Why We Have to Connect the Dots

This is the second post I’ve written as part of the soft launch of the Connecting the Dots Community.

Since my therapist didn’t recognize the term soft launch, I probably short start there before turning to the community itself.

It’s a term college and university development offices use to describe the first phase of a major capital campaign. They typically don’t want to go public with an effort to raise hundreds of millions of dollars until they are pretty sure that they  will actually reach their. As a result, they engage in what they call a “quiet phase” in which they try to raise a significant proportion of the funds from their regular donors before they reach out to their alumni, foundations, and the like.

That’s not exactly what I’m doing with the Connecting the Dots Community. I’m using the quiet phase before it is formally launched at the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s tenth annual PeaceCon in January to try out some basic ideas and recruit at least ten organizations who will be a part of it in 2022 and, hopefully, beyond.

One of the questions I didn’t address fully enough in last week’s supersoft launch is why connecting the dots is important in the first place.  

That starts with the fact that connecting the dots can open the door to new and creative solutions. Just think about the image at the top of this post. It depicts a classic exercise facilitators use to help people think outside the clichéd box. Participants are given a pencil and a piece of paper with nothing but these nine dots on it. They are then told to connect all of them without lifting the pencil point off of the sheet of paper. SPOILER ALERT: you can’t connect the dots unless you “color outside of the boundaries.” Once you do, multiple new opportunities can emerge as this second slightly more complicated image suggests.

If I’m right, connecting today’s social, political, environmental, racial, and economic dots can take us outside of our clichéd box and toward creative solutions. Three and a half overlapping reasons stand out which I was only able to briefly touch on in passing in last week’s post. 

Taken together, they show why connecting the dots can lead to a novel approach to movement building and social change, but I’ll put the final one that makes that case off until next week so that this post doesn’t get waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. Hence the half of a reason.

Crossing Issue-Based Silos 

My younger friends talk about intersectionality. I usually use the term wicked problems instead. Whatever label you choose, we live in an increasingly interdependent world in which the causes and consequences of our problems are so inextricably intertwined that we can’t solve them quickly, separately, or easily if we can solve them at all.

At the same time, we all tend to work in our own silos. I’m no exception. Although I’ve spent my adult lifetime calling for large scale social change in general, most of my experience has come in peacebuilding. 

There is every reason why I should continue  doing so and you should continue focusing on yours. It’s what we do best.

However, if I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that we have to connect those silos and that it is very hard to actually get people to do so. 

The first of them is easier to see. It is now commonplace for environmentalists to stress the fact that climate change is having a disproportionate impact on the poor in general and people of color in particular. Social justice movements focus more on the ways that growing economic inequality affect traditionally red as well as blue communities around the country. My peacebuilding colleagues similarly understand that we can’t bring any seemingly intractable conflict to a definitive end unless we address its social, economic, racial, and other “root causes.”

The second one is proving more difficult to act on. For understandable and appropriate reasons, most of the organizations I’ve been studying and, now, working with focus on the hard-to-solve issues in their own silos. In other words, it’s hard to get them to work in other policy areas, and it’s even harder to ask them to make another issue a top priority even in the short term.

Yet, the very logic of intersectionality and/or wicked problems tells us that we have to broaden the range of issues we work on—a point I will return to with the third section.

Bridging Ideological Divides

The Connecting the Dots Community can also help us heal our social and political wounds. You don’t need me to tell you that we live in a time of deep political polarization or that the kind of bare majority that the Democrats won in Congress in 2020 is not enough to govern effectively. 

Not all of the dot connecters I work with  have made healing those divides a top priority. Nonetheless, they all realize that their ways of  comprehensively dealing with the overlapping issues discussed in the previous section could help us overcome some of those divisions. 

Emphasis on could.

The network of dot connecters I currently work with mostly think of themselves as being on the “right side of history” which means that they tend to be progressive when and if they take political stands.

At the same time, they understand that they will have to be comfortable working with organizations that primarily appeal to conservatives if they want to maximize their own growth even working solely within their own silo(s). That has led them to operate in two ways that make them different from the kinds of progressive activists who get the most media attention today.

The first one is substantive. The dot connecters resist those temptations and, each in their own way, reach out to  kindred souls on the “other side of the aisle,” which is easiest to see when it comes to climate change. Although you wouldn’t know that from listening to most Republican politicians, there are signs that the environmental causes are beginning to gain support from conservatives because those voters become climate change advocates after following a political and intellectual path which is quite different from those presented by the likes of Greta Thunberg or Bill McKibben.  

Polls conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities show that a growing majority of Americans understand that climate change poses an existential threat. At the same time, many conservatives who might support efforts to reduce the impact of climate change resist appeals that come from the political life and use language that many of them find offensive and even downright hurtful.

Still, progress is being made.

Rather than having me drone on here, you should be able to see what I’m driving at and have more fun doing so by watching the TED talks given by Katharine Hayhoe and Bob Inglis.  Hayhoe is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. She also happens to tech at Texas Tech and is also an active evangelical Christian, which means that she spends most of her time away from the office in the company of climate change skeptics and deniers. So, too, does Inglis, who spent a decade as a member of Congress representing the Greenville SC area which is also not known as a hotbed of environmental activism. Over time, however, his children and others convinced him to change his mind. While doing so cost him his seat in Congress, he has spent the last decade as founder and CEO of RepublicEn which is building support for climate change mitigation among political and economic conservatives. 

Second, most dot connecters go about dealing with the people they disagree with in unusual and constructive ways. Given my experience as a peacebuilder, none of what follows is new to me,n because I’ve long been convinced that blaming and shaming one’s opponents is almost always counterproductive, however much you might disagree with each other.

Indeed, in all the years I’ve spent as an activist and as a professor, I can’t remember a single time in which I ever convinced anyone of anything on the basis of the logic I used or the facts I presented alone. Instead, people came around when they reached new conclusions on their own after discussions that were so intense that, in the words of the late Daniel Yankelovich, those dialogues “left neither party unchanged.”

It is hard to avoid getting up on our high horses and getting mad at people who take positions we find immoral. Indeed, I have often found myself in that situation since President Trump’s election and, then, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic threw our world upside down .

Nonetheless, the dot connecters I respect the most are exploring ways of both promoting the causes they believe in while treading their opponents with dignity and respect. Instead of “calling out” the other side by calling them racists or attacking them for destroying the environment, they try to “call in” the people they disagree with. In other words, they take the first step in inviting the other side into the kind of dialogues Yankelovich valued so much but found lacking in most of the public opinion research he did in his decades-long career.

Why this approach makes sense is easier to see if we shift our attention to race, which Gunnar and Alva Myrdal referred to as the American dilemma as long ago as the 1940s.  Almost eighty years later, you would have to be blind to not see the impact of institutionalized and systematic racism in all aspects of American society, no matter the progress we’ve made since then.

Smith College professor and veteran civil rights activist, Loretta Ross, has made the case that we should reach out to and “call in” the people we disagree with as eloquently as anyone I know of. That starts with the beginning her TED talk when she describes hereself as an unusual Black woman who goes to Ku Klux Klan rallies on purpose. As you’ll see, she uses terminology that is familiar to my peacebuilding colleagues—empathy, respect, trust, dignity—that could and should hold whatever issue we focus on.

This isn’t easy to do. But if, as my friend Chad Ford puts it in his wonderful new book, Dangerous Love, if I take the first step and turn toward the person I disagree with and treat her as a fellow human rather than an enemy, lots of positive things can happen. To begin with, I don’t wait for her to take the initiative; I see it as my responsibility to take that first step toward potentially breaking the logjam that separates us. If nothing else, I can let go of some of the anger that I feel toward the situation. If I ask her why she holds what seems to me to me to be a bizarre point of view (or worse), she might just take up the invitation and we might get to Yankelovich’s point at which we both change.

Becoming T-Shaped

Dot connectors also change themselves before, during, and after the time they spend connecting. On one level, that should be obvious, since few of us are ready to reach out across the kinds of lines I’ve already discussed in this blog post.

However, I want to take this idea of how connecting the dots changes the connecters farther, too, by suggesting that doing so turns us more into what Tim Brown, the Executive Chair of IDEO, calls a T-shaped person. As the vertical line in this figure suggests, one typically starts by developing a specialty, often beginning with one’s major in college. In most cases, that continues with more specialized training in graduate school and/or on the job. In my case, I’ve been fortunate to have built two separate careers by developing deep understanding of two surprisingly different academic fields—peacebuilding and political science—which I have been able to use in teaching, in research, and, now especially, in movement building.

What Brown and others emphasized is the horizontal line or the broadening that can come when and if one branches out from that specialty. In an interdependent world of wicked problems and intersectionality , we should be encouraging all of the people we work with to “lengthen” and “thicken” that horizontal line, all the while strengthening the starting point(s) that comes from that initial specialty.

Again, I’ve been lucky. In graduate school, I spent as much time with historians and sociologists as I did with political scientists. In my first teaching job, I was encouraged to develop interdisciplinary courses that led me to teach political science and literature in French and to put together a freshman seminar on paradigm shifts with an environmental scientist, a literature professor, and a historian. I spent the last two decades of the twentieth century working with the Beyond War movement which rekindled interests in technology and systems thinking and introduced me to the innovative sides of the corporate world. In the fifteen years that I’ve been the Senior Fellow for Innovation at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, I’ve had the privilege of working with the military, religious conservatives, film makers, tech entrepreneurs, yoga teachers, basketball coaches, and more.

So, in my seventies, I find myself doing a lot of mentoring with my younger dot connecting colleagues. It is very rare that I can help any of them strengthen the vertical half of their T shape. I can, however, help them build out horizontally.

While I don’t expect many people will be able to do what I’ve done, my sense is that we will all have to help each other become more T like.

And, if my experience is any indication, it is both rewarding and fun.

Going to Scale

It’s one thing to have those kinds of conversations. As I’ve learned since my family had them around the dining room table when my parents disagree with me on civil rights and the Vietnam war, they can both make a difference and can be profoundly uplifting.

Alas, the kinds of dialogues  Yankelovich wrote about  until his dying day will never be enough to change a society. At best, they are a necessary—but insufficient—precondition for radical change.

So, in order to make change happen, we have to take the results of watching those TED talks or having productive dinner table conversations to scale. And, as I’ve argued in other blog posts, we need to build a new kind of movement within American civil society, which my dot connecting friends are already beginning to organize in each of the issue areas that is causing us problems today.

To make that point in any depth would make this blog post feel more like a book chapter.

So, I’ll stop here with this bold assertion and pick up the thread about going to scale next week.

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.