Engaging for Effective Change

America remains at an inflection point.

Hardening positions on vaccine acceptance and presidential election results are driving Americans deeper into their political and cultural bunkers. Absent immediate, effective and concerted action, societal battlelines are destined to harden.

Whether popping up in our social media feeds or blaring from cable news, the voices of disunion all too often drown out evidence-based political discourse in frenzy of emotions and accusations.

Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity & American Democracy (the “Project”), established with the core premise that the country has become unmoored from evidence and reason, seeks to supplant ideology with fact, sparking a cooling of America’s ongoing political conversation.

Co-chaired by Millions of Conversations CEO Samar Ali, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jon Meacham, Vanderbilt’s new project will push back against the forces of disharmony by cultivating and curating conversations and research, grounded in facts and evidence, focused on decoupling hardened policy positions from blind partisanship.     

The Project’s aim to span modern America’s political divide echoes Vanderbilt University’s founding mission. Established in 1873 while the embers of sectional strife still glowed, Cornelius Vanderbilt endowed the new institution in the Confederate state capital nearest a Union state line to strengthen “the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.” Nashville, as a “blue” island in a “red” state, continues to be at the intersection America’s political schisms, allowing the Project independence from the perceived ideological rigidity of the coasts.

Vanderbilt’s hometown also incubated some of the earliest stirrings of last century’s movement for social justice and civil rights with Vanderbilt university students and faculty joining colleagues from American Baptist College, Fisk University, Tennessee State University and Meharry Medical College to launch the “Nashville strategy” – a concerted series nonviolent actions, like sit-ins, to combat the cruelty of racial injustice. This strategy grew out of the training provided by Rev. James Lawson, then a graduate student at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Importantly, “unity” does not mean unanimity.  As arguments about the size and scope of infrastructure spending demonstrate, political debate alone does not pose an existential threat to the Republic. However, accusations unmoored from facts result in riots. Rhetorical jousting matches, whether in 280-character tweets or split screen soundbites, elicit emotional outrage, reinforce ideological intransigence, transform political rivals into the “other” and elevate platitudes of polarization above informed discourse.

Recognizing that effective change will require engagement with both opinion leaders and the grassroots, the Project looks forward to assisting Millions of Conversations implement its mission to restore the public square and create a sense of belonging for all community members – regardless of whether such community is a college campus, a county or a country.  
We can either lament this defining moment or take action to create a new legacy – one of dignity, equality and belonging. “Time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively,” Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in 1968.
Together with Millions of Conversations, the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy is committed to working constructively to establish a more perfect union.

Gray Sasser
Executive Director, The Project on Unity and American Democracy

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