also means asking the right questions. Start with something more like, “How’s your momma and them?” or “How is your day?” People are people. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Having that conversation with someone different than you is the most important part.
Take the #PledgeToListen