Stories To Help Us Nail it

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we could and should respond to the pandemic which I called “Nailing It” because it took off from the title of a segment that featured Kelly Corrigan and appeared on the PBS NewsHour at the end of April.

Then, I got a challenging email from her last week. She is looking for stories about finding common ground, self-awareness, forgiveness, and personal agency, which are right in my professional wheelhouse.

But I’m a social scientist and not a story teller. So, I didn’t think I’d have much to offer her.

Then I realized that my job has turned me at least into a story gatherer, publicizer, and maybe even a story creator.

And those stories I have to gather, publicize, and create all touch on why I even got her email in the first place.

Kelly’s Notion of Nailing It

Since not even my most loyal reader (my wife) reads or remembers everything I write, let me (re)tell you how Corrigan entered my life.

Gretchen and I were watching the PBS NewsHour (what else is there to do at 7:00 PM in the middle of a pandemic?) on April 29. In introducing the final segment, Judy Woodruff announced that award-winning author Kelly Corrigan would give her humble opinion about the coronavirus pandemic.

I rarely like that segment of the program because the episodes tend be a bit fluffy. I’d also never heard of Corrigan even though I read a lot of non-fiction  especialy on issues like the pandemic and therefore didn’t expect much.

Three minutes and 396 words later, two more of my shortcomings bit the dust.

She started with a depressing moment at her local supermarket which got her even more depressed about the pandemic. Then, she found herself doing something she often does during tough times. She imagined what life would be like after the crisis ends and thought through how we could go about “nailing it.”

She didn’t get it all, of course. She only had three minutes. George Floyd was still alive, which meant that the crises that we ace today were still unfolding.

Still, as you can see in this video which the NewsHour graciously posted that night, she got a lot of it. In my social sciency language, she talked about changing cultural norms and public policies in ways that were at least plausible. Valuing science. Supporting front line workers. Finding new forms of interpersonal connection. Sharing in new and unexpected ways.

I found her final sentence and Woodruff’s wrap up so pithy that I’ve included them here.

We came, finally and forever, to appreciate the profound fact of our shared humanity and relish the full force of our love for one another.

Judy Woodruff:

Thank you, Kelly Corrigan.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of that came true?

Nailing It Writ Large

I Immediately bought and devoured her most recent book, Tell Me More and signed up for her newsletter, which is why I got the email asking her readers to send her some stories.

I also realized that we have nail it on a lot more than the pandemic for one simple reason.

In the two months since her humble opinion aired, “it” has expanded so much that it involves just about all aspects of our lives.

The social scientist in me drones on a lot about  paradigm shifts that let us deal more effectively wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that they can’t be solved quickly, separately, or easily—if they can be solved at all.

That’s the world that we live in.

That’s the world that Kelly began speaking about on the NewsHour because her final words spoke to more than the pandemic.

Most importantly, that’s the world her four-fold request gets at.

As I’ll point out in future posts about the stories I find and those I help create, I’m not sure nailing it when it comes to finding common ground, apologizing when we act badly, becoming self-aware, and taking more responsibility for our own actions will be enough.

But they would sure be a great start.

Three Stories

I didn’t need to be a new but loyal Kelly Corrigan fan to know we need to find and—more importantly—create those stories.

If we are going to build movements that change those social norms and public policies, they will grow because we find stories that grab people emotionally as well as analyze the hard data I’ve spent the last fifty years  concentrating on.

As luck would have it, three such stories (replete with videos) crossed my desk in the last week. None appeared out of thin air. I knew about all three of the organizations involved, but Kelly’s work and my own realization that we need to tell stories that build movements led me to see them in a new light.

Peace Players

I first encountered Peace Players a few years ago. They had been using basketball to forge more peaceful relationships and breed a new generation of leaders in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and Cyprus for years.

Now, they’ve brought their work back to the United States, which, after all, is basketball’s home.

And a conflict zone in its own right.

With the support of Nike and  others, Peace Players is now working in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Detroit.

As in the rest of the world, they are using basketball to get young people in American conflict zones to begin developing their leadership and peacebuilding skills along with their jump shots and cross-over dribbles.

They’re building Corrigan’s common ground with a healthy dose of tolerance, self-awareness, and personal agency in their project’s DNA, which you’ll see when and if you dig into the leadership skills  Peace Players emphasize in this video.

As much as I love Peace Players and basketball, they are just scratching the surface.

Can other sports help us grapple with questions of race, hatred, and intolerance? Or the arts? Or schools that use buddy benches to address bullying?

On the sports front, why limit ourselves to big time sports? One of my young friends told me about Ultimate Peace which uses ultimate frisbee to build peace, nonviolence, mutual understanding in the Middle East.

Radio Lab

I’ve been a fan of RadioLab since before its inception.

One of it two co-founders, Robert Krulwich, was an Oberlin classmate and has been an episodically close friend in the fifty years since we escaped Ohio. Even at age 18, Robert was different. Funny. Quirky. Creative. Thoughtful. Today, he comes in handy now when my grandson calls me “his eccentric grandpa.” I say, “hold on, wait until you meet Robert. He’s really eccentric. He’s my mentor.”

Robert has retired, but Jad Abumrad (another Obie) still hosts the show, which is now in its eighteenth year. This week, I watched his new TED talk about how the show pivoted about a decade ago was posted. In the week it has been on line, the talk has been viewed more than half a million times.

In it, he talks about how he came to see the world and his life in a new Corrigan-like light in part because of his encounter with a fellow Tennessee native—Dolly Parton.

Stories that start by engaging our emotions and then make us sit with a good bit of conflict and uncertainty, connect dots that might not have seem connectable before, and reach some startling new and actionable conclusion. Abumrad talks about how interviewing Parton, seeing her childhood home, realizing it looked a lot like the house his father grew up in and Lebanon, and discovering that there were well-established trade routes between the hills of Lebanon and Eastern Tennessee helped him see himself and humanity in a new light.

In other words, Jad was talking about ways of reaching what Corrigan called self-awareness and personal agency while finding common ground in the most unusual of ways.

Resetting the Table

I’ve known about Resetting the Table since one of my friends, Helen Kramer, started working there after she graduated from Oberlin—yes, I raise money for the place.

Resetting the Table started out by helping people who work on conflicts within the Jewish community. Believe me, the Jewish community has its share of conflicts, especially over the issues that brought Peace Players to the middle east.

One of its founders is a rabbi.  The other (who is also her husband) is a conflict resolution professional. Along with their growing staff, they conduct a wide variety of programs that lead to institutional and community transformation by replacing long-standing distrust or avoidance with a culture of healthy dialogue and deliberation. I’ve been particular impressed by the way they provide in-depth training that in the words of journalist Amanda Ripley,  “complicates the narrative” and helps participants reach Abumrad-like and life-changing conclusions.

At about the time Helen joined the RTT team, they broadened their attention to all of American society. They went a listening tour in rural areas of Wisconsin and Iowa where a majority of voters supported Barack Obama in 2012 but flipped to support Donald Trump four years later.

In communities that did not have a lot of Jews, they wanted to find out if their tools for exploring conflict in deep and profound ways could help heal America’s divisions.

Their work is in its earliest stages. Still, they’ve had some impressive results.

No, they haven’t solved the problems facing rural America or ushered in kumbayaesque wave of feel-good understanding.

But as you can see in the video, they have gotten people talking to each other and helping them find more than a modicum of common ground to go along with their disagreements. The people who spent a day with the RTT team in that barn may not have agreed with each other more, but they did disagree with each other better.

Where Do We—You and I–Go From Here?

I’m not a story teller like Kelly Corrigan.

Instead, I am a movement builder and a social scientist.

Still, seeing stories like these after my deep dive into Kelly Corrigan’s work led me to a new conclusion about my own work.

After a career spent analyzing statistical data and developing formal models, I have finally and truly seen  why stories have to play a powerful role in sparking the large scale social change this country so desperately needs.

My first task is that of a social scientist. I have find more and more of those stories that complicate and change the narrative. And let people know about them

The second challenge is more important, because it calls out to the part of me that has always been a movement builder and is implicit in Corrigan’s video.

We also have to create lots and lots and lots of those stories.

A mere two months after her segment woke me up, there are clear signs that American society is ready to move and move fast. Statues are being torn down. Woodrow Wilson’s name is disappearing from Princeton, the university he ran before he came president. Public opinion polls reveal a seismic shift in American attitudes toward issues like Black Lives Matter.

There are also plenty of signs that we aren’t ready to move. The COVID-19 virus is still spreading because so many of us haven’t done the things that Kelly Corrigan and public health experts suggest. Our economy is nowhere near ready to bounce back, and we’ve paid far too little attention to how we will use the return to economic activity as a tool for addressing our country’s long-standing inequalities.

In short, we’re at a turning point and we have some choices to make. Finding and creating the right stories can help us take the right fork in the clichéd road.

Build Back Better

Starting next week, I’ll shift my attention to reporting on and helping create those movements that will help us build back better.

The phrase build back better has been used in disaster relief circles for some time. Now, lots of people in Europe and elsewhere are using it as a shorthand way of describing what we have to do while charting our recovery from the crises of the last few months and the ones yet to come as we anticipate the 2020 election and more.

I’ll start by returning to my social science roots and discuss a really ugly chart I’ve developed that maps out how we could build back better. In the weeks to come, I’ll be writing about what I hope are a zillion more stories like the ones I’ve discussed here so that we can, to borrow Kelly Corrigan’s term one last time (at least for this week), nail it.

Send Me Stories

So, send me stories that can help us all nail it. I’ll publicize them. Use them to help big a bigger and maybe even nationwide movement. And pass the best ones on to Kelly Corrigan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

Also published on Medium.