To build a more just and equitable community, people must learn to be open to others’ viewpoints, to question their own preconceptions and to bring all voices into the conversation, nonprofit leaders said Tuesday.
Americans have been trained to be afraid of each other’s opinions and to steer away from political controversy, said Chris Wenden, executive director at Advoz.
“We’ve never really taken the time to hear,” he said. So, over time, we have come to value each other “based on external observations and judgment, and that’s a very difficult place to come back from.”
Wenden made his comments during a presentation opening a virtual panel discussion hosted by United Way of Lancaster County. Titled “MLK Day: Shifting the Cultural Climate Through Nonviolence and Peacemaking in Lancaster County,” the session was the latest edition of “Conversations About OUR Community,” a series launched during the pandemic.
Advoz is a Lancaster-based nonprofit that provides community-based mediation and restorative justice services along with related outreach and education. The techniques it uses can help reduce polarization and conflict in society at large, Wenden said.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized what’s at stake in in an “amazing” quote, Wenden said: “I am convinced,” the civil rights leader said, “that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
People must learn to entertain other viewpoints, Wenden said, without judging the character, intelligence or motives of those who hold them.
The techniques of “nonviolent communication” can help. Wenden offered a four-step summary drawn from the work of psychologist Marshall Rosenberg:
- Verbally observe what is being said without making a judgment
- Express feelings in relation to what is being observed
- Express what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified
- Express a request that we need to enrich our lives
Wenden was joined Tuesday by Isabel Castillo, director of YWCA Lancaster’s Center for Racial and Gender Equity; David Miron of the Lancaster Interfaith Coalition; and Blanding Watson, president of the NAACP Lancaster Branch.
Moderator Willonda McCloud, CEO of Bright Side Opportunities Center, asked them the questions posed by keynote speaker Bakari Sellers at Monday’s Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast: How far have we come? And where do we go from here?
We are at an inflection point, Miron said, facing decisions that are likely to have a major impact on our future. Castillo and Watson, meanwhile, drew attention to the persistence of racial disparities, as documented locally in the Lancaster County Racial Equity Profile, released a year ago this month.
“We need everyone in the community to take action and to learn about these issues,” Castillo said.
“We need to come together and be intentional in having those conversations so that we can make effective change,” Watson added.
Castillo encouraged audience members to look into their own organizations, to see if their policies are in line with their equity commitments; and to consider joining YMCA Lancaster’s Racial Equity Profile Action Team.
Miron said the interfaith coalition has had success in identifying common ground across religious traditions, which share a “desire for connection and a realization of oneness.” He suggested that faith organizations can provide a counterpoint to institutional hierarchies by modeling collaborative leadership, with pastors convening diverse groups to share in decision-making.
Wenden said those in the mainstream must make a concerted effort to learn from and empower those in the margins.
To illustrate what it’s like to build community, he used the example of musicians collaborating in a band. They need to keep their egos in check, he said, and have the patience to tolerate each other’s errors.
Not everyone is going to want to play, he admitted. “But I believe that if we choose to build a community that plays such a beautiful song, that people are going to ask, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that community?'”