This sign sits on the lawn in front of my grandchildren’s (and their parents’) house.
I’ll be using it as a springboard for discussing how we peacebuilders should be tackling the issues it raises as I have been doing in most of my posts since the pandemic began in March. In the next 2,000 words or so, I’ll make the case for what I began calling a peacebuilding pivot in September. Now, I’ll be adding the idea of weaving together grassroots movements for social change which I’ve borrowed from David Brooks and his team at the Aspen Institute.
If we follow both of those paths, we might be able to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms the designers of that sign had in mind. That will involve both addressing the issues themselves and using them to usher in changes in the basic values and assumptions we use when we address tough issues like the ones that have flummoxed us over the last year.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Back Story
We are lucky. My wife, stepdaughter, son in law, two grandkids, and I have been able to live in a six person/three generation/two household pandemic bubble for the last ten months. My step daughter does have to spend one day a week at her office, but she does not see anyone face to face when she is there. Otherwise, we have had no contact with any other humans inside a building other than a handful of medical visits since March.
We adults have gotten used to working virtually; it is not uncommon for each of us to be on his or her own video call at the same time. The children seem to be doing fairly well with online education (though it helps having four adults around all day when problems crop up) and adapting to a world in which they interact with their friends via Zoom, Facetime, and Google Classroom.
We are lucky, too, that our jobs directly or indirectly allow us to help solve some of the world’s problems while we our physical isolation makes it highly unlikely that we’ll get infected.
Not surprisingly, we spend a good bit of time talking about the social problems facing the country that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and our government’s failed responses to it. Not surprisingly, too, we have spent a lot of time discussing our good fortune and what we could do to thank the people who had delivered their food and countless other packages and did all those other things that allowed us to study and work (respectively) from home.
The sign was one of those things. My grandchildren (and their parents) also left snacks and drinks on the front porch to go along with what they left inside the house for Santa on Christmas eve.
I also discovered that they weren’t alone. Lots of our other neighbors left food on the doorsteps while others had lawn art. Black Lives Matter signs were particularly popular in our upper middle-class neighborhood. So, too, are the little libraries I pass every morning on my daily walk.
Some people might react and say that all of this is performative virtue signaling, to use the terms the young people I work with use all the time. In fact, I assume some of the front lawn tributes to essential workers that have sprouted up in neighborhoods around the country are little more than empty symbolic gestures.
In our case, my step daughter did her homework and bought the sign from Dissent Pins which has been brilliantly combining product design and social activism since the 1990s. She ordered my dreidl themed mask from the less politicized Beau Ties which repurposed itself from making neckwear to facewear last spring.
Tackling the Issues
I don’t want to overstate the importance of anyone’s shopping patterns.
Instead, I want you to look at the stylized faces on the yard sign because they give us a good first glance at the people who have borne the brunt of the crisis—other than people who have gotten COVID-19. They are the “essential workers,” a newly popular term used to cover Americans (and their equivalents around the word) who have had to physically go to work and put their health disproportionately at risk.
- People of color
- Those with jobs that cannot be done from home
- Health care workers
- Public safety personnel
- Grocery store and take out restaurant staff
- And of course the delivery people who show up on our doorstep just about every day
Along with the proliferation of street art, the polls tell us that we are readier than we have been in decades to enact meaningful change on these and other issues.
Unfortunately, we have to temper the enthusiasm so many of us feel. It just will not be all that easy for the incoming administration to turn those hopes into tangible policies that have their desired effects on the way we live. What’s more, my list barely scratches the surface of the policy agenda the Biden administration will be facing. As pundit after pundit has argued, the overlapping crises that made such a mess of 2020 magnified longstanding problems—from rampant inequality to the failure of our political system to the realization that we can’t afford to put off dealing with climate change and other long-term issues any longer.
As I have been arguing throughout this series of blog posts, making progress on any of them will force us to bring out the best in ourselves at a time when we are as divided as we have been in the last century—and maybe longer.
And there is no question that we could do so. There is no shortage of good ideas on each and every one of them. That includes the thorniest of them all which does not have a visual representation on the Digital Pins sign—climate change. In fact, there are dozens of pathways that could bring carbon dioxide and other dangerous emissions down to a safe level by 2050.
Our challenge is to summon up the political will to do so at the same time that we tackle all of the other issues. I’m far less optimistic on that front.
In part, that reflects how hard it is to enact meaningful reforms in the American system, especially when we are as divided as we are today. I feel even more pessimistic when I think about what is likely to happen if we try to address those problems on the assumption that we can tackle these issues using some variant of the kinds of activism we have relied on in the past. If we do, we are likely to end up with the kind of gridlock that has characterized American politics since at least the 1990s.
I could go on and explore those obstacles in more depth and make you feel even more pessimistic, but that’s not why I am writing this series or what I wanted to accomplish by starting with my family’s lawn sign. If we dig a bit deeper, we can help Americans produce the kind of cultural change we also need if we are going to overcome the political obstacles and turn the dreams on those lawn signs into reality.
Toward the Peacebuilding Pivot and Weaving
This is where pivoting and weaving come into play. They make the deeper cultural changes I mentioned earlier possible.
Doing so means that we first have to resist the understandable temptation to make peacebuilding our top priority. Rather, it makes more sense to do two things our colleagues have done in places as different as South Africa, East Timor, and Northern Ireland—focus on the issues that are foremost in people’s minds.
To be sure, they worked to reduce the tensions that all too often brought out the worst in people. However, they did so by tackling the substantive issues facing their communities as well as the conflict and violence.
Adding peacebuilding values to existing initiatives on the issues dividing those and other countries helped people on all sides find common ground and make more progress than anyone dreamed possible at the height of the conflict.
Empathy. Reconciliation. Paradigm shifts. Offering constructive alternatives. Not demonizing our adversaries. And more.
We can do the same here. Adding peacebuilding to discussions of racism, public health, or climate change may not bear fruit in the next few weeks or months, but it could lead to the kind of cultural shift that can make lasting and sweeping change possible in the not too distant future.
Doing so should lead activists (and ourselves) to use theories of change that involve building broad coalitions in which we can turn our own growing self-awareness into powerful movements for social, political, economic, and environmental change.
That takes me, too, to an equally important term that I haven’t used in earlier posts but whose implications also leave me feeling quite optimistic.
That’s the case because people outside the tiny field of peacebuilding are saying similar things about building toward massive social change by starting with grassroots activism. And the ways they do so draws on those same values I just mentioned that start with specific issues and then allow us to see beyond them.
To that end, consider these words from the conservative David Brooks’s final column of 2020 in which he made the case our
model of “teaching people to be good” is based on the illusion that you can change people’s minds and behaviors by presenting them with new information and new thoughts. If this were generally so, moral philosophers would behave better than the rest of us. They don’t.
People change when they are put in new environments, in permanent relationship with diverse groups of people. Their embodied minds adapt to the environments in a million different ways we will never understand or be able to plan. Decades ago, the social psychologist Gordon Allport wrote about the contact hypothesis, that doing life together with people of other groups can reduce prejudice and change minds. It’s how new emotional bonds are formed, how new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them” come into being.
The superficial way to change minds and behavior doesn’t seem to work, to bridge either racial, partisan or class lines. Real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team and in the same neighborhood. That’s national service programs. That’s residential integration programs across all lines of difference. That’s workplace diversity, equity and inclusion — permanent physical integration, not training.
This points to a more fundamental vision of social change, but it is a hard-won lesson from a bitterly divisive year.
In that article, Brooks was focusing on how little most formal diversity education programs have accomplished. But his reasoning has far broader implications that mesh with what I’ve been talking about in everything I’ve written since the pandemic began, especially when you add one of his favorite terms which didn’t end up in this particular column—weaving.
I’m not convinced that Brooks (or Allport) are right if they are suggesting that all we need is contact and dialogue, which they are not. In fact, I know that Brooks is calling for much more than that as he laid out in a 2019 TED talk which helped launch what he calls the Weavers project at the Aspen Institute.
As he put it in discussing both his own life and the problems facing the United States, it’s all about building better interpersonal relationships and then weaving them together into ever broader, grass roots based, social movements that end up producing sweeping changes at the national level.
In the talk, Brooks cites one of my favorite Albert Einstein one liners. We know the great physicist used it, but never included it in anything he wrote. So, you find it cited in multiple ways, and my favorite is a bit different from David’s:
You can never solve a problem on the same level you created it.
The activists Brooks works with in the new Weavers movement do take the people they work with to what another version of Einstein’s statement refers to as a new level of consciousness in two ways that overlap with the values we peacebuilders bring to the table.
First, they help us see the various issues are interrelated in what I like to call wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that they can’t be solved quickly, easily, or separately—if they can be solved at all. They may focus on a single issue in a single community, but their actions literally weave together ever larger coalitions that cover multiple issues and multiple communities. They are learning how to take their work to scale on the fly.
Second, they weave successfully because they personify their version of the peacebuilding values I mentioned in the previous section. Few think of themselves as peacebuilders, but that’s precisely the point. Bust like peacebuilders who pivot, weavers succeed because they promote these values through their actions more than in their language, which, after all, is what counts. As Brooks put it toward the end of the TED talk.
Small groups of friends who put their bodies on the line so that the rest of us can follow them.
The Yard Sign Revisited: Pivoting and Weaving at the Same Time
I’m not sure if a person can literally pivot and weave at the same time. However, if I’ve learned one thing from my years as a peacebuilder and the insights I’ve picked up from people like Brooks, it’s that we somehow have to do both.
Maybe I should begin by talking with my neighbors who have put up their own lawn signs or created their own little libraries—including the family that lives in the one house that was festooned with Trump signs. I don’t expect (m)any of them to be experienced peacebuilders—including the residents of the house with “war is not the answer” in the front yard.
All, however, are concerned enough to say something with their front yards. All can pivot. All are potential weavers.
I plan to spend the next few weeks striking up conversations about pivoting and weaving especially with those neighbors who have something in their yards. Even in the middle of what we in Washington think of as winter, I spend an hour a day walking from our house to our grandkids’ and back. My neighbors and I can talk about more than just COVID and the weather.
After all, www.nextdoor.com is one of the Weavers Project’s partners….
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.