As regular readers already know, I’m writing a book on mostly young activists who are connecting the dots across issue and ideological silos which means that they also point us toward one way out the mess we Americans find ourselves in.
As I said last week, I’m doing the posts for two reasons. First, they are designed to spread word about these remarkable activists especially for people who will never find the time to read a whole book about them. Second, after a summer in which I didn’t write much, I can use the deadlines….
I’m starting with perhaps the most unusual example I expect to include in the book. Stranger’s Guide is a magazine not a group of activists. It is about travel not politics. Yet, because it is so different from the more conventional activist networks I’ll be focusing on, it provides me with an opportunity to raise two overlapping points that will be at the heart of the book.
The Rapoport Clan
As is often the case with my work, there is a backstory which won’t make it into the book, but involves a remarkable family that many of folks who read my blog know about and the rest of you will certainly appreciate.
At my fiftieth Oberlin reunion, Ron Rapoport was acting like my stereotypical image of what our fathers did when we were born.
No, he wasn’t handing out celebratory cigars the way our fathers undoubtedly did. He was handing out copies of his daughter Abby’s new magazine, Stranger’s Guide as if they were a smokeless equivalent of those foul smelling stogies.
I was an obvious target. Ron and I have been close friends since our time at Oberlin and then at Michigan where we did our graduate work in political science together. At Michigan, Ron met and married Patricia who was a Colby grad where I would end up teaching for sixteen years. Ron and I also did some research together.
Perhaps most importantly for our purposes here, I got to know Ron’s amazing parents, Bernard and Audre who were large than life characters—which is not to say that Ron and Patricia are in any way conventional. B, as he was known to all, became one of my mentors as he was for many progressive Obies of our generation.
After years of not seeing all of them together, B, Audre, Ron, Patricia, Abby, and Emily stopped by Search for Common Ground one day in the early 2000s to check out a project we were working on that their family foundation had funded. After B had some good natured fun at my expense, I decided to spend my time with Abby and Emily who were then tweens, although I don’t think we had invented that term yet.
I was impressed by the two girls and the intelligent discussion we had about it was like to have those four characters as parents and grandparents. It clicked for Abby, too. While there were lots of other stops along the way, their visit stuck in her mind and helped lead her to Stranger’s Guide which she co-founded after spending a few years as a political reporter in Texas where the family has its roots.
Given all that, Ron realized that I might be able to help Abby figure a few things out about the magazine’s future. So, he asked if I’d be willing to talk to her. Given how much fun the Rapoports are and the debt I owe B, I agreed immediately.
Abby and I now meet weekly to talk about about promoting the magazine and incorporating it into the rest of the work I do.
I decided to include Stranger’s Guide in the book even though it will never be a peacebuilding organization nor will it take the advocacy lead on any of the issues in it. That said, I wish I knew of a dozen other organization that do as good a job of presenting the themes I care about and reach an audience I would love to reach.
On the surface, Stranger’s Guide is a magazine for hip, cool, young travelers whose editors had at most a vague interest in peace and conflict when they launched the magazine in 2018. It is unlike any travel magazine I’d ever seen before. As its editors put it, it is
a publication for the globally curious, revealing the intricacies of locations around the world.
The curiosity starts with its name. It turns out that long before guidebooks were invented in the nineteenth century, travelers wrote “stranger’s guides” that it
combined helpful tips with particular and offbeat advice and context: the best boarding houses alongside bits of history, preferred brothels as well as facts about paleontology and poetry. They were personal, eccentric and intimate portrayals of place. Stranger’s Guide is a modern version of that idea.
Three of its four annual issues deal with global travel; one covers an American topic like the National Parks, Texas, or California. While it is a quarterly magazine, its individual issues were curated so that they would be useful for years to come, which means that you might consider getting any of the eleven guides that have been published so far.
I’ll start with the issues on American destinations. An article on the alternative music scene in Texas. The lives of trans immigrants in Houston. An alternative visual look at post offices. How people were evicted to create many of our National Parks. How fire is transforming them. How climate change is altering leaf-watching season (which is near and dear to my heart having grown up and begun my career in New England).
The most recent global issue takes the reader to Tehran, a place that has been off limits to most Americans for Abby’s entire lifetime. Its 120 pages do a great job of exploding lots of stereotypes Americans have about a country whose leaders seem so at odds with so much of what we hold near and dear.
As is the case with every Stranger’s Guide publication, almost all of the authors and artists are either Iranian or part of the diaspora. None are household names in the United States other than Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who spent years in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges. It is an eclectic mix of stories about the status of women, the arts, factoids and features about daily life (including COVID), and some fiction. Stunningly beautiful photography fills each page as has been the case in each and every issue I’ve read. It’s not just the photos. Abby and her team pay attention to every detail down to the high quality paper on which the magazine is printed.
Before turning to the reasons why it makes sense to include it in my book, let me make it clear that Stranger’s Guide is not the whimsical indulgence of a friend’s child. It is a high quality and successful magazine that won the National Magazine Awards for photography and general excellence in literature, science, and politics this year. In fact, it was the only magazine to win its industry’s equivalent of an Oscar in two different categories, in both cases beating out magazines that are household names.
Over the course of the two years we have worked together, the team has had to pivot—which is a key theme in my book, albeit in a slightly different way. In Stranger’s Guide’s case, the pandemic came as dreadful news because it disrupted the entire travel industry, including a fledgling magazine about it. So, we began exploring new markets, some of which flowed straight out of its original business model, including doing one-off publications for specific clients on a topic like coffee or developing relationships with local community groups with an interest in international affairs.
Along the way, we realized that Stranger’s Guide was already a de facto peacebuilding magazine in that it encouraged readers to reframe and rethink the way they thought about the world and their own role in it. So, we began building bridges between the magazine and the peacebuilding community.
I included Abby in workshops on peacebuilding that I led, including at AfP’s and Build Up’s annual conferences. We integrated Abby and Kira’s perspectives in the ways that MHCR and Build Up^ designed their projects. And, they came to expand their own social mission in part by joining the Zebras Unite Coop. You will meet these organizations in my next three blog posts in which Stranger’s Guide will also at least make a cameo appearance.
As a result of our work together, the magazine got new readers. More importantly for our purposes here, the peacebuilding community gained new audiences and new perspectives we could bring to our own work.
And this weekend one more thing became clear to me. I’m not writing Connecting the Dots because I need to write another book. It will be my nineteenth after all. I do want more people to learn about the dot connectors, and I hope that some readers will be inspired to join them. I also realized that I’m forging working relationships with all of the dot connectors—even if I don’t have the same history with them that I do with the Rapoports. I’ve been around for a long time and know a lot about social movements, paradigm shifts, and the like. Maybe—just maybe—I can help them all do a better job connecting their dots so that my grandkids will get to live in a better world.
Seeing With New Eyes
That leads to the two big points I’ve taken away from working with Abby that also suggests why Stranger’s Guide will appear frequently throughout the book and not just in the chapter on conflict resolution and peacebuilding which is the one I just finished drafting.
Early in my peacebuilding career, I stumbled across a statement by Marcel Prost which is buried somewhere in the middle of his seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past;
The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.
I’ve found a way of incorporating it in almost everything I’ve written ever since, though reading all seven books has not yet met off of my retirement bucket list.
I include it because I mean it. Whether you are a college student taking a course in comparative politics or an activist trying to solve any of today’s global crises, Proust understood that we had to start with intellectual curiosity and openness.
Movements for social change need more than that. However, they have to start with curiosity as well as with a willingness to consider alternatives to the status quo. In their own ways, each of the organizations I’ll be writing about is trying to get Americans to see conflict, the economy, race relations, or the climate with new eyes and envision a qualitatively different and better future. Again, that’s not enough. But it’s a necessary first step on a long and complicated journey.
And Stranger’s Guide is the best single way of opening minds, fostering curiosity, and starting the journey(s) we Americas have to take that I’ve ever encountered. We’ll need more than just Stranger’s Guide. For instance, I doubt that the magazine will find many readers among the third of all Americans who have never had a passport.
Nonetheless, anyone who does read it will come away with a renewed interest in the problems facing the world and an expanded sense of the ways we can solve them.
It’s at that point that organizations like Build Up, MHCR, and Zebras Unite have a better chance of weaving their creative magic.
But it’s more than just seeing with new eyes.
While drafting this post, I was also reading Erica Etelson’s stunning book, Beyond Contempt, which I will review in my newsletter next week after I finish it and I hear her speak at a webinar AfP is organizing. It is by far the best book I’ve read on the catastrophic effects of denigrating the people we disagree with.
As my friends at AfP have learned, it’s a lot harder to deal with conflict when you have skin in the game and a stake in the outcome. It is easy to fall into the very traps we train people to avoid in places like Burundi or Brunei when we work in Baltimore or Birmingham where we find ourselves on one side of the political debates raging around us.
Magazines like Stranger’s Guide make it easy to humanize what social psychologists refer to as “the other.” Its photographs literally give them a face. Its words show us the many ways in which the other is a complex human being.
Whether it’s proud Iranians or proud Texans, seeing people in all of that complexity makes it easier to take the next step and approach them as whole human beings with whom we might happen to share a disagreement along with everything else that we share that is far more positive.
Where to Buy Stranger’s Guide
For good or ill, you are not likely to find Stranger’s Guide at your neighborhood newsstand or bookstore—although I would encourage you to encourage them to start carrying it.
The best way is to order single issues or subscribe on its website, www.strangersguide.com.
Next week’s post will cover Zebras Unite with some side visits to meet some unicorns, swans, and rhinos.
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.