Today, I want to talk about something that has been on the minds of every American since January 6th. Like many others, I found myself looking on in shock and horror as the Capitol was defaced and our democracy faced its toughest test likely since the Civil War. I even found myself tearing up in anger and frustration, especially as I began thinking about how so many protesters suffered grievous injuries while fighting for racial justice last summer. In contrast, these extremists seemed to go by unharmed, although thankfully it appears that most of those who participated in the violence will eventually be caught and charged.
You may ask, what does Together Baton Rouge have to do with this? It’s true that we generally focus on local issues, and as many within the organization will tell you, those issues have much more of an impact on your everyday life than national politics do. However, I believe what we saw that day was the symptom of much deeper problems that exist within all of our communities. Despite the desire to blame these problems on any one person or group, we must remember that we are all responsible for strengthening the weaknesses in our democratic institutions, weaknesses which were made glaringly apparent by the events of January 6th. I think it is not only possible but absolutely necessary to condemn the actions of the individuals who threatened our democracy that day while also acknowledging the factors that could have led to such violence. The attack on the Capitol also holds particular significance to Louisiana and Baton Rouge, as reports indicate that local business owners were present at the insurrection, while many of our elected officials voted against the certification of the election results – even after their lives were threatened that day.
In John Dewey’s, “How We Think”, the author takes after John Locke in critiquing a series of errors that Locke believed we are all prone to making when formulating our thoughts and beliefs. One common error in thinking which I found particularly poignant describes people who “sincerely and readily follow reason” but “converse with but one sort of men, read but one sort of book and… will not come in hearing but one sort of notion.” Nowhere is this error more evident than in our current political climate. Despite significant progress in terms of racial equality, Black and White Americans remain largely segregated, whether in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or even the churches they attend. Those who grow up in urban environments rarely, if ever, interact with those from more rural areas. As someone who grew up in an urban environment, I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like in a rural area. In fact, I even fear driving through them at times. Another significant divide exists in the realm of education. Pursuing a higher education frequently divides you from those that don’t, even if this separation isn't necessarily intentional on your part. After all, we primarily make friends through our educational institutions. In this, I also share some guilt. All of my closest friends have had at least some college education, and many are pursuing graduate degrees. Age as well is a huge divide, to the point that I can have a hard time even holding a conversation with an older person – much less find any means by which we might closely relate to one another.
Of course, none of these divides are anything new. But one new divide has emerged which I believe has exacerbated all of these old wounds - the news and media that we all consume. It’s no wonder that, absent any significant time spent in a large city, one would believe they are dangerous. After all, when you turn on the news, the first thing you see is the crime report. It’s also no wonder that people of opposite parties would view each other as extremists when the most extreme partisans are the ones who get the most media coverage. Ageism also continues to thrive in the media, with older people often being portrayed as dependent, disconnected, and unemployable. This isn’t to say that there is some big media conspiracy to divide Americans. The companies that provide our news sources are simply reporting what grabs the most attention and thus earns them the greatest profit. But if we are to truly unite the country and heal what divides us, we must all be aware of these errors in our thinking and seek experiences that heighten our understanding of others. Otherwise, these divisions will only get worse as we continue to silo ourselves off from information that would disprove our preconceived notions.
Beyond news media, social media has also contributed massively to the current divisions we see in the United States. Extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, and others are known to organize online and spread propaganda through platforms such as 4chan and Facebook. And even outside these extremist spaces, regular people will often find themselves in an information bubble online. Although social media allows us to interact with people all over the world, it instead becomes a feedback loop whereby people engage with information that suits their preconceived notions and receive validation from friends who are also inclined to agree with their views. This has become especially prominent in the last few years, during which the trend of blocking or "unfriending" anyone you disagree with has gained popularity. Furthermore, algorithms and advertising have started to take into account the political views of the user, meaning that you are often being fed propaganda without even realizing it! Again, none of this is necessarily sinister. These companies are merely trying to make money by feeding their users what they want. Nevertheless, there’s no question that hate and division thrive on social media.
That’s where organizations like Together Baton Rouge come in. Bridging people together through their institutions, finding common ground, and finding power in human diversity is at the heart of everything we do. In my time here at Together Baton Rouge, I’ve had the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with dozens of people who I otherwise never would have even interacted with. Politicians with whom I thought I would never find common ground have surprised me with their willingness to listen and work together. Through my organizing work, I’ve immersed myself in the spiritual and social teachings of Catholicism, and the deep spiritual conviction of Black churchgoers. Even though this has all been a part of my internship, there’s no reason that I couldn’t have done these things before my time at Tother Baton Rouge, or that I can’t continue to do them after my time as an intern is up. There’s no reason that everyone can’t make these kinds of connections. Just imagine if every American intentionally pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones and sought to understand those who are different from them. Imagine what could be accomplished when everyone finds out the long list of self-interests that we all hold in common. That’s something that those in power have always feared and sought to dismantle.
So how can we begin to do this? 30 minutes is all it takes to get started. That’s right, the most powerful tool to bring people together takes only 30 minutes, and it’s called the Relational Meeting. Don’t be fooled by the word “meeting.” A relational meeting is a deeply personal and engaging conversation that allows each participant to see into the other person’s life and understand their motivations, their fears, and what makes them who they are. Sometimes, when engaging in one, people realize that they are discussing things they haven’t discussed with anyone else, even their own families! It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. Think about how often we avoid tough conversations with family and friends out of fear of embarrassment or stigma. Relational meetings open up an intentional space where you are able to share your stories without fear of stigma or retaliation. But they also promote what we like to call “agitation.” Agitation is when you probe a conversation partner with thought-provoking questions or ideas, motivating them to consider a new perspective or take action on a concern or conviction that they haven’t acted on before. An example of this is if somebody expresses that they feel powerless to fix a certain issue. A good agitator would seek to understand why and help them see that is not the case.
In the discourse since the January 6th insurrection, many have expressed a desire to “unify the country,” but most fail to say how they would go about doing so. Those who do offer solutions that seem wholly unpalatable – such as completely forgiving those who participated in or incited this attack on our democracy, or the opposite, such as passing harsh new laws to clamp down on protesting. I can’t blame anyone who is unable to offer perfect solutions to the generational problems that the Capitol insurrection laid bare for all to see. After all, many of the divides fracturing our body politic are deep-rooted, with some going all the way back to the founding of this country. I believe healing starts with holding those who participated in and incited the insurrection accountable through swift prosecution and meaningful sentencing. I don’t think, however, things need to go as far as increasing the already worrying amount of surveillance on American citizens. We can and will overcome these divisions without eroding the rights of all citizens, and it starts through the power of relational organizing. Through it, I strongly believe that we can overcome our differences, and it starts with each person reading this blog. Take some time this week to reach out (virtually!) to a neighbor or member of your church who you haven’t talked to before. You’ll be surprised at what you might have in common.