Like a lot of folks, I occasionally hear people espouse values and beliefs different and often counter to my own. When I was young, I didn’t understand this. Many of these beliefs and positions seemed irrational to me. How could people believe such crazy things? But as I read, traveled and met more people, I learned that values and convictions that might seem strange to me often serve a purpose for others. 

I have come to sense that I, too, might harbor some odd beliefs – and, like others, I come up with convoluted rationalizations for them.

Sometimes that purpose is simply the sharing of these values and beliefs with others who feel the same way. Shared beliefs can foster a sense of community, or provide meaning in people’s lives. It seems that we as humans have evolved to need something that provides unity and cohesion. Sometimes that might be liking the same songs or movies. Or, if that means believing in statues that cry or space aliens, well, okay, maybe no harm done. 

I have come to sense that I, too, might harbor some odd beliefs — and, like others, I come up with convoluted rationalizations for them. I have a set of values that, to me, should be seen as self evident and should therefore be adopted by everyone. But if we’re going to find common ground and live together, we need to at least attempt to understand the mindsets of the people who think differently from us.

Some years ago the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposed in his book The Righteous Mind that there are six basic moral values, and how important each value is to us as individuals determines our behavior. I am not interested in debating how innate or universal these values are, or if there are more or less than six, but I do find them a useful tool for understanding those with views different from my own. These tools help prevent me from feeling superior. They allow me to imagine what someone else might be thinking and why they believe what they believe — because we actually share many of the same values.

Here are the values (and their opposites):

1. Care/Harm. We are all one family and should have compassion for everyone else, as much as we can. Suffering should be eliminated if it can be.

2. Fairness/Cheating. A society should strive to be fair. Justice should be equal for all. Cooperation is better than cruelty. The flip side is that cheaters and free riders should be scorned or punished.

3. Loyalty/Betrayal. Loyalty to one’s family, community, team, business and nation is essential. It is the force that holds things together. 

4. Authority/Subversion. One must abide by the law, whether one agrees with it or not. Our collective agreement to obey social and legal institutions is what makes us function as a society.

5. Sanctity/Degradation. Purity, temperance, restraint and moderation stabilize our world. Certain behaviors are immoral and must be shunned.

6. Liberty/Oppression. People should be allowed to be free in their speech, thoughts and behaviors as long as they aren’t hurting others.

I find that, to some extent, I can see the worth in every one of these six values. None of them seems completely wrong. That said, clearly I have my personal leanings. I value some more than others. That’s exactly the point. The idea is that folks tend to prioritize some of these values, and which ones we prioritize determines our politics, how we behave and how we think of others. I do this, you do this, we all do this. 

The values we prioritize, says Haidt, determine where along the political spectrum we fall. Whereas liberals tend to emphasize care and fairness, conservatives are somewhat more apt to value loyalty, purity and authority (though, as Haidt points out, neither group discounts care and fairness all that much — it’s on loyalty, purity and authority where liberals and conservatives really diverge.)

So, for example, as someone who places a high value on care and fairness, I might support laws that say everyone, no matter their personal beliefs, must treat LGBT people as equal citizens. But folks who rank sanctity higher than care or fairness in their value hierarchy may feel that homosexuality is “unnatural,” and that its “degradation” of sanctity therefore overrides the need for equality. 

As we’ve seen recently, some folks believe face mask rules intrude on their personal freedom. They feel that their individual rights (liberty) take precedence over those of the larger community, whereas I place more value on cooperation and the health of the collective (care). I don’t think either freedom or liberty are wrong, but in certain situations, I might feel that those values need to be curtailed for the good of everyone.

I might feel that in order to challenge unjust laws one sometimes has to break them (fairness). Others will disagree and say “the law is the law” (authority). Many Americans believe that free speech is an absolute right (liberty) and if others are hurt, offended, or feel discriminated against by what I say, well, that’s the price of freedom. In general, I personally share that value, but I don’t see it as absolute — there are times when maybe it should be regulated if it is intended to do harm or incite violence (care, fairness). The point is, I can see some worth in all of these values. 

This raises an important point. The fact that all of our disparate beliefs spring from the same six values doesn’t mean all beliefs have the same merit, or even any merit at all. Prioritizing some values — like sanctity of race or homeland, in the example to follow — can justify inhuman behavior. 

Adam Gopnik, writing about the Nazi “angel of death” Josef Mengle in The New Yorker, noted: There is nothing surprising in educated people doing evil, but it is still amazing to see how fully they construct a rationale to let them do it, piling plausible reason on self-justification, until, like Mengele, they are able to look themselves in the mirror every morning with bright-eyed self-congratulation.” The point is, we shouldn’t excuse behaviors that harm others — we should simply try to understand why those behaviors happen and the mechanisms that are used to justify them. To paraphrase the writer Hannah Arendt when she was accused of justifying what the Nazis did: To understand is not to excuse. 

What does all this tell us? It tells us that, though I may disagree with folks on certain issues, those disagreements are nonetheless rooted in values that they — and I, to some degree — share. Our beliefs and our politics may be very different, and yet, by recognizing the values behind them, I can, to some extent and in some instances, empathize and understand why someone might feel differently about an issue than I do. It helps me to not judge them as ignorant or evil, and gives us a foothold, a place to start a conversation.

Justine Abigail Yu was sitting alone in the school yard of a Toronto public school this summer when a white woman came up to her and told her she had to leave: this was private property and Yu was trespassing. Yu was confused. This was a space she had been to many times before and seen families set up picnics and bring their kids to play on the playground. So Yu thanked the woman but decided to stay and keep reading. “I’m going to call the police on you if you don’t… I’m a teacher. There are signs here that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” Yu says the woman insisted. “Can you read or maybe you don’t speak English?… Go back to China.”  

Yu was stunned. After the woman walked away, Yu decided to turn on her camera and recount what happened before she forgot the details. That’s when Yu caught the woman saying back to her, “All Chinese people should go to jail.”   

Justine Yu

Yu, a Filipina-Canadian, is one of many racialized people who have been the target of racist attacks; sometimes verbal, sometimes violent and sometimes caught on camera. After she was targeted, Yu wasn’t sure exactly how to report what happened. She asked herself, “Can I even file a police report on that? What does that count under?” While some statistics are kept by law enforcement agencies, the numbers often don’t include the everyday reality for people of color. Racialized people have a long history of being targeted by authorities and may not feel safe reporting to police. Police could be the group causing the harm, there can be language barriers and, even if reported, not all incidents will meet the threshold of a crime.

But increasingly, grassroots organizations across North America are collecting data in that gray zone. That data is now becoming a crucial part of shaping solutions, supporting advocacy, changing laws and strengthening allyship.  

On a Zoom webinar with almost 1,000 people watching live, Hollaback! trainer Jorge Arteaga starts introducing himself. He’s Afro-Latino and, unsurprisingly, has a personal story of how he was wrongfully targeted by police as a teenager. After sharing, he takes a deep breath and pauses before delivering an hour-long bystander intervention training on how to stop police-sponsored violence and anti-Black harassment.  

“It’s a little nerve wracking for me,” says Arteaga, who is also the director of operations at Hollaback! “But what I’m thinking in my mind is … what story can I share so that, you know, this whole experience kind of resonates with people so that when they walk out of the training, they go out on the street and they’re ready to use one of the five Ds.” 

Arteaga shares how bystanders can intervene if they see someone being targeted — a technique known as the “5Ds”: directly addressing the attacker, offering a distraction, delaying and offering support, delegating by getting help from people around you or documenting the incident.  

Their bystander training has evolved over time and has been influenced by stories from the community and data. In 2014, Hollaback! teamed up with researchers at Cornell University to launch a large-scale research survey on street harassment. It spanned 42 cities in 22 countries and had over 16,600 respondents, making it the largest analysis of street harassment at the time. 

“One of the common denominators they found in the stories was that people wished someone was there to help them when they were experiencing harassment, or that somebody would have jumped in to do something,” says Arteaga. “So based on that Hollaback! was like, okay, bystander intervention, that’s the path that we need to be exploring.”

Today, Hollaback! continues to collect stories of people who have experienced harassment. They monitor the news and adapt the bystander training in collaboration with different communities. They’ve since adapted trainings to address harassment towards Asian-Americans and the LGBTQ community, and are developing one to address state-sponsored violence towards immigrant communities. Arteaga describes their model as a “perpetual front to harassment.”

Between April and June, 2020, in response to Covid-19 and #BlackLivesMatter, Hollaback! trained over 12,000 people on what to do if they see anti-Asian racism, and over 4,000 people on police violence and anti-Black racism. Ninety-nine percent of respondents surveyed come out of the training saying they feel equipped to do at least one thing to help if they witness a racist incident.

Yu wanted accountability and also felt like she had a responsibility to her BIPOC community to share her experience, so she posted her story and video on social media. Incidents like the one she experienced happen frequently, says Yu. “Black, Indigenous, people of color are constantly called into question for doing anything — for even just belonging here on this land.” 

Her post got over 1,400 shares and likes. She was able to identify the woman (but is not publicly sharing) and people suggested she report her experience to different community organizations that track racism including the Canadian Anti-racism Network, Act2endRacism, and Fight Covid Racism. 

With this kind of data, organizations like these are able to develop specific resources, launch targeted education campaigns, research geographic trends and advocate for legislative changes.

“Black, Indigenous, people of color are constantly called into question for doing anything; for even just belonging here on this land.”

“These kind of data definitely help us talk to our leaders about how these instances are continuing to happen and it needs to be addressed,” says James Woo, who oversees communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta. Advancing Justice is made up of five organizations across the U.S., advocating for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans. 

Advancing Justice’s Stand Against Hatred website has been tracking hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States since 2017. It invites people to share their experiences and provides reporting forms in a variety of languages including Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese. The goal, Woo says, is to provide a “much better picture” of reality.

FBI data is supposed to be the most comprehensive but it doesn’t really capture the experiences of racialized people’s daily lives, says Woo. Barriers to reporting include language, mistrust and fear of authorities, and the varying reporting procedures for hate crimes in each state.  

“There are a lot of policies and rules that are really hurtful to Asian-Americans or immigrants in general,” says Woo. The state of Georgia, for example, only just signed a hate crimes bill into law this June. Wyoming, Arkansas, and South Carolina still do not have any specific laws that cover crimes motivated by a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. And, despite having laws, more than a dozen states do not require any data collection on hate crimes.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signs a hate crimes bill into law in Georgia in June 2020. Credit: Office of Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp

Woo says that Advancing Justice wanted to make sure that Asian American and Pacific Islander voices were included as the bill in Georgia was developed, so they shared their data with legislatures. The data has to go beyond just being collected, says Woo. “We are trying to actively utilize the data to make actual policy changes.”

For Justine Yu, no one was around to step in or be a witness. And while she hates to admit she was scared, she thinks that having a witness or someone around could have eased her tension. “I felt really, I don’t know, just nervous about the fact that, if she does call the police, what does happen?” she said. “I started, at some point in those moments, questioning whether or not I was within my rights to be there.”

But when Yu returned to the park with her partner a few days later, she found that the neighborhood had put up signs of support. “Ms. Yu, feel free to sit anywhere you please. Racism is not welcome here!” read one sign.

“Those signs almost felt like some sort of protection,” said Yu. “If I ever did have to encounter this woman, hopefully there would be people around who would mobilize or would feel compelled to say something and to do something in that moment should anything else happen.”

Erskine Murphy, who is 70 years old and walks with a cane, shuffled into the crosswalk traversing San Pablo Avenue at Myrtle Street on Oakland’s west side. He was on his way to the Community Foods Market to pick up groceries. A half-dozen bright orange markers lined the road near the crosswalk, flanked on either side by two turquoise signs that read “Go Slow. It’s Essential.” 

The setup is an acknowledgment that this stretch of San Pablo Avenue, a four-lane divided roadway, is a threat to pedestrians like Murphy — perhaps even more so since Covid-19. With less traffic on the roads, speeding has surged. Murphy, who is Black, is already more likely than other pedestrians to be struck and killed by a car. Now, with bus service reduced, he is walking more than usual, often along West Oakland’s “high-injury corridors,” which include just two percent of the city’s streets but over one-third of its pedestrian collisions. The corner of Myrtle and San Pablo is on one of them

Oakland resident Erskine Murphy. Credit: Rikha Sharma Rani

But Murphy’s walks recently got a bit safer. This stretch of San Pablo Avenue has become one of 15 sites around Oakland designated an “essential place” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Oakland launched the Essential Places initiative in May to reduce the threat to pedestrians in these high-injury corridors, many of them located in low-income communities of color. The initiative consists of an assortment of cones, barricades and signage strategically placed to slow or divert traffic. While Murphy, who has been hit by a car once and sustained minor injuries, recognizes that a few markers aren’t going to solve the problem — he still sees reckless drivers on the road — he’s happy the barricades are there. “It helps safety-wise,” he says.

Feedback from residents suggests that the program is well liked, but it wasn’t always. An earlier version that focused primarily on expanding recreational space revealed a blindspot in the city’s planning — one that it is now correcting. At a time when urban planners are increasingly being called out for white elitism, Oakland is feeling its way, clumsily at times, down a different, more equitable path. 

Essential Places is an offshoot of Oakland’s “Slow Streets” program, which closed a handful of streets to through traffic so that people could bike or jog while safely social distancing. Surveys administered by the city showed that the program was popular, but there was a problem. Two thirds of survey respondents were white and 40 percent had annual household incomes of $150,000 or more. In Oakland, white residents comprise 24 percent of the population and the median household income is $76,000.

“We got the feedback from the survey and said, ‘Wow, this isn’t representative,” says Warren Logan, policy director for mobility and interagency relations and the chief architect of Essential Places. Pressed by advocates, he doubled down on efforts to get feedback from residents in marginalized neighborhoods, especially in East Oakland, where more than three quarters of residents are Black or Latino and more than half of households are low-income. Residents in these neighborhoods, many of whom are essential workers, have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Essential Places is an effort to rectify racist and classist policies that have served to disenfranchise communities of color. Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

Logan’s team started holding weekly, hour-long meetings with community members, who, as it turned out, felt very differently than most of the people who had responded to the survey.

“We’re not asking for that,” says John Jones III of the slow streets program. Jones is a longtime resident of East Oakland and director of political engagement for Just Cities, an organization that advocates for more equitable urban planning and policymaking. “No one is jogging or riding their bikes in these streets.” He and other advocates pushed the city to change course.

“One of the key areas of feedback, particularly for many residents in East Oakland, was that we had missed the mark,” says Logan. “They understood why slow streets might be helpful for people working at home who are more affluent or don’t necessarily have the same traffic challenges that they might have. But the residents there felt like the city should—if they’re going to focus on anything in East Oakland—be focused on helping people get to their essential places, whether that’s health clinics, to schools that were distributing food, to grocery stores.

The disconnect revealed a stark reality: For many marginalized communities, engaging with cities on urban policy is akin to screaming into a void. “City governments, historically and today, are really bad at planning with people,” says Margaretta Lin, executive director of Just Cities.  

City officials often seek feedback from Brown and Black residents as a formality or a box to check, but rarely act on it, perpetuating a deep mistrust in government that goes back to before the Jim Crow era. From federal redlining to race-based real estate covenants, the history of urban planning is fraught with racist and classist policies that have served to disenfranchise communities of color. Essential Places is an example of what can emerge when government confronts that history head on. 

During the Great Migration, the arrival of Black Americans in northern and western cities sparked an exodus of white families to the suburbs, nudged along by highway construction and discriminatory whites-only housing subsidies. “What it left were cities with large concentrations of poor people, largely Blacks and eventually immigrants coming into the United States,” says Malo Hutson, associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University and director of the school’s urban community and health equity lab.

Sylvester Donaldson, a 61-year-old retail worker, is glad to see the new safety measures, but thinks more traffic lights would be even better. Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

What followed was a long period of disinvestment, made worse by the decimation of manufacturing jobs. As white families began returning to cities starting in the 1990s — what Hutson calls the “rediscovery of cities” — capital came with them, but it flowed into the kinds of investments that invited gentrification: things like bike lanes, dog parks, smart technologies and e-scooter programs that benefit affluent communities but don’t always serve the most immediate needs of poor ones.

When urban planners try to engage communities that have been hurt by government in the past, all of this accumulated trauma comes to bear. “They have every single right not to trust anything you say,” says Logan. 

To understand the concerns of struggling communities in Oakland, Logan, who is Black, had to recognize the lingering weight of that history. “If so many people have such an irascible response to something as simple as an A-frame barricade at the beginning of an intersection, that tells me there’s a lot of deeper trauma that you’ve got to work through. So, let’s go there and be courageous enough to say, ‘I’m sorry. Tell me more. Yes, that was messed up. Tell me why.’”

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    For some residents in East Oakland, the bright orange signage used by the city to demarcate slow streets sites was an unwelcome reminder of another city-led project: construction of a bus rapid transit system that has been underway since 2012, creating traffic problems and reducing foot traffic for local businesses. Street closures may also require the presence of police, which can be traumatic for already overpoliced communities of color, especially in light of recent police killings of unarmed Black people. 

    “It doesn’t matter how great a program is. None of that matters if people feel like it’s not for them.”

    Because these kinds of concerns aren’t always obvious, especially when the context is a street with a few barricades on it, uncovering them requires deeper engagement than administering an online survey. But engaging face to face, says Logan, can mean first having to bear the brunt of a lot of frustration. “I think that a lot of planners, especially probably white planners, are uncomfortable with getting yelled at by people of color,” he said. 

    That can pose a barrier to the kind of community engagement that many experts believe is necessary for urban planning to be inclusive and equitable, especially given that 85 percent of urban planners are white, but more than half of urban counties in the country are majority nonwhite.  

    There are few better examples of the impact of that lack of representation than cities’ efforts to establish bike lanes, a topic that has, for better or worse, come to epitomize bougie, white-centric urban policy, despite the fact that minorities are the fastest growing group of bicycle riders nationwide and are more likely to be hit by a car while riding. “The Great Bikelash” has dominated urban planning discourse and pitted (falsely, some would say) the goal of building more sustainable cities against the goal of creating more equitable ones.

    La Fron Britton, an artist from Oakland’s west side, says the new street design has made walking safer. Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

     At first blush, the issues seem straightforward. In Washington D.C., a group of Black faith leaders opposed bike lanes that would have reduced available parking around churches. In other distressed communities, residents were wary of biking because of the risk of traffic fatalities. 

    But a lot of the opposition from historically marginalized groups also had to do with process — how decisions about bike lanes were made and who was making them (bicycle advocates, like urban planners, are predominantly white). 

    “In urban planning, we’ll talk a good game,” says Hutson. “People say, ‘Oh, well, yeah, we do equitable planning and this and that. But at the end of the day, it’s how do you implement these things? Who is at the table? Who have you reached out to? Which voices are heard and which voices are not heard? That’s what I see as being the huge challenge.”

     In many cities, the push to establish bike lanes occurred in tandem with rapid gentrification and displacement. Oakland introduced its first protected bike lane in 2014 in one of the city’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2010, 34,000 African Americans were displaced from the city, a 24 percent decline. The frenzy to put in bike lanes, often justified on the basis of making streets safer for (mostly white) bicyclists, was particularly galling to many people of color because pedestrian safety in their own communities has gone largely unaddressed for decades. “It doesn’t matter how great a program is,” said Jones. “None of that matters if people feel like it’s not for them.”

    In rolling out slow streets, Oakland appeared to be repeating the same mistakes as bike lane proponents. “East Oakland has the most dangerous streets in Oakland,” says Lin. “What East Oakland really needs are safe streets, not slow streets.”

    “City governments, historically and today, are really bad at planning with people,” says Just Cities Executive Director Margaretta Lin. Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

    Instead of being asked to weigh in on a program that had already been introduced, Lin said the city should have started with a different question. “It should have been, ‘What do you need in your community to survive this pandemic?’” She wants the city to implement a long-term health and safety plan that includes the installation of traffic lights and other infrastructure at dangerous intersections. 

    Logan says he hears the feedback and is listening. “We want to make sure we’re working with them through the process,” he says (emphasis Logan’s). But he also warns against what he says is a tendency for cities to give up too easily on programs when communities react negatively. “You also can’t just say, ‘I heard the first thing a Black person told me, I’m going to take that as gospel and run away when I get yelled at.’ That’s also not doing the work.”

    At least one community leader from East Oakland told Logan, essentially, pick up your barricades and leave. But Logan said he kept pressing. “I said to her, ‘I’m going to repeat back to you what I just heard so that we can be really clear about what you’re telling me to do. You said you don’t like this program. So, if I were to take your point, I’m going to ask all of my staff to pick up every single barricade in the entire neighborhood and leave all of the barricades in [more affluent] North Oakland. What do you think that might look like if I were to go through with that?’ And she was like, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t say get rid of the program.’” 

    Logan’s team is now working with community representatives to strengthen barricades and is exploring a public art project to beautify them. Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

    That extra prodding revealed the community leader’s real concern, which was that the barricades weren’t doing enough to stop people from driving dangerously. A better solution, she told Logan, would be to fully close short segments of streets to through traffic during certain times. “What came across initially as, ‘We don’t like slow streets’ transformed into, ‘Hey, this program isn’t strong enough to accomplish the thing that you say you’re trying to accomplish,’” Logan recalls.

    In May, a month after the initial rollout of the slow streets program, Oakland introduced Essential Places, with a new goal of helping pedestrians in low-income areas move around safely. His team is now working with community representatives to understand how to strengthen barricades (people have been driving over or moving the markers the city is currently using). It is also exploring a public art project in which East Oakland artists create barriers that are less reminiscent of a construction zone, which he expects will kick off by the end of the month.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the pivot from slow streets to essential places in distressed neighborhoods, in direct response to the community’s feedback, has been generally well received. According to Department of Transportation data, there have been no collisions at designated Essential Places sites, even though all are part of the city’s high injury network where most collisions occur.

    While there is still a long way to go, the city doesn’t believe it could have gotten that result if it had, as residents had initially demanded, simply packed up its barricades and left. “There are two different types of tendencies,” says Logan. “The first tendency is to not even ask Black and brown communities what impact you’re having on them in the first place. The second is… transactional engagement: We heard negative feedback, so we’re just going to quit. We’re not even going to try and ask, ‘What would make it an improvement? You just said you don’t like it, so I’m going to stop.’ I say that that’s not real equity.”

    For Jones in East Oakland, the fact that the city was willing to redesign the program in response to the community’s feedback is a step in the right direction.

    “Anytime people are willing to say, ‘Look, we could have done this better,’ and when there’s an opportunity to do that they act on it, that’s a success.”

    This article was funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

    This story was produced by Freakonomics Radio, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

    You probably hold certain beliefs that you think no one could ever change your mind about. Well, humor us, because in this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we’re pretty sure that we can change your mind about that

    The truth is, our minds are pretty changeable. Under the right conditions, even the concepts, ideologies and general truths that we hold to be sacrosanct are often prone to alteration. We showed you some examples of how this works in our story “Are You Liberal? Are You Sure?” And we’ll offer even more examples in the coming weeks.

    For now, however, tune in to this episode of Freakonomics Radio: “How to Change Your Mind.” It kicks off with a conversation between host Stephen Dubner and Reasons to be Cheerful editors Christine McLaren and Will Doig.

    As soon as he heard the news, Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief Paul Prosper’s heart began to race. A school bus, a grade school and a sign in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, the remote county on the east coast of Canada encircling Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s reserve, had been tagged with anti-Black and Indigenous racist slurs. Prosper’s heartbeat was anticipating terse interactions with parents, the school board and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not to mention the students. “You’re sort of walking into a hornet’s nest, you know, you’re bound to get stung,” he says.

    But looking back now at the 2018 incident, a different detail stands out to him: a text message from Owen McCarron, warden of the County of Antigonish, who wrote: “I heard what has happened. This is completely unacceptable, it doesn’t reflect the attitudes of the vast majority of people and I’m here to support in any way I can,” Prosper recounts.

    “That was sort of a moment for me. That indicated to me that somebody actually cared for us,” Prosper, who has since moved on from his role as Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief to become a Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says. Later, some members of the County of Antigonish council stood behind him at a school-wide debrief of the events. 

    These are small gestures, but what they represent is revolutionary. Across Canada, hundreds of municipalities like Antigonish sit right next to First Nations communities with very little communication, let alone collaboration. While the Canadian government now touts a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous Peoples, at the local level reconciliation is more of an afterthought. Municipalities often treat reserves as “blank spaces” as they develop around them and on the Nations’ traditional territories. For this and many other historical reasons, Indigenous communities like Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation report that racial divides are ever-present.

    Antigonish County and Paqtnkek Joint Council
    An Antigonish County and Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation joint council, part of a program designed to help longtime neighbors act like neighbors. Credit: County of Antigonish

    But the united front that Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and the county of Antigonish presented that day did not come easily. For the past five years, they have benefitted from a unique country-wide program designed to help longtime neighbors like them become neighbors. The First Nation–Municipal Community Economic Development Initiative, known as CEDI, empowers municipal and First Nation leaders and their staff to, for once, sit down and talk as equals. 

    CEDI is a partnership between the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers, known as Cando, which represents Indigenous communities in support of economic growth. Since 2013, 15 pairs — out of hundreds of requests — have taken part in the program that is in principle about joint economic development, but in reality more decolonization bootcamp. 

    CEDI was born out of a tragically common juxtaposition in Canada. Municipalities across the country were investing millions in municipal water infrastructure. Meanwhile, according to an OECD report, it is estimated that “half of the water systems on First Nations reserves pose a medium or high health risk to their users.” 

    “How could it be that the municipality has perfectly clean piped water, and across the street, if it’s a reserve, they could be living with a boil-water advisory? Where’s the breakdown?” Josh Regnier, a facilitator for the program, reflected on the program’s origins.

    For Cando, the motivation to develop CEDI was pragmatic: over the years, funding for First Nations infrastructure and development from the federal government has eroded, generating an incentive to combine efforts regionally toward economic prosperity. “That, though, is easier said than done,” says Cando’s executive director Ray Wanuch.

    Though it seems obvious that immediate neighbors should pool resources to share in water treatment plants or firefighting, it’s not that simple. In Canada, municipalities are products of the provinces, while First Nations have a direct relationship with the federal government. Although chiefs, mayors and councillors may share the same grocery stores, they have no obligation to work together.

    The jurisdictional barriers, however, create a false sense of separation. The elephant in the room is that municipalities like the County of Antigonish across Canada have taken over Indigenous land. As Prosper points out, in the early 18th century Indigenous nations signed peace and friendship treaties with Great Britain to respectfully coexist. But in the centuries that followed, Indigenous Peoples were increasingly faced with racist policies aimed at eradicating their identities and taking their land. In many communities, the relics of this violence — such as the residential schools where children were forcibly assimilated — still stand in neighboring towns.

    “Some of our communities have had very bad history and relationships with their surrounding municipal neighbors,” says Wanuch. 

    That’s why the CEDI program doesn’t kick off talking logistics or finances — it starts with history. 

    Credit: County of Antigonish

    “There's an understanding that we are connected, that our success will only further success in the area surrounding us.”

    In one of the key early exercises, each community’s council and staff, along with Indigenous elders, are asked to outline their own understanding of the region’s history through sticky notes on the wall. Regnier describes one regional partnership where the municipalities outlined a laundry list of infrastructure: town hall, school, fire hall. The First Nations, at their turn, outlined a much longer timeline of teachings, cultural history, and relationships and wars with other Nations. At the end of their timeline came a turning point, a nation-to-nation treaty signed with colonial governments, followed by a tight succession of painful events: the Indian Act defined Indigenous rights and identities, residential schools removed youth from their parents, the last fluent language-speaker passed. They were deeply offended that the treaty responsible for the existence of the municipalities, and the many examples of First Nation resiliency, were ignored.

    From this groundwork, deeper conversations sprang up, like the question of who should have a voice in development decisions. With help from independent mediators and regular meetings over three years, the municipalities now include First Nations in development planning. “We should have been doing that all along,” said one participating mayor. “Better late than never.”

    Collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities has never been more vital. 

    Across the United States and Canada together, there are more than 1,200 federally recognized Indigenous communities. Urban centers are growing and sprawling closer to Indigenous reserves, 80 percent of which are less than 500 hectares in size (roughly 2.5 percent the size of Portland), limiting independent infrastructure. Meanwhile, challenges from homelessness to wildfires eschew borders and demand a regional response

    The relationship between Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and the County of Antigonish shows what incremental steps toward reconciliation can accomplish.

    In the 1960s, a section of the Trans-Canada Highway connecting Halifax and Cape Breton severed Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s reserve lands in two. And while they were guaranteed access in the early negotiations, the Nation was locked out from 200 hectares (500 acres) of its reserve lands. McCarron said it was an “eye-opener” to learn of this deep wound in early meetings. Despite being effectively landlocked, his Mi’kmaq neighbors were “resilient in their resolve to someday get access to that highway,” McCarron says. 

    friendship accord
    Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief Paul Prosper and Antigonish County Warden Owen McCarron participate in a ceremony acknowledging the Mi’kmaq territory on which they all live. Credit: Richard Perry

    Now they have. With a multimillion-dollar highway expansion in 2019 came “an opportunity to right a historic wrong,” says Prosper. Through negotiations with all levels of government, and support from CEDI, the Nation was able to recover access to its land with a highway interchange complete with a fuel depot, travel center and cardlock. 

    In 2018, Prosper and McCarron signed a friendship accord in ceremony that acknowledges the Mi’kmaq territory on which they all live, and commits to regular joint council meetings. Now, they’re working towards a joint solar energy farm that will employ members of both communities. “There’s an understanding that we are connected, that our success will only further success in the area surrounding us,” says Prosper, adding there’s “a genuine feeling of congratulations” from the wider community. From his own conversations with the non-Indigenous community, McCarron agrees: “Attitudes are changing.”

    Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and Antigonish aren’t the only communities making progress. 

    In Thunder Bay, where more than a third of Canada’s reported anti-Indigenous hate crimes took place in 2015, Fort William First Nation and the City of Thunder Bay found their own shared area of economic interest. The First Nation had a large piece of contaminated lands they couldn’t use. The city, on the other hand, had run out of land for industrial clients. So they came together, pitched the idea of an industrial park to funders and were able to secure the money needed to bring it to market.

    industrial park
    Fort William First Nation and the City of Thunder Bay came together to pitch the idea of an industrial park to funders. Credit: John Mason

    Elsewhere, First Nations and municipalities from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories and the Atlantic are working together to build transit infrastructure, establish joint tourism initiatives and improve emergency management

    And though they have every reason to turn inward in face of Covid-19, these relationships are proving their strength. The pandemic has revealed the lack of relationship between many municipalities and First Nations across Canada, as towns reopened without consulting their First Nation neighbors, many of which still have travel restrictions. In contrast, Antigonish and Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation released a joint statement in response to the pandemic in March, while in April, a regional district and First Nation in British Columbia built a joint economic recovery task force through video conference. In Manitoba, partners overcame a deep historical trauma to lobby governments and investors to reverse the closure of a local factory that would have eliminated roughly 250 jobs. As CEDI prepares to welcome another cohort in 2021, program managers say its primary funder, the federal government, is looking to adapt the model toward recovery from the pandemic.

    Marissa Lawrence, senior program officer for CEDI, says the nine partnerships finishing the program have embraced video conferencing, but there’s no doubt Covid-19 presents challenges. “My personal opinion is that you can’t replace relationship-building face-to-face,” says Lawrence, noting that their current partners had spent one year together before the pandemic hit. 

    As this crisis has us turning back to local economies, Lawrence says, these relationships are proving their worth. A resolve to come back to the table in the face of disruption may be harder to measure — but it’s an important marker of success. 

    Chief Prosper has a similar measure: “If it appears to be uncomfortable, and you seem almost out of your place, then I think that’s a certain indicator that you’re doing something groundbreaking.” 

    This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

    Standing in front of an audience at last fall’s Toronto Biennial of Art, AA Bronson was nervous. As a member of the General Idea collective, founder of the NY Art Book Fair and a leading conceptual artist, the 74-year-old was no stranger to public performance — but this was different.

    For the first time, Bronson was going to deliver his text A Public Apology to Siksika Nation the culmination of a five-year project he had been “hurtling towards” for the last seven decades. It was so essential that when he started it, he stopped making other art.

    Two-spirit Blackfoot artist Adrian Stimson, clothed in ceremonial dress, was among those who had gathered, along with several Siksika elders, all of them survivors of Canada’s notoriously brutal residential schools — including the Old Sun Indian Residential School, which operated on the Siksika reserve until 1971.

    Bronson — who was born Michael Tims — and Stimson have a lot in common. They’re both queer artists working in a range of media; they’re both known for groundbreaking performance art; they’re both recipients of Governor General’s Awards and other high honors.

    But their history dates back to over a century ago to the Alberta plains where their ancestors were sworn enemies.

    Stimson’s great-great-great-grandfather was Chief Old Sun, a renowned Blackfoot leader and reluctant signatory to Treaty 7, the 1877 agreement with the Canadian Crown that imposed the reserve system and removed most of the Siksika’s rights to their traditional lands.

    “He was highly suspicious of the newcomers,” Stimson says in an interview with q host Tom Power. “He didn’t want to sign the treaty, but in the end he acquiesced. He was a bit of a rebel and a very fearless leader.”

    AA Bronson. Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

    Six years later, in 1883, Bronson’s great-grandfather, Rev. John William Tims, became the first Anglican missionary sent to the Siksika nation, where he was tasked with building the community’s first church and residential school.

    As was the case across Canada, Indigenous children were taken from their parents and forced into residential schools where they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, creating profound intergenerational trauma that still ricochets through the community half a century after Old Sun closed. Many call it a cultural genocide.

    “[Rev. Tims] took the children away from their parents, he forbade them to speak their own language or practice their own customs or wear their own clothes,” Bronson says of his ancestor. “And he did his best to destroy Siksika culture.”

    In a bitter twist, the Siksika school was named after Stimson’s ancestor, Chief Old Sun.

    “It’s ironic that his name would be used in an institution that was meant to kill the Indian in the child,” says Stimson, who himself suffered abuse at residential schools.

    According to oral histories from both artists’ families, diphtheria and tuberculosis swept through the schools in 1895.

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      “Children were dying, and sadly, Reverend Tims would not allow those children to go home,” says Stimson. “So you can imagine the sadness and anger the parents felt.”

      An uprising followed, and the church and the school were burned to the ground. Siksika people warned Tims he should leave or he would be killed.

      For decades, Bronson wanted to confront this history in his art. The combination of his advancing age, growing public awareness of Indigenous issues and a call from the Canada Council for works that marked 150 years of Canadian history spurred him to move ahead.

      While various governments and religious groups have offered apologies, Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the country’s jails and prisons, face racism in policing, and have higher rates of violence against women, poverty and infant mortality.

      residential school
      Children at the North Camp School on Blackfoot reserve in 1892. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives

      So when Bronson first approached the community about making an apology, they hesitated.

      “There’s the saying, ‘Walk the talk.’ And when apologies are given, often the walk afterwards is either nonexistent or very slow. So there is cynicism,” says Stimson, who took the idea to Siksika elders. Myrna Youngman, one of the elders, noted apologies were rare, and suggested they listen.

      “The cynicism went away at that point, and we decided that this is important,” remembered Stimson. “Let’s listen to him. He’s approaching us in the right way.”

      He invited Bronson, who stepped into his artistic alter ego Buffalo Boy — a wryly humorous and gender-fluid spin on Buffalo Bill — to the Siksika Nation for a special dinner.

      At the table, Stimson and several elders asked difficult questions about the nature of apologies, and the painful history between Rev. John William Tims and the Siksika people.

      “It’s really meaningful that you’re acknowledging what your grandfather did. He wasn’t made to do it. He did what he did and you’re acknowledging it, which means a lot,” says Youngman, pushing back tears, in an episode of CBC’s In The Making that documented the dinner.

      Stimson also took Bronson to the school.

      “I don’t know how it stays standing,” Bronson says. “If I were Siksika, I would burn it down again.”

      Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

      Included in Siksika artist Adrian Stimson's response to AA Bronson's apology were photographs of 68 boys who attended the Old Sun residential school on the Siksika reserve. ‘All of those boys are now our fathers,’ says Stimson.

      Bronson, along with research assistant Ben Miller, spent months poring through archival photographs, journals, documents and news reports. Many accounts had portions destroyed or removed, in particular, those that dealt with the uprising.

      “In the records of the Anglican Church, there was no such uprising — just Tims was reassigned to a different church after some vague trouble. It really was erased from history,” says Bronson. Through Miller’s diligent research, they pieced the story together.

      “And of course, the story comes from the dinner table. It comes from stories that my father told and my grandfather told.”

      In Bronson’s apology, which he published as a book, he speaks directly to Old Sun, Red Crow, Chief White Pup and other chiefs of the late 19th century; to the children who suffered at residential schools; to the parents who lost their children to abuse and disease; to the medicine men who couldn’t attend to the dying; and to those who participated in the Siksika uprising.

      “I have no excuse for the slaughter of the buffalo, nor the genocide of First Nations,” he writes. “I have no excuse for decades of mass incarceration and abuse of children, disguised as residential schools, disguised as ‘for their own good.’”

      Collodion wet plate self portrait by Adrian Stimson

      Bronson also speaks to those in later generations who have experienced abuse, HIV/AIDS, suicide and murder. At the end of the book is a meticulously detailed timeline of events, an essay about the Siksika rebellion and archival photographs.

      “It’s an invocation of the dead. It’s inviting the dead to join us in considering this piece of history. And I do believe we are a community of the living and the dead. We can’t escape that. The dead are part of us, and that needs to be acknowledged,” says Bronson.

      “And that harm that my ancestors did to Adrian’s ancestors needs to be acknowledged and brought into the room. And we need to sit with that history.”

      Stimson has heard and read the apology many times. But he is clearly moved when he hears Bronson read from it.

      “It still resonates,” he says, his voice cracking.

      “When the government apologizes, that’s fine, and a lot of people did a lot of work around that. But the real acts of conciliation happen between individuals.” (Stimson prefers to say conciliation, arguing that conciliation needs to be achieved before reconciliation is possible.)

      “It’s the people themselves who have to take it upon themselves to find ways of creating relationships,” he says. “And it may not always end up in an apology. But it’s so important to understand that history, and look to ways of repairing or creating new relationships into the future.”

      As an artistic response to the apology, Stimson created Iini Sookumapii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a recreation of the dinner table where he and the elders first met with Bronson, which was also on show at the Toronto Biennial.

      Stimson asked Old Sun survivor Gordon Little Light to build a table similar to one that might have been found at the school, then appointed it with fine silver and dinnerware — a stark opposite to what Indigenous children would have experienced.

      “Then I put a little bronze bison on each plate, sort of looking at the diner as a way of interrogating,” explains Stimson. For millennia, bison were a primary source of food, clothing, commerce and ceremony for the Blackfoot people; white settlers wiped out their population, leading to deprivation and starvation.

      “A lot of my work deals with the slaughter, which is very analogous to what happened at the table.”

      Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

      “When the government apologizes, that’s fine, and a lot of people did a lot of work around that. But the real acts of conciliation happen between individuals.”

      A vase of white roses with one red rose, symbolizing the government’s aggressive push for assimilation, also sat on the table, while a light from the Old Sun school hung above.

      Behind the table, a large photograph featured a group of boys at the school, some of them looking despondent, others smiling.

      “It really struck me that all of those boys are now our fathers here on the nation, many who have passed and some who are still with us,” Stimson says.

      “Although many were smiling, you could only imagine the heartache that existed from being taken away from their families and having to live in that school — and I certainly know that from my father’s own stories of being in that place.”

      While the collaboration was first brought into public view at last year’s biennial, it didn’t end there. After witnessing the apology, Stimson and the elders shared it with the Siksika community. The book has also been widely distributed within the nation.

      This spring, Stimson had planned to host a powwow where Bronson would make the apology directly to the community. But the Covid-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.

      Of course, no apology could ever properly address a genocide, Bronson says.

      “There’s no way to make up for what was done,” he says. “That’s impossible.”

      Still, their collaboration speaks to the power of individual action. Recently, Stimson had to prepare a statement about the abuse he suffered at residential schools — a task that invariably triggers profound sadness and anger. But in the process, he realized working with Bronson has been healing.

      “I know for the elders who were present, they’ve felt very much the same. They really felt somebody listened to them. And in listening to them, that hurt and that anger, that resentment, all those things that come with that history are somewhat lessened,” says Stimson.

      “It never will ever go away. But at the same time, as you build trust, as you build friendships, as you come to know and come to understand that in the hearts of many people, there is a willingness to change and to address these things and move forward in a good way,” he says.

      “Seeing that certainly gives us hope that other people will start doing this, and actually really start walking the walk of an apology.”

      Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Cora Nijhawan | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould

      This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

      Simone Saunders and Tekikki Walker have never met each other in person. But the two artists found much in common with each other when they connected as part of a long-distance collaboration.

      Their project is part of the Long Distance Art series, an initiative that connects different artists online, kind of like a matchmaking service for creators.

      “Tekikki’s work was just mesmerizing to me: the Black content, the color palette, the vibrancy of her work,” Saunders, who is based in Calgary, tells q host Tom Power.

      simone saunders
      Simone Saunders is a Calgary-based artist who creates hand-tufted textiles. Courtesy of Simone Saunders

      For Walker, who lives more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) away in Cleveland, the professional admiration was mutual.

      “I love her work pretty much for the same reasons — a lot of the content and the vibrancy,” she says. “She just seemed like a really dope artist. And I was like, I’m so excited. I want to work with her.”

      Saunders and Walker were put in touch with each other by Torontonian Nick Green, creator of the Social Distancing Series that spawned the Long Distance Art Series.

      The series connects artists from a variety of media and artistic disciplines from around the world as a way to build bridges between artists and art-lovers as the Covid-19 pandemic makes in-person meetings difficult to impossible.

      Saunders and Walker’s project, titled This Ain’t No Video Game, We Want Outta This Circus, explores the parallels between the Black experience, especially anti-Black racism, on both sides of the American-Canadian border.

      Both artists submitted a series of images in their preferred medium — digital collages from Walker, and textile “rug tufting” from Saunders.

      simone saunders
      Courtesy Simone Saunders

      The project also includes personal essays from both that compare and contrast their experiences with systemic racism and the unique ways that racism has manifested during the pandemic.

      Saunders says they drew inspiration from a Washington Post story in April that described two Black men who were followed by police through a Walmart for wearing protective face masks.

      They were particularly struck by Kip Diggs, a 53-year-old Nashville marketing consultant who chose to wear cloth masks in bright, pastel colors like Carolina blue and lime green to appear less intimidating to passersby, including police.

      “It says a lot for someone like Diggs, a marketing consultant, to think about the ramifications that stems from stereotyping and how one’s appearance or wardrobe could warrant danger in the face of another crisis,” Walker wrote in her essay.

      The story highlighted the fact that some societal schisms have been widened by the pandemic, rather than uniting them.

      “We started talking about the pandemic itself … especially in terms of marginalized communities and how they were not receiving the equitable care that was deserving of them,” says Saunders.

      Tekikki Walker
      Courtesy of Tekikki Walker

      Canada doesn’t have any plans to collect nationwide race-based data on the pandemic. But some cities, including Toronto and Montreal, have found that reported Covid-19 cases were more frequently found in neighborhoods with diverse racial backgrounds and lower incomes.

      “Unfortunately, [Covid-19] has had a greater impact on those in our community who face greater health inequities,” Toronto’s medical officer Eileen de Villa said in July.

      Saunders and Walker began working together in the early days of the pandemic. But soon after, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the ensuing resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests — put these considerations into even sharper focus.

      “Excuse my language — I’m frankly pissed about everything,” says Walker.

      She said she uses contemporary and historical imagery in her digital collages to signal the importance of history and historical context in our current dialogues about systemic racism.

      “I want to keep talking about those issues … layering with things that may have happened with Black folks in America and in past times,” she says.

      In her essay, Saunders acknowledges that the Black experience in Canada isn’t exactly the same as her peers’ in the U.S., such as Walker.

      Tekikki Walker
      Tekikki Walker is an artist and designer in Ohio. Courtesy of Tekikki Walker

      She’s thankful for her relative economic privilege and access to health care during the pandemic, and put a spotlight on racism that Indigenous and other communities suffer.

      Despite these differences, however, they found their causes had more in common with each other, and could strengthen each others’ voices by speaking as one through this project.

      “I think that was the most poignant thing, was that two Black women were able to connect over this line in the sand … across borders and really talk about a Black history and what was meaningful to both of us,” says Saunders.

      Despite the remote nature of the work and the difficult, personal subject matter, Saunders and Walker consider their contribution to the Long Distance Art Series a success — and, hopefully, the prelude to more collaborations.

      “I really do hope that Tekikki and I can stay connected and to keep that sisterhood, because we really are here for one another, even within these two different countries,” says Saunders.

      Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Brandie Weikle | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Vanessa Greco | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould

      This story was produced by The Guardian, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

      When Glenn Stanton and Sheila Kloefkorn first ended up in the same room together, they knew they were not going to see eye to eye.

      Stanton, the director of Global Family Formation Studies at the evangelical Christian values organization Focus on the Family, had spent years vociferously fighting gay marriage.

      Kloefkorn, on the other hand, had married her wife in 2014, on the day gay marriage became legal in Arizona. Having fought for equal marriage for decades, finally being able to wed meant letting go of feeling like a second-class citizen.

      But today, Stanton and Kloefkorn are friends. They met through Braver Angels, an organization that encourages people to befriend and understand people who have differing political opinions. Today, they laugh when people are surprised at their friendship.

      “I don’t believe that Glenn is out to get me in the way I probably would have in the beginning of my activism. I just really believe he feels strongly about the things he cares about, and that’s a great thing,” says Kloefkorn.

      For Stanton, those things include being passionately anti-abortion (he believes that life begins at conception); a firm belief in what he calls the “traditional” family structure (he calls fatherless families a “human tragedy”); and he is so against gay marriage, he says he wouldn’t have gone to Kloefkorn’s wedding if they had met before she was married. Kloefkorn, for her part, rejoiced when the rainbow flag was projected onto the White House for Pride. She believes that functioning families come in all different shapes and sizes, and is pro-choice.

      Reaching out to the other side may sound like self-inflicted pain, but Kloefkorn took those steps for a very personal reason: she is the only liberal in her staunchly conservative, evangelical family.

      Glenn Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, is anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage. Credit: David Williams / The Guardian

      Growing up, her mother was the only person she could relate to politically, so when she died in 2015, Kloefkorn found herself increasingly isolated. And Trump’s election only exacerbated this feeling.

      “My dad’s wife texted me the day after Trump won and said, ‘We are so happy that Trump won. We are sorry that your life’s work is over,’” Kloefkorn explains. “I kept on thinking, I’ve got to figure out how to handle this. I very much do not want my dad to die and for us to be on a bad foot.”

      Stanton’s motivations are less fraught: he sees pairing up with someone different from him as an opportunity. He likes the idea of making new friends, and wants to learn how to become a better citizen. “Gaining all the friends that we can, and learning all of the different stories that I know nothing about: that’s worth the effort,” he says.

      The work can sometimes be tough, revealing, anxiety-inducing. It requires workshops, disabling one’s own ego, and sometimes even being subjected to offensive ideas.

      And yet thousands of people across the U.S. are returning every week to do the work and broaden their friendship circles and their minds, in hopes that the country will be healed by learning to get along.

      “Where did we get the idea that we can’t be friends with people we don’t agree with?” asks Stanton when I talk to him on the phone, in his chipper, almost singsong voice. “I work in a very partisan world, and I am an advocate for things I believe deeply. But I really am troubled by the divisive nature of our culture and the way we tag each other so dismissively.”

      That might sound simple enough, but the polarization currently gripping America is about more than just disagreement.

      Most Americans today choose to spend their time with people who vote the same way as they do. People increasingly look badly upon — even loathe — people with differing views: a 2016 Pew poll found that 47 percent of Republicans judged Democrats to be more immoral than other Americans; 35 percent of Democrats said the same about Republicans. And this year, a Gallup poll recorded the most divided results it had ever seen on Republican (89 percent) versus Democratic (7 percent) approval of the president: an 82-point gap.

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        And while it might feel like politicians have always hurled mud at each other, our political culture is becoming increasingly antagonistic. During the 1960 presidential campaign, only 10 percent of political advertisements were negative; by Obama’s second election in 2012, only about 14 percent of campaign ads were positive.

        This increasing polarization has devastating effects on our capacity to show compassion, and on our emotional and political health.

        Sheila Kloefkorn spent years advocating for legal same-sex marriage. Credit: Cassidy Araiza / The Guardian

        “When people become over-identified with a very negative or judgmental stance, it has a way of limiting their ability to perceive larger possibilities in their world,” says Kirk Schneider, a psychotherapist who has been researching polarization and its effects on the human psyche for decades. “Being continually consumed with seeing the other as evil [prevents a person from] experiencing a wider range of relationships in their life, of having new discoveries, and also perhaps feeling a sense of wonder about the world.”

        Polarization is also dangerous for democracy. Schneider, who is a Braver Angels moderator, points out that when societies become heavily divided, they tend to reach an impasse. Political objectives seem less achievable. People who have a less mixed range of views tend to move away from a give-and-take approach to politics, and start to endorse the idea that the other side — not their own — is the one that should be doing the giving.

        “People have to sit with some discomfort if we’re going to have sustainable peaceful coexistence with one another,” says Schneider.

        Wesley Dennis is so terrified of racism in Trump’s America he has already started planning his exit route should Trump win another election. But he doesn’t want to be this scared. He wants to hear why he shouldn’t be afraid of Trump voters — he wants some reason to feel, if not optimistic, at least not horrified.

        Dennis has been engaged with Make America Dinner Again (MADA) since the 2016 election, an organization that started out by asking people to have polite disagreements over dinner in people’s homes, and has moved online since the pandemic.

        “I don’t believe that Glenn is out to get me in the way I probably would have in the beginning of my activism.”

        Sometimes the posts that he submits to MADA’s Facebook forum take two, three, maybe even four attempts to write. He will carve out six paragraphs explaining why he believes it’s not anti-American to take down statues honoring Confederate generals, and then he will screen his own writing. He wants to be as approachable, rational and careful as possible to help Trump voters understand his side.

        Sometimes the responses he receives are infuriating. People call him over-emotional about racism, or unable to be rational. They suggest that Black people are inherently criminal. Sometimes they don’t even gratify him with a response.

        “Some days I spend hours writing comments to people who have said things that are offensively misguided, only for them to say, ‘I don’t like your tone,’” he says.

        Dennis points out that while he knows it is not his job to educate anyone, if he doesn’t speak up the “other side” might never hear from a Black American. “Take this idea that Black people are somehow inherently suspect; or that police brutality stories are just an example of ‘one bad cop,’” he says. “People [on these forums] will say, ‘Well, the solution is more education, or for Black fathers to stop being so derelict.’ And I say, look, I grew up with both parents and I have a Yale degree, and I still experience this sort of profiling and harassment.”

        There have been small points of relief throughout his work. He is now less likely to lump all conservatives together, which he believes is good for democracy. Sometimes he will see a post about guns that makes him certain someone is an archetypal, evil orthodox Trumpian — and the next minute, he’ll see the same person attending a person of color-led Zoom talk about race that makes him reconsider his assumptions.

        And while he can’t be sure he has helped the more conservative members to see his side of things, he has certainly made ground with some. One of his MADA partners, Patrick Yu — who voted Republican until Trump’s election — said he struggled to understand systemic racism in the very abstract ways he felt it was written about in news articles and academic studies. But meeting Dennis helped to broaden his worldview.

        For Dennis, there is another benefit: he feels less powerless. At least if he chooses to engage with those he disagrees with, he might broaden their perspective, and that is something he can hold on to.

        Depolarizing is not easy. Some people years into the process say they still have paranoid fantasies: they fear the sum of their values could be compromised by talking to their political opponents; that the other side will take over and destroy society; and that those they care for could be harmed as a result.

        Sometimes those fears materialize. After Kloefkorn joined Braver Angels, her own friends berated her, accusing her of compromising her values by being friends with a man who had opposed same-sex marriage.

        That is why the Braver Angels model focuses on techniques taken from marriage counseling to help repair wounds. People listen to their partners talk about the stereotypes they have been subjected to, and how it makes them feel. Ultimately, they are filling out their political opponents’ humanity, putting the parts of them back together in a way that makes them less of a caricature.

        “It helps to expose myself to other beliefs and I have an understanding of where people are coming from, even though I don’t agree. It helps me because then I don’t have to feel so bad all the time, especially at family dinners,” says Kloefkorn.

        What’s more, she isn’t carrying around the weight of assuming that others are against her anymore. “It is just negative for me if I have that as a belief because I am just going to look for confirmation and then I am going to feel unsafe.”

        Now, at Thanksgiving, Kloefkorn tries not to persuade, not to rationalize or reason with, but to disarm herself and take in what her father’s fears are. “On a bad day, I just try not to talk about it,” she says. “But when it is good we just focus on the things that we love about each other.”

        This story was originally published by The Marshall Project, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

        Despite their names, state “departments of correction” in the United States aren’t known for correcting much. More than seven of every 10 prisoners, according to some studies, are arrested again less than four years after they are released. And while recent years have seen the beginning of a national decline in the number of male prisoners, the situation has not improved much for women, who remain incarcerated at stubbornly high levels.

        Connecticut is trying to push back by focusing on one group that is especially likely to return to prison: young women, ages 18 to 25.

        It began in the summer of 2015, when Scott Semple, who runs the Connecticut state prison system, spent a week visiting prisons in Germany. Two American nonprofit organizations have been running such trips in recent years, and they have helped to inspire a handful of prison reform experiments in both red and blue states. The goal is to promote rehabilitation by mimicking the European emphasis on personal dignity. For example, Pennsylvania is teaching corrections officers to think like therapists, while North Dakota has been giving prisoners keys so they can lock their own doors.

        Correctional Officer Hastings shoots hoops with a few of the residents at York Correctional Institution. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

        Semple was especially struck by a German prison for young adults, in which men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 were housed in a verdant compound that resembled a liberal arts college. They were given intensive therapy and training in trades like welding and farming.

        Neuroscience studies have shown that our brains keep developing well into our third decade, meaning people in their early twenties can still exhibit the impulsiveness and poor decision-making we associate with teenagers — ask any parent or insurance company about this — but are also especially receptive to help. With this in mind, Washington State has raised to 25 the age of considering an offender a juvenile for some crimes, while Chicago and San Francisco have created specialized young adult courts.

        Since his trip to Germany, Semple has put Connecticut at the forefront of efforts to bring such ideas into prisons. Last year, the state started a program for young men called TRUE, at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Officials from South Carolina and Massachusetts have visited and started young adult programs of their own.

        The newest program, called Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, or WORTH for short, began in June at the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in eastern Connecticut. There are currently 14 women who live with 10 older mentors, who are also serving time. Together, they are given wide latitude to develop the program themselves. The days are packed for the younger women with counseling, classes and addiction help, giving them a version of parenting they may have lacked.

        Officers are trained to talk to the women about their traumas and vulnerabilities. There is an emphasis on planning for a crime-free life after release: everyone has a job inside, and they apply for a new one every two weeks, meaning they get frequent opportunities to interview and write resumes.

        The Vera Institute of Justice, which has been helping prisons set up programs like these, pushes the administrators to ask the prisoners what kinds of assistance they need. The organization creates surveys for the staff and prisoners, and then holds meetings to unpack the results and design classes and routines. Even giving the prisoners a tiny bit of control can influence the way they think about themselves. When they were setting up WORTH, “there was a heated debate about how they’d do laundry,” says Alex Frank, a project director at Vera. “Does everyone do their own? Do we assign two people? It was very much self-governance.” Inspirational quotes adorn walls covered in chalkboard paint, paper flowers sit atop meal tables, and in the big outside yard, the women often play basketball with the officers, which is rare in other prisons.

        Vanessa Alvarado presents information about alcohol during a Tier II Addiction Services Group meeting on Friday afternoon. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

        “I’m the president of the health and wellness committee here,” Lauren Karpisz, 24, says. “We’re starting to have exercise classes a few times a week and will post healthy recipes using food items from the commissary.” She wants to organize a prison version of the cooking competition show Chopped.

        Karpisz is serving three years for her role in an assault on a 53-year-old man during a home invasion and attempted robbery in Waterbury. “I’m a drug addict,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I was on drugs, and seeking more drugs, and somebody was hurt.” In the WORTH program she began to explore how she’d gotten there. She now explained that she had been prescribed medication for chronic pain from a young age, and had drifted toward heroin.

        It wasn’t an excuse, but an explanation that could serve as the basis for change. All of the young women here are encouraged to articulate how circumstances and their own decisions combined to produce their crimes. They are given guidance on how to handle their emotions without reacting impulsively.

        “We don’t have to hide behind our attitudes here,” says Jazmine Ortiz, 20, who is in prison for a probation violation stemming from more serious crimes committed as a juvenile. “We have the opportunity to open up to the mentors. They know what to look for when we seem shy or isolated.” When there is a disagreement, the women sit in a circle and “work through it like a family would.”

        “We don’t have to hide behind our attitudes here. We have the opportunity to open up to the mentors.”

        This hasn’t necessarily been comfortable for the officers, many of whom are used to an environment in which rules are ironclad and nobody is encouraged to share feelings or life histories. But a few have taken to their new role as quasi-therapists and social workers. When Lt. Russell Hanes learned that one young woman would get nervous when men were behind her — owing to earlier abuse in a relationship — he encouraged other officers to tell her when they were approaching. “Staff had to give inmates a chance, but inmates had to give staff a chance, too,” Jeffrey Zegarzewski, a deputy warden, says.

        Plenty of staff members and prisoners think the program is too permissive and unlikely to change the behavior of the young women. The corresponding program for young men has been in place for a year. It is credited for a reported drop in prison violence, but not enough people have been released from any of these programs to indicate whether they will reduce recidivism. One study found that less than half of Germans released from prison are convicted again within three years, though not for crimes serious enough to bring them back to prison. In the same time frame, more than two-thirds of Americans are arrested again. But scholars caution against direct comparisons, because the countries differ radically not only in prison conditions but also in sentencing practices and definitions of what constitutes crime.

        These new programs are expensive, too. At its current capacity, WORTH will involve roughly six officers overseeing 60 women, while in other parts of the prison two officers may oversee 90. The department originally wanted to convert an entire prison for young male adults, but couldn’t afford it. Connecticut officials have not issued a comparison of the cost per resident between the new and old approaches.

        Lieutenant Russell Hanes, left, and counselor Colleen McClay, in bright red at center, chat with residents. Credit: Karsten Moran for The Marshall Project

        What’s most striking about this program is hearing prison officials talk about a newfound sense of purpose. They no longer reduce success to statistics about arrests or disciplinary infractions. They tell stories of individuals gaining control of their lives and reconnecting with estranged family members.

        And they use the word “dignity” a lot, much like their counterparts in Europe. They take pride in the idea that they are truly a department of correction.

        “Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I hop in the car and visit one of these units,” Semple said. “Can you measure that? No, but you can feel it.”