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Finding Our Way: advice for divisive situations

With all the inflammatory, vitriolic comments flying around on social media, the airwaves and sometimes in our own backyards, how can we stay civil enough to even talk to each other, let alone solve problems in our communities? Four social justice advocates say it can be done — once we learn what it means to be human.

Mark Yaconelli with The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, Anna Cassilly with Growing Peace, Selene Aitken with the Center for Nonviolent Communication and Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble, Southern Oregon University’s director of diversity and inclusion, shared their thoughts on key questions that are front and center at this week’s Finding Our Way conference, set for Thursday through Saturday in Ashland.

The conference is designed to help people and communities address divisive issues with “greater honesty and grace.”

How did the Finding Our Way conference come about?

Mark: This conference is about race, class, homelessness. I was feeling problems in my own life. I was angry. I felt myself wanting to blow up at people I grew up with when I saw what they were posting online. I was feeling separation and anger every time I saw certain political figures on television. I felt it in my kids. I could feel all the conflicts. We had an opportunity with Anne Lamott coming. Could we use her presence as a way to bring more people to do something larger, to address some of these problems? We’re losing our ability to work together, but there are skills we can learn. We don’t have to be afraid of conflict, and we can learn ways to engage conflict that are more productive, and we can leave feeling good about how we conducted ourselves. That’s possible.

How are issues such as homelessness and race dividing our community?

Marjorie: Mark asked me to be part of this process because he was hearing that there are issues around housing insecurity and homelessness and around the issue of race. There’s pervasive oppression when it comes to racism or classism or housing insecurity. Oppression is systemic and occurs at the institutional level as well as the interpersonal level. Sometimes we can be blind to institutional-level oppression, and so we fail to acknowledge this when it occurs. We may choose not to hear people when they talk about institutional-level oppression.

Selene: I’ve seen a lot of issues with the Latinx community. They’re invested in living here, they contribute to our society and our economy, and yet they are in danger. My concern in these situations is what happens between the parents and the kids. You can’t take a chance if you are undocumented, you can’t do anything that is illegal ever, and I think it’s hard for some teenagers to understand. It puts pressure on a family.

Marjorie: Microaggression, these are everyday slights that reinforce the notion that people aren’t necessarily welcome or less than others. It can show up in a backwards compliment and it might have good intentions.

Selene: I think there are greater divides now. As a white person, as a white middle-class person, especially us liberals, we think we know about microaggression, but we have blind spots. I think we’re scared, less relaxed with each other. It wasn’t so severe before, but it is now. It separates us. There’s an awareness of the separation.

Mark: We’re having problems with transiency and homelessness in every community along the coastal highway, the I-5 corridor. And it’s increasing. It causes frustration. Businesses get upset. Organizations that provide services get upset. Tourists get upset. It’s a problem area and it’s not going away. Here’s an issue where we need to come together as a community. We’ve got to come together and work on this issue — we can’t just keep turning our back.

From political discussions in our own homes to exchanges with strangers on social media, anger and polarization are commonplace. What issues are dividing our community, and why have we become so judgmental and angry?

Anna: A recurring theme in workshops is how to talk with friends and family members who see the world very differently. How can we come together over a meal and share a meaningful conversation on important topics without either shutting down or having it turn into a divisive argument? People are afraid to talk when there are differences or they have talked about differences and it hasn’t gone well.

Mark: It does feel like the frequency (of expressing judgment and anger publicly) has accelerated. We’re living our lives more and more online and we’re communicating and getting information online. With that kind of communication, we don’t read body language, we don’t read tone, we just read comments and words, emojis. So conflict is easier to occur, and it’s much easier to get upset and get angry and react in anger when we’re not in the same room physically, and we have to deal with each other physically.

Anna: One of the things we saw that most divided us was the amount of concern some put on individual rights relative to the amount of concern for the community’s welfare. This polarizes. The people who feel strongly about community rights maybe don’t give enough credence to the rights of the individuals, and those who feel strongly about individual rights don’t consider the community.

Mark: What scares me is that we’re losing some of the human practices we’ve had for bridging solutions. It feels that we’re losing skills to solve conflict. And one of those skills is being in the same room, physically, and learning how to talk and listen, learning how to focus on a problem we all have a stake in that we all want to address.

What are some of the tools we can use to keep calm and refrain from being reactive, even when others push our buttons?

Anna: Nonviolent communication is about helping people to see one another and to build a relationship and see each other on an equal level to try and find solutions for everybody. That’s not the way people saw (conflict) modeled. (Nonviolent communication) models are pretty easy to learn, but accessing them when someone pushes your button — that’s another story.

Marjorie: I think there are different modes of communicating and different ways of not only communicating but also knowing and understanding. Sometimes we can know the process or know the problem intellectually, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to any change in how we behave or connect with other people with whom we may have differences. It can’t just be the intellectually knowing, it has to be taking the risk to figure out how we bridge gaps and put ourselves out there to have intentional connections with folks.

Selene: I want to start with that moment when there’s just a little bit of time, that microsecond before that flash point. Number 1 is to get connected with myself, what am I feeling. The minute I can say to myself, I’m feeling afraid, or I’m feeling angry, the brain can start to calm down. That would be the first step, to connect to yourself. There are physical ways (to calm yourself): breathe, watching your hands, doing things that help the system because the system is set up to react to danger. To counteract that (reaction) is the first step.

Mark: For me it has to happen sideways. I feel that Democrats and Republications are already set up to be in conflict. My enemy will be in the room, and we’re going to face them. How am I going to convince them I’m right? But if you do the third thing … what if we get to know each other and then later learn we’re on different sides of the political spectrum? We’re missing a place to share stories, that third space. Front porches, picnics, school get-togethers. For me at this conference, having a night where people from different background tell stories does a lot to connect us.

Anna: Structured training is helping people skill-build to have what they need to engage with someone rather than avoid the conflict. Generally avoiding conflict is going to make it worse and it will explode down the line. The big piece that I want to help people get past is the flight-fight phenomenon, to realize there is another option, the flow. The big word I’d put in there is curiosity around the whole us-them. Induce curiosity in people, because when you start experiencing other people’s lives and stories, it’s, “Oh, wow, yeah, that happened to me.”

Marjorie: The Racial Equity Coalition provides opportunities for community members to use storytelling as a catalyst for change. Through the Racial Equity Toolkit training, we hope that people are empowered to effect change within their spheres of influence by leading friends and families in activities that promote racial awareness.

Mark: Relationship is what I feel is missing. We don’t know people. We don’t eat together, sit together in a room, don’t hear each other’s stories. And that’s one of the tactics of this conference, getting them to talk, sit in the same room — these older practices that we’re leaving as we live more and more online.

How does compassion fit into human relationships?

Mark: You have to be trained not to be compassionate because it is a natural quality. Over time as people are named competitor or enemy or terrorist or Democrat or Republican or whatever, (they) have to do a little work to feel connected, to feel empathy. For me, compassion is feeling the experience of another, whether it’s suffering or feeling their joy.

Marjorie: I think people are afraid to be seen as bad people. I’m not calling for people to be perfect, I want them to be human and recognize that we’re born to make mistakes along the way. Part of compassionate peace in our communication is being able to afford grace to ourselves and to others and recognize there will be bumps and bruises along the way, but if we really want to be in community with each other, then we have to be in a relationship. We have to not only celebrate the good things, but also try to address some of the hard things, too.

Selene: One of the things that I like about it (compassion) is that it engages the heart. It engages the possibility that this other person is a person, not an enemy. And then, there’s a softening, and possibility is there. Whereas if I think that person is the enemy, then I’m shut down. Before someone is an enemy, that person is a human being, and then we can talk. That’s one of the things I value about looking at compassion and understanding how compassion can affect our thinking.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at

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