This story was contributed by our partners at Next City.

Marilynn Winn, who was born and raised in Atlanta, got to know the Atlanta City Detention Center at an early age. She was incarcerated at the facility when it was still a small jail. As she spent ensuing years in and out of prison, the jail grew in both size and population.

“I went in and out of the system for a little over 40 years of my life,” she says. She came to understand how the jail — which houses people detained for matters like traffic violations, failures to pay a ticket, disorderly conduct, sex work and shoplifting — could “lead to a life sentence.” And so she set out to close it. 

Winn is the co-founder and executive director of Women on the Rise, a grassroots organization led by formerly incarcerated women of color that has worked six years to shutter the jail. A major victory arrived in 2019, when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sponsored legislation and signed into law a bill to form the Task Force to Reimagine the Atlanta City Detention Center. The goal of the task force, which Winn joined as co-chair, was to provide recommendations to transform the jail into a Center for Equity alongside policy proposals to decrease criminalization and increase public safety.

Winn didn’t join a task force in which everyone was on the same page. Alongside community organizers there were government officials that included Atlanta’s chief judge, the chief of police and chief of Atlanta’s Department of Corrections, Patrick Labat. 

Labat oversaw the Atlanta City Detention Center. “I am a firm believer that Atlanta, a city this size, needs a place for detention,” he tells Next City. 

“Chief Labat and I did not see eye to eye, because I kept saying I want to close your jail and he kept saying you’re not going to close my jail,” Winn recalls. “He and I went back and forth a lot.” 

Despite opposing viewpoints, Winn and Labat stayed on as members of the task force during a one-year collaborative reimagining and engagement meant to transform a symbolic piece of city infrastructure. Winn is still an abolitionist organizer and Labat remains in law enforcement. But over the course of the year, they worked together and with broader communities — including those formerly incarcerated at the jail, people who work at the jail and survivors of violence — to reimagine the future of the detention center. The results are four different proposals to transform the jail into a holistic community hub. 

atlanta center for equity
Redesigning the jail would mean re-imagining a hulking, 471,000-square-foot carceral facility. Courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

To those who believe it’s impossible to close a city jail, “I’m a person that does not believe in the impossible,” Winn states. But she knew from the get-go that engagement around it would be challenging.

Winn led the launch of the campaign to close Atlanta’s jail two years ago. The ambitious proposal was bolstered by years of advocacy that pushed Mayor Bottoms’ administration to adopt new policies and programs to decriminalize low-level offenses, expand a pre-arrest diversion initiative, eliminate municipal cash bail and end a long-term contract with ICE. Winn calls this work “starving the beast,” meaning it all reduced the population of the jail.

The campaign met with Mayor Bottoms last spring to discuss what they’d like to happen with the jail and demand a community-led design process. Later that year the mayor launched the task force. Women on the Rise and the Racial Justice Action Center hired Oakland-based firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) to lead designing of the architectural structure of the detention center. 

The design process got off to a tense start. Hundreds of people alongside the full task force attended the first city-wide meeting about the project, where community activists expressed exhaustion, law enforcement stated their opposition and correctional officers feared losing their jobs.

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    “The campaign had been going on for six years and organizers were already at odds with the police chief,” remembers Shelley Davis Roberts, architectural associate with DJDS. “The community really didn’t believe the city had any intention of closing the jail.” 

    It would be a monumental task for the firm, which specializes in design to end mass incarceration: They would have to create space for productive dialogue, encourage buy-in from the community, then harness that energy to re-imagine a hulking, 471,000-square-foot carceral facility.

    “We went in wanting to shift the thinking around this, change the energy and gain the trust of the community by really demonstrating, through our process, that we care what the community thinks and we’re looking to them as the experts,” explains Davis Roberts.

    The community had plenty of insight, as well as experience navigating criminal justice conversations between community organizers and law enforcement. 

    Community organizers advocating for closure of the Atlanta jail had already spearheaded a design team advocating for what would become the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative. “Even though it seems painful to bring people from so many perspectives together, it’s like the only thing that gets us to the final agreement,” says Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, an organization engaged in both processes. “If you don’t have the head of the Department of Corrections and police alongside the homeless person who has just been arrested, or the trans woman who has cycled in and out of that jail, you’re not gonna get to where you need to go.” 

    That process also emphasized alternatives to the policing and incarceration cycle, particularly for people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and extreme poverty. The organizers presented data-driven evaluations from other cities with diversion programs that reduced recidivism and invited law enforcement officials from those cities to talk with Atlanta officials. “It was peer to peer,” according to Che Johnson-Long, a co-coordinator of the pre-arrest diversion design team who also facilitated engagement for the ACDC design process. “We were showing what worked to service providers, law enforcement and community members.”

    atlanta center for equity
    DJDS brought Atlanta residents to the table with an exercise called the Planning and Finance Game. Courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

    That design team served as the model for the Reimagining ACDC process, only this time city leadership was more involved and partnered with community organizations and DJDS to facilitate community engagement and use the feedback to design alternatives for the jail.

    From the get-go DJDS got creative on engagement. For the first citywide meeting the firm distributed its “Peace and Justice Cards” in which the participants are asked to pick a card that makes them feel peaceful. “Just asking that question causes a shift,” explains Davis Roberts. “We’re engaging people visually with images, we’re giving them a choice.” 

    The next 12 months included small focus groups as well as larger community gatherings that engaged a total of around 600 people. Groups included formerly incarcerated people, immigrant communities, homeless communities, survivors of violence, harm reduction experts, justice experts, homelessness experts, mental health experts, neighborhood planning units, youth, the LGBTQ community and business owners surrounding the jail. 

    Courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

    “For abolitionists and people on the ground who have been fighting, we’ve all been focused for a long time on what is wrong with the system. It was awesome to dream and envision something different than what Atlanta has ever seen.”

    With each group, the vision for the Equity Center richened. People receiving victims’ services, for example, spoke about traveling long distances across the city to access various benefits. It was suggested the Center for Equity could serve as a “one-stop-shop” for victim services. Engaging surrounding businesses helped participants re-imagine not only the jail, but the entire district as a potential engine for new economic opportunities. 

    Not everyone was engaged, Johnson-Long admits. “The workers inside the jail did not receive good communication about how the jail was closing,” she notes. “These employees are mostly Black and mostly live in South Atlanta, and we wanted to make sure they also got a say in how the building got redesigned. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that and it caused a lot of tension.”  Johnson-Long says there should have been better frameworks to engage their concerns, like loss of jobs and pensions, and ways to envision new job paths within the Center for Equity.

    Atlanta Jail
    The Atlanta City Detention Center as it stands today in the city. Credit: Google Data SIO

    At larger community meetings, which were open to the public, DJDS used games, like “Seat at the Table,” which presented participants with a 3D model of the city and menu cards, which they used to devise a menu of uses for the buildings. 

    The “Space Planning and Finance” game was designed to give participants a basic understanding of how spaces in a building are planned and how a project like this would be paid for. “A lot of time there’s a disconnect between what people want to have happen and how you actually fund it,” explains Davis Roberts. “But there’s creative ways to program a building and combine funding sources … it sounds complex, but once you get people playing it can be relatable and fun.”  

    “For abolitionists and people on the ground who have been fighting, we’ve all been focused for a long time on what is wrong with the system,” says Bervera. “Sometimes our visioning muscles are a bit weaker. It was awesome to dream — even to dream inside the realities of money — and envision something different than what Atlanta has ever seen.” 

    Johnson-Long found the design games presented by DJDS could take the focus off political tension and instead allow activists, politicians and law enforcement alike to focus on design-based solutions. “We had the chief advisor to the mayor, police chief [Ericka] Shields, district attorney Paul Howard playing these design games and they’re laughing and sitting with community members,” she recalls. “There’s a life that comes to people when you take them out of their heads and have them create an alternative.” 

    Courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

    “We have an obligation as law enforcement not just to sit at the table, but to have meaningful conversations about putting our community first.”

    Labat — recently elected as Fulton County Sheriff — stresses the process didn’t push him to radically change his mind about the criminal justice system. “I’m law enforcement through and through,” he states. Still, he says, “the community broke through on understanding how we were going to communicate, that’s the biggest takeaway from me.” He will take the lessons into his new role. “We have a new responsibility, given all the civil unrest and the conversations communities want to have,” he says. “We have an obligation as law enforcement not just to sit at the table, but to have meaningful conversations about putting our community first.” 

    As Labat takes on his new role, Winn will continue her own as an abolitionist: “I’ll be back and forth at it again [with Labat] as he just won the election to be sheriff of Fulton County Jail, which is overcrowded and some of it needs to be closed up.” 

    Other divisions remain in place. Bervera points out the mayor’s administration has since cut off community dialogue in regards to the four proposals released by DJDS. “The task force has been dissolved, the planning team has been dissolved, the mayor’s office is not forthcoming,” she notes. “It’s clear that they have eliminated any real community power in this phase.” 

    “Community and government partnerships mean shared power — you need structures and systems, not just collecting input from the community and creating a glossy report,” Bervera continues. She believes the engagement around the task force — a process she calls “exhilarating, frustrating, inspiring and exhausting” — was a good first step. 

    Until the city closes the facility and makes a decision around the ACDC proposals, “community organizers and leaders will keep up the fight to end criminalization in their communities and transform the jail into a center for wellness, equity and freedom,” Bervera states. “We believe we have not won the campaign,” Winn says, “unless we put something in its place.” 

    This story was originally published on The Tyee, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

    Linda Coady was front and center as long time antagonists tried to reach a deal to preserve a stunning swath of nature called the Great Bear Rainforest. Asked whether it ever felt like the whole effort would collapse, Coady laughs, then says that in the early negotiations between logging companies and environmentalists, “There was never any shortage of drama.”

    Great Bear Rainforest
    The Great Bear Rainforest is a maze of islands, long ocean inlets, rugged coastal mountains and giant trees stretching from near the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the border with Alaska. Credit: A.S. Wright

    At stake was a large, mostly intact forest on Canada’s Pacific coast. Where the companies eyed timber, profits and jobs, the environmentalists saw a precious, threatened ecosystem in need of protection. The two sides started in stark opposition, but together would make a path to common ground — one that would recognize and involve the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples who had lived in the region for thousands of years.

    There are stories of all night sessions, angry flare ups, negotiators storming out of meetings and quitting the process for a time. One source close to the action remembers the talks felt doomed every 15 minutes. But many times people pressed forward, came back together, built trust and worked out differences.

    Coady was key to discussions as vice-president of environmental affairs and enterprise for big timber companies MacMillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser. Often the harshest criticism came not from opponents, she recalls, but from people who were on the same side. “The people who did the work got the most incoming fire.” 

    Great Bear Rainforest
    Some 3.1 million hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest are now completely off limits to logging, about 85 percent of the forest ecosystems in the area. Credit: A.S. Wright

    It took the better part of 19 years — and the participation of five major forest companies, environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club of British Columbia, First Nations, unions, foundations, the provincial government and local governments — to arrive at a compromise and a plan everyone could endorse.

    Completed in 2016, the agreement covers 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) on British Columbia’s Pacific Ocean coast from near the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the border with Alaska. It’s a region with a maze of islands, long ocean inlets, rugged coastal mountains and giant trees. 

    Some 3.1 million hectares (7.6 million acres) are now completely off limits to logging, about 85 percent of the forest ecosystems in the area. Around 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) are available for forestry, but governed by ecosystem-based management rules requiring the companies to manage the land for objectives that include protecting waterways, endangered species and cultural values.

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      Though not without its critics from the start — and ongoing arguments about whether logging companies are meeting their commitments — the agreement has attracted international attention and is widely seen as a major step forward that shows the possibilities of balancing divergent interests. There’s hope elements of it can be adopted to help resolve other complex conflicts.

      Great Bear Rainforest
      The days when logging companies could clear cut old growth forests in remote areas without drawing public attention and condemnation had ended. Credit: A.S. Wright

      To the participants, getting there at many times felt impossible. It required long conversations and difficult decisions in lots of rooms over many years. Eventually it would need government approval and consultation with First Nations, but it started with the companies and the environmental groups realizing they had more to gain through negotiating than through fighting.

       At the time, a so-called “war in the woods” had been raging in the province for decades, valley by valley and island by island. Direct action at places like Lyell Island, the Carmannah Valley, Meares Island, the Stein Valley and the Elaho Valley had delayed logging, forced negotiations and added to protected areas. 

      When the Great Bear negotiators started talking, fresh in everyone’s minds were the mass arrests in 1993 of some 900 people blocking a logging road to protect Clayoquot Sound near Tofino on Vancouver Island, still considered the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The action led to reduced logging in the region, agreement to log in an “ecologically sound” way, and the eventual sale of logging rights for half the area to a company owned by local First Nations.

      The days when logging companies could clear cut old growth forests in remote areas without drawing public attention and condemnation had ended, and Indigenous people and environmentalists had made it clear they could make business-as-usual difficult for industrial loggers, even if they couldn’t always stop them.

      Moving on to the central and north coast, environmentalists came up with the Great Bear name, keying off the fact the area is home to a white subspecies of the black bear as well as grizzlies. They then waged a “markets campaign” targeting household names like Home Depot to discourage customers from buying wood from the area. It was enough to get the forest companies thinking about how to do things differently.

      In Coady’s estimation the environmentalists were ready to talk too.

      “We each realized we had the ability to stop the other from achieving their goals, but neither of us had the influence or power to actually get to a solution,” Coady says. “Meanwhile we were very well aware that coastal communities, the government, workers, First Nations, were getting very fed up with all this dispute and they did want to get to a solution.”

      The sides reached a “standstill agreement” that saw the logging companies stop development in 100 intact watersheds in exchange for the environmental groups no longer asking the companies’ customers to cancel their orders. But a truce is not a solution. 

      Getting further meant building trust and overcoming the stereotypes each side held about the other. Outside of the formal negotiating sessions, the mediator would invite people from each side to join him for dinner, a venue where people could talk about their children, their lives, and simply connect on a human level.

      A breakthrough came at a January 22, 2001 Elton John concert at what was then GM Place, now Rogers Arena, in Vancouver. The mediator had booked the owner’s box and invited the key negotiators from the environmental and industry sides.

      Credit: A.S. Wright

      “We each realized we had the ability to stop the other from achieving their goals, but neither of us had the influence or power to actually get to a solution.”

      One person who was there recalls it feeling like a middle school dance with both sides sticking to opposite sides of the room until about a third of the way through the concert. John had launched into “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” when forest industry consultant Patrick Armstrong asked Jody Holmes, the lead scientist on the environmental side and director of the Rainforest Solutions Project, to dance. 

      Holmes has been quoted in the National Observer saying she agreed to the dance with a joke that it was on the condition Armstrong would negotiate keeping 100 valleys in the Great Bear pristine. “I said, ‘You know what Patrick? I’ll dance with you, but I need four watersheds to go off the table, you guys can’t log in them.’”

      Great Bear Rainforest
      For the First Nations involved, the experience has been transformative. Credit: A.S. Wright

      The response got a laugh, broke the ice and let everyone loosen up in how they related to each other. It turned out to be a key turning point towards building the relationships that would make reaching a compromise possible, work that would still take years to complete.

      In the following months the parties agreed on a framework that deferred logging and committed that future land use decisions would be based on the best available independent science. There would be a move from conventional forestry to Ecosystem Based Management where the priority would be sustaining healthy ecosystems.

      Other components included involving First Nations in decision-making and providing funding for economic diversification.

      By one account from participants, working out the details that would make the framework real took another five years, a dozen committees and thousands of hours of meetings. 

      Environmental activists had proven nimble at a critical moment, recalls Valerie Langer, a key Great Bear Rainforest campaigner. Having created pressure that got people to the table, they had to “pivot to a different approach when the context changed. We understood we alone would not and could not solve the thorny problems of land title conflicts and forest degradation.” That meant shifting “from a very noisy public campaign to a very delicate set of negotiations that were concurrently driven by First Nations title rights and by science-based conservation targets.”

      Because the companies and the environmentalists aren’t the legal decision makers for what happens on Crown land, it wasn’t until 2016 when the provincial government signed land use agreements with more than 20 First Nations on the northern and central coast that the work could be considered done.

      For the First Nations involved, the experience was transformative, says Dallas Smith, the president of the Nanwakolas Council that includes five First Nations. 

      Credit: A.S. Wright

      “We could see our land. We live on it. We depend on it. We work with it. That’s real now because of the Great Bear.”

      “Because there hasn’t been really any treaties in the area, the Great Bear’s huge,” Smith said. “The Great Bear has given the governments of First Nations and the governments of British Columbia and of Canada a sort of common bowl that we can talk in. We know when we get together we can have these discussions.”

      Somewhere between 26,000 and 30,000 people are part of the 27 First Nations covered by the agreements, he said. For many years people in those communities felt stuck between the environmentalists and the companies, a feeling that remained throughout the early years of discussions.

      Communities like Smith’s at Rivers Inlet had been “buttonholed” to reserves that were maybe three percent of their traditional territory. Through the treaty process they might hope to have title recognized to 11 percent of it, Smith says.

      But the Great Bear process instead provided a means to have a say on the complete area. “It just brought more to our rights and title,” he said. “We could see [our land]. We live on it. We depend on it. We work with it. That’s real now because of the Great Bear.”

      The discussions were happening at the same time that Indigenous nations in other parts of the province were advancing their rights through the courts, and the nations involved in the Great Bear went from being seen as one of several stakeholders to ones that needed to be met on a government-to-government basis.

      The process could be a model for what reconciliation with Indigenous people can look like, Smith said, including the sharing of forest revenue and management. There’s still a ways to go towards joint decision making, he added, but the movement in that direction can be traced at least in part to the Great Bear process.

      A key to getting First Nations to agree to the plan was the establishment of the Coast Funds endowment, Smith says. The fund was created in 2006 with a $60 million endowment to encourage stewardship and a further $60 million to help fund the creation of First Nation-owned businesses. The money came from the provincial and federal government and six foundations. 

      Great Bear Rainforest
      The two sides started in stark opposition, but together made a path to common ground. Credit: A.S. Wright

      With the fishing industry in decline, historically the biggest source of work in the region, communities were reluctant to sign agreements that would limit their opportunities for jobs in logging. The fund allowed people to instead set up eco-tourism businesses, guiding trips and providing other services they wouldn’t previously have imagined themselves doing, Smith says.

      Through the years of negotiations the First Nations rebuilt confidence and pride, Smith says. “Now we know what we want, we know what we’re trying to achieve and if we have to go through another Great Bear type scenario we’re going to be a lot more efficient at getting what we need at the end of the day.”

      The certainty the agreements provide about what happens on the land is welcome, and people are generally optimistic about how things are going, says Smith. “It’s a living thing. It still has some sore points. It still has some healing, and it has some areas that are very strong still.”

      Valerie Langer warns vigilance is crucial. She waits expectantly for a five-year review of the agreements slated for 2021. “The devil is in the details,” she says. “Any system can be gamed.” Governments must “make the data transparent” and do what it takes to “ensure the conservation model developed in the Great Bear Rainforest is living up to the honors it received when announced back in 2016.”

      Linda Coady, who left the industry a few years ago and now works for an environmental organization, says the Great Bear deal was no quick fix, but it was significant. “It was a big achievement.” 

      Dallas Smith offers his measure of what’s been accomplished. “I think there was a disconnect between First Nations and their cultural connections to their land and resources. The Great Bear’s re-established that for us.”

      Cyprien Mihigo has witnessed firsthand the destructive power of tribalism. Before settling as a refugee in Syracuse, New York, he spent years traversing the Congo, his vast and politically unstable homeland, as an International Red Cross field officer, crossing tribal borders at great personal risk to provide aid to the sick and dying. 

      After moving to Syracuse in 2001, he watched the local Congolese refugee community grow from four families to hundreds of people — and saw the old tribal rivalries continue to haunt them. The intergroup strife that had plagued the immigrants back at home had followed them, 7,000 miles to their new country and right into the new neighborhoods in which they lived side by side. 

      “This Atlantic Ocean is so huge that you can travel with the hatred, and after 25 or 26 hours in an airplane, bring it back here — and there is nothing to fight for,” says Mihigo. “Carrying the hatred will kill that person.”

      For Mihigo, with his background in humanitarian diplomacy and his own inter-tribal marriage — his wife, a Tutsi, was so vulnerable to tribal violence in the Congo that at one point she went into hiding —  the urge to move beyond these conflicts and unite the Congolese community in Syracuse was irresistible. He organized a women’s soccer team. He hosted gatherings with Congolese music, the familiar rhythms transcending tribal boundaries. And then he had an even more ambitious idea: he would put on a play. 

      cry for peace
      Some in Syracuse’s Congolese community worried that the play would dredge up bad memories “for no reason.” Credit: Jamie Young. Courtesy of Syracuse Stage

      “The idea of doing the play was because some tribes would not give other tribes the time to communicate — the opportunity would not happen,” says Mihigo, who projects the energy of a young idealist despite being a father of eight with a sixth grandchild on the way. “But if you have somebody using euphemism, not speaking directly to the person like, let’s talk about this, they can talk about it indirectly while having fun. Instead of talking to that person directly, talk to the audience…  At the end, they come together.”

      Having never produced a play before, Mihigo literally started knocking on doors at Syracuse University’s theater-in-residence, Syracuse Stage. One of those doors led to associate artistic director Kyle Bass, who introduced Mihigo to internationally renowned director Ping Chong. Their collaboration, Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, premiered in Syracuse in 2012, then played in New York City and Washington, D.C. It remains a powerful model for how theater can heal divisions between fragmented communities. 

      Five performers sit in a semicircle, illuminated by spotlights.They are Congolese Syracusans, Cyprien Mihigo among them. Over the course of 80 minutes, they deliver a narrative that weaves together their life stories, each uniquely harrowing and uplifting, along with a brief history of the Congo and acapella interludes of traditional songs. Though the performers do not move from their seats, the show is mesmerizing, a whirlwind of information and emotion. 

      It is a formula that Ping Chong has been perfecting for decades. Chong, 73, co-created Cry for Peace under the banner of his Undesirable Elements series, using performers who are, as Chong describes it, “outsiders within their mainstream community” to explore issues of culture and identity. The original 1992 production featured seven bilingual New Yorkers from different countries of origin. As the series grew in popularity, Chong expanded the scope beyond multiculturalism, creating Undesirable Elements productions around people with disabilities, child soldiers and sex abuse survivors. It didn’t take long for Chong to realize that the productions, intended to build connections between people from different cultures, also worked as a kind of therapy for the participants.

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        “I realized it was about creating a space for people to address things that they often weren’t able to speak about in the societies that they were in, and then people would just sort of pour their stuff out — stuff they haven’t had an opportunity to vent,” Chong says. “I was quite naive and willing to go places [during the writing process] that were tricky because I didn’t know any better.”

        More than 200 ethnic groups co-exist in the Congo, and decades of violence, civil war, Western exploitation and political corruption have turned tribe against tribe, resulting in massive death and human rights violations, and compelling millions of Congolese to seek international asylum. When refugees arrive in Syracuse, says Mihigo, they often carry the conviction that “living in a kind of division or segregation was their right, was normal, and was a way of defending themselves.” 

        Credit: Adam Nadel. Courtesy Ping Chong + Company

        Mihigo has seen changes in Syracuse’s Congolese community. “People are not afraid of each other anymore.”

        When Bass shared Mihigo’s idea for a play about these refugees, Chong was immediately on board. He knew Cry for Peace would be different from any other play he’d created — for the first time, he would be casting performers from ethnic groups that were in direct conflict. 

        Chong came to Syracuse, where, along with Bass and his associate director Sara Zatz, they would cast the play, write the script based on the performers’ stories and direct the show for Syracuse Stage. Mihigo was assigned the role of dramaturg and “cultural consultant.” No one was quite sure what to expect.

        On the day of his first meeting to gather information, Chong brought five pies for refreshments. The production team had invited Syracuse’s Congolese residents to show up and share their stories. They expected a small handful of participants. Instead, says Bass, “50 people in their absolute finest clothes showed up at Syracuse Stage. It was actually quite beautiful.” 

        As per the Undesirable Elements format, only five performers were selected for the final cast. Mihigo was among them. “I had to be in it, according to Ping Chong and Kyle Bass, and I had to force myself to be part of it,” says Mihigo, who had hoped to remain behind the scenes. Each member of the cast hailed from a different tribe and had a story they were burning to tell.  

        cry for peace
        Ping Chong, director and co-writer of “Cry for Peace” (right), with associate director and co-writer Kyle Bass. Credit: Jamie Young. Courtesy of Syracuse Stage

        Emmanuel Ndeze, 39, fled his village as a young man, relying on strangers for food and shelter. Mona de Vestel, 46, the daughter of a black African mother and a white Belgian father, was born into a family divided by Colonial history, violence and bigotry. Kambala Syaghuswa, 30, was a former child soldier who watched other boys in the Congo “kill each other over an avocado, when there are millions of avocados.” Beatrice Neema shared the nightmarish story of a woman who endured sex slavery and witnessed her family’s murder — she introduced herself by saying, “I am telling this story for someone else because her voice has been silenced by shame.” And finally, there was Mihigo, 48, who had to remove bodies from rivers and negotiate with a gun in his mouth during his time with the Red Cross. His story — of intertribal marriage, of atrocities witnessed, of efforts to create a united Congolese community in the United States — tied the others together. 

        At their first rehearsal, the cast read the play that Bass, Chong and Zatz adapted from their stories. Bass was struck by the cast’s deep nostalgia and love for the Congo, even as they shared their war stories. The first time they practiced with a projection screen, they were so excited to see a slide of the Congo that many of them pulled out their phones and took pictures of the giant map. “It was one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen,” said Bass. 

        Within Syracuse’s Congolese community, however, some were skeptical. They told Mihigo that the cast’s life stories would be exploited, or that the play would dredge up bad memories “for no reason.” But Mihigo believed in the play, and its capacity to ease “the little hatreds on the heart,” as Mihigo said to Bass in his pitch, that tribal conflict had planted. 

        “The tribal element is very real,” says de Vestel, who was volunteering as a translator for Congolese refugees when she joined the cast. The Belgian-born daughter of a white father and a black African mother, de Vestel lived in the Congo before moving to the United States in 1979 with her mother and stepfather at the age of 13. Tribal violence had touched her extended African family, but Cry for Peace was the first time she had seen different tribes grappling with each other’s experiences together. “I was the only one that was biracial, but the others were from different ethnic groups and it was really super intense for me to even witness that,” she recalls. 

        Once performances began, the power of Cry for Peace was immediately apparent.

        “We got amazing responses from the audience,” says de Vestel. “I think it really resonated for people to see such a seemingly different group of people — people that should not like each other, with a complicated history  — tell the story and connect on a human level.”

        In the Undesirable Elements anthology published in 2012 for the 20-year anniversary of the project, Zatz writes that the plays are intended to have “three levels of impact.” First, they create community between people who might not otherwise know or speak to each other. Second, the performers open up to the audience during the performance, creating a kind of community within the theater. Third, everyone — participants and audience alike — returns home, where they can use that experience to impact their own communities. During the Cry for Peace production, de Vestel watched this process unfold. 

        “I know that [Cry for Peace] brought people together because I witnessed it,” she says. “We were very connected, at a very deep level… When your perspective shifts, I think that’s a wealth that you bring back to your community, to your life. And I like to believe that it trickles to other people, too.”

        “Did it revolutionize the community? I don’t know,” she adds. “But I think it was a revolution for us.”

        That was certainly true for one cast member. Beatrice Neema had recently moved from a refugee camp and spoke almost no English when she joined the cast. Nevertheless, she delivered the most devastating story in the production, of a woman raped into unconsciousness by soldiers while listening to her husband and child being killed in the next room. She said it wasn’t her own story, but rather the story of a woman she knew. “I have told this story for someone else,” Neema reminded the audience. “Syracuse, New York is now her home. Perhaps someday she will be able to tell her own story.” 

        “Did it revolutionize the community? I don’t know. But I think it was a revolution for us.”

        What the audience didn’t know is that the woman “silenced by shame” was actually Neema herself — afraid of being shunned by her new community, and embarrassed by her broken English. But over the course of productions in New York and Washington, D.C., something shifted. 

        “When we first did the show, Beatrice said, I want to say it’s somebody else’s story that I’m telling, and I want to speak French,” recalls Chong. “And I said, fine. We had a translator on stage and she told her story. And then we did the show again and she said, I want to tell the story in English, but still say it’s somebody else’s story.  By the time we had done the show a couple more times, she wanted to say it was her story. “

        For Bass, seeing Neema’s story change from the third person to the first person represented the ultimate reconciliation, “her own interior reconciliation with herself and her own story.” To some extent, he says, he watched all of the cast members have that same experience. Mihigo has seen similar changes throughout Syracuse’s Congolese community. “People are not afraid of each other anymore,” he says, though some longstanding cultural and language rifts remain. 

        Regretfully, due to an administrative change at Syracuse University, Ping Chong and Company lost their funding before Cry for Peace could be performed in additional cities. Still, almost a decade after he first pitched his idea, Mihigo has hopes of producing a new play for a cast of Congolese refugees. He sees the divisions in his adopted nation, the heated political debates over racism and immigration, as an opportunity for his community to speak a truth that the rest of the country needs to hear. 

        “I’m a very small person. Nobody knows me much, but the only way I can try to get the attention of people is by being in a play and to pass not only my message, but the message of the community, the message of people of color, the message of immigrants and refugees,” says Mihigo. “Our point of view is important. Our word is important.”

        After working with Ping Chong and Company on Cry for Peace, Mihigo knows that through theater, even the most divided people can learn to listen to one another. “We could make a play that would play in any country, and people would applaud it,” he says.

        It was weeks until my release, and I couldn’t believe how fast time was flying by. I had spent close to 13 years in prison, and I was actually about to go home. It just didn’t feel real. I had so many plans and aspirations. I was convinced that I was going to succeed. But for this success to mean what I thought it should, I was clear about one thing: I was going to redefine myself, independent from my past.

        You see, once you’ve been to prison, society has a way of deciding how you’ll be perceived. But I wasn’t just worried about discrimination; I was worried about being undervalued. I didn’t want to brand myself as a “formerly incarcerated person.” No offense intended to those who do, but I wanted people to value me for my talent, not use my incarceration as an entry point.

        What I didn’t realize at the time was that in redefining myself so adamantly apart from my past, I would cut myself off from a portion of my life that played a significant role in the person who I have become. It would leave a significant void. Sure, I would encounter discrimination by connecting with my past, but I also stumbled upon a world of empathy, understanding, support and amazement.

        I got my first hint of this the day after my release when I stopped by a Capital One bank branch to open a checking account. I went into the bank with all of the necessary documentation, including a temporary learner’s permit from the DMV I had gotten an hour earlier, and my New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “Released” ID card. 

        Uncertain of the reaction I’d get as I handed over the ID to the banker, I said, “I know this might be strange, but…” Before I could get any further she responded, “It’s not strange at all. My brother is upstate right now.” Upstate meaning one of the prisons in upstate New York. “I’m hoping he’ll be like you and do something different when he comes back this time.” Because of that connection, she went above and beyond to be helpful to me that day.

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          Sometimes we forget about the sheer number of Americans whose lives have been touched by mass incarceration. Casual interactions like this point to a sobering fact: In the U.S., incarceration is no longer strange, especially in Black and brown communities. Some 44 percent of Black women and 32 percent of Black men have a family member who has been in prison, and that doesn’t even include friends, neighbors and acquaintances. 

          But knowing this, and even having had experiences like the one at the bank, did not convince me that I needed to rethink my mission to break with my past. Within a month of being home, I took an exam I had studied for while I was in prison to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. I thought this “higher level” certification would make me stand out, even though the truth is that strength coaching was a craft that I had learned and refined while in prison. But I was on a mission. So I went to every gym I could find, I mentored, I worked, and after less than a year, I found my way into one of the top strength gyms in New York City, JDI Barbell. 

          alex hall
          Credit: Lucy Chrysiliou

          I developed close relationships with members and lifters, but I didn’t tell them about my past. In fact the owner of JDI Barbell asked me not to. I had no issue with it, and obviously neither did he — he had hired me, after all — but he thought that members didn’t necessarily need to know. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be a good formerly incarcerated coach, remember. I just wanted to be a good coach. 

          Then, I got an Instagram notification. A member had messaged me. I clicked the message open and my heart skipped a beat. She had sent me a link to the first article I wrote for Reasons to be Cheerful, an article about getting my college degree while serving my time in prison. 

          “I thought this was you,” she had written. I wrote back and confirmed that it was me without hesitation — I wasn’t living a lie — but still, my stomach was knotty while I awaited her response. Finally, I got the alert: a new message. “I think this is amazing!!” she wrote. 

          I began to wonder if I was so preoccupied with not letting my incarceration define me professionally that I was letting it control me personally.

          Despite trying to redefine myself in a professional space, my past wasn’t a secret — I was open about it whenever it came up, clear about my mistakes, my role, who I was and who I am. Yet it was clear that I was living a sort of paradox, and I began to wonder if I was so preoccupied with not letting my incarceration define me professionally that I was letting it control me personally. My member’s response made me rethink my approach to talking about my past. It made me think that I should embrace my story more — not the story of my crime, but the story of my journey. 

          By doing so, I found warm receptions in unexpected places. Along with my work as a strength coach, I entered another professional setting. I was hired by the directors of an education company called Velocity Career Start who sought me out specifically for my experience in prison — not to flaunt it, but because the directors believed deeply that my experience made me the right fit for this program. While inside, I had studied education, tutored my peers and earned a bachelor’s degree through the Bard Prison Initiative. My experience fit the bill uniquely. I didn’t need to sing and dance my way around my past. 

          While I share these stories of positivity, I don’t want you to think it was all peachy. My past has surely brought discrimination, the type that comes as a package deal with a felony. When I went looking for my first apartment, I made the mistake of telling the management company why I didn’t have two years of tax returns to show. Do you think I got a call back? Let’s just say I never made that mistake again. 

          alex hall
          Credit: Lucy Chrysiliou

          Another defining moment for me is when a woman I was seeing — one who was deeply embedded in the social justice space — didn’t want to see me anymore after finding out about my past. As connected to the idea of humanity as I thought she was, she never wanted to know what happened, never cared to ask me a thing. Her mind was made up at the thought of a crime I had committed nearly 15 years ago. Experiences like these almost led me down another road. They made me fearful of sharing my experiences because I could still be punished for things I could not change. 

          But it became clear to me that I had to overcome this fear. A significant enough portion of my life occurred in prison that omitting it complicated my responses to even the most innocent questions: Where did you go to college? Where did you start lifting weights? Do you remember where you were when this song came out? The answer to all of these seemingly innocent questions is the same: “I was in prison.” There was no way I would be satisfied with a pure omission of some of my proudest moments merely because they happened in an unconventional setting.

          So my dissatisfaction led me toward what I consider a middle way. When omitting my past feels disingenuous, I don’t do it. I share my story, and I believe deeply that the people I lose in the process simply weren’t meant to be there. I’m content with that. 

          Ever since I have taken this approach, the acceptance that I have felt has been nearly unimaginable. People are often surprised: I never would have guessed. You don’t fit my idea about what a person who has spent time in prison looks like. Everyone has a cloud over their head in some way. We all have a story. Some of these statements may seem short-sighted. What does a formerly incarcerated person look, feel, or smell like? Not like me? Well, great! Thanks! But all jokes aside, I feel like I have broken stereotypes, opened people’s minds and helped to start conversations that we should be having. Even more, I have established deep and lasting connections with people who share my experience in some way.

          For example, I was talking to a person who I recently hired to do some plumbing work. I asked him where he picked up the trade and it turned into a conversation about him being a knucklehead and spending some time in prison. “I did some time myself,” I told him. It was an instant connection. Now he is my go-to guy for construction. If either of us had been scared to have that conversation, that never would have happened.

          alex hall
          Credit: Marcelino Rodriguez

          But not every conversation is that easy, and it doesn’t mean I am an open book. I constantly make choices. Recently, I was talking to a group of members and friends at JDI Barbell. We started talking about where we were the moment we realized Trump would win the 2016 election. I chose not to contribute. It was an organic omission, and no one thought it was odd, but I made the choice. If I’d spoken up, it would have turned a session of jokes into a moment of surprise and uncertainty. I wasn’t in the mood, so I let that one go. But I’ll tell you guys where I was: in the basement of my cellblock at Eastern Correctional Facility watching the TV, just as shocked as each of you were. 

          We all have choices. I have found a way to be content with mine.

          The experiment’s participants were politically minded, sure of their ideologies. Which is why, upon learning that they had just expressed support for an issue they actually oppose, many of them tried to insist they must have misread the question. More than a few were flat-out confused. And, perhaps surprisingly, a handful were relieved to find that they were more ideologically flexible than they realized. 

          “They told us, ‘Thank God I’m not a left-winger,’” says Philip Parnamets, a psychologist who helped design the crafty experiment that would trick its subjects into defending a political view they disagreed with. “They were like, I didn’t know I could think this way.” Which made Parnamets realize something: “You could see this as a tool for self-discovery. It seemed to open up the possibility of change.” 

          “The idea that one arrives at their political beliefs through careful and considered reasoning only is fictional.”

          The premise of Parnamets’ experiment — that a simple psychological game could meaningfully alter a person’s political positions — is something most people probably assume couldn’t work on them. Most of us see our ideological viewpoints as the result of thoughtful, objective consideration. “We live in a world where people think political attitudes are sacred things,” says Parnamets, “that they shouldn’t be changeable at all.” 

          But a growing body of research suggests that’s not true, and that our politics may be far more flexible than we think. “The idea that one arrives at their political beliefs through careful and considered reasoning only is fictional,” says David Melnikoff, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University who studies attitude change. ”Whether it’s about a country, party, policy or politicians, attitudes can be radically changed on the basis of your current stimuli.” 

          Parnamets’ experiment did just that. He and his colleagues gave their subjects an iPad that contained a series of polar opposite ideological statements. The subjects used their fingers to draw X’s on the spectrum between the two statements to indicate their level of support or opposition to each. 

          What they didn’t know was that the iPads were programmed to secretly move some of their hand-drawn X’s to different parts of the spectrum. Suddenly, an X drawn next to the statement “I support raising gas taxes” was now closer to “I oppose raising gas taxes.” The researchers then showed the subjects their iPads to see how they would react. Some of them cried foul. But more than half accepted the altered opinions as their own. 

          Even more remarkably, when asked to explain their thinking behind these opinions, many of the subjects took pains to describe in detail why they had supported a political stance that they hadn’t actually chosen. It was these participants whose political opinions shifted the most dramatically — in fact, their “new” opinions held fast even a week later when the researchers checked in on them again. 

          “We see a larger attitude change when participants are asked to give a narrative explanation of their choice because they’re then more invested in that view,” says Parnamets. Psychologists call this “choice blindness” — when people have to rationalize a choice they didn’t actually make, their preference can naturally shift toward that choice.

          Melnikoff has conducted similar experiments into attitude change, in which participants are primed through exercises to generate positive feelings toward things they don’t actually like. In one such experiment, Melnikoff’s subjects exhibited lower feelings of disgust toward, of all monsters, Adolf Hitler after being told they would have to defend him in court. “All it takes to change someone’s affective response to something is to induce them to have a positively or negatively valenced action toward that person or thing,” says Melnikoff. Even if, intellectually speaking, the subject knows this person or thing is bad, they can still “feel good” about it, like a dieter salivating at the sight of an ice cream sundae they know they shouldn’t eat.

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            Part of the reason our choices and beliefs can be so easily changed is that our brains have evolved to help us navigate life by avoiding friction and complications. “The brain’s job is to predict, to guide you through an environment without making too many errors, and to help you adapt to that environment,” says Jordan Theriault, a researcher who studies the neural and biological bases of behavior and judgment. “The behaviors people take on and the beliefs they hold are about managing stress and arousal and discomfort.”

            Our brains are built to anticipate and avoid friction, which may help explain where our ideologies come from. Illustration courtesy of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

            Looked at from that perspective, it makes sense that our beliefs should adapt to fit our environments, coalescing into ideologies that make the world feel easier to navigate and understand. You can see this most clearly in partisan politics, wherein an ideology’s potential to bind you together with “your group” may be more important than the ideology itself. 

            “Part of partisanship is about being part of partisan conflict,” says Theriault. “You have your people and you have the other people you consider yourself against, and that’s an environment where it makes sense to have these beliefs. But if you’re removed from that conflict position, your partisan beliefs may not serve as much of a purpose anymore.”

            Removing ourselves from that conflict position is easier said than done in a world where it feels like every politician, pundit and loudmouth on Twitter wants us to do the opposite. But in those rare instances where we can manage to put conflict aside, it’s possible to free ourselves from our rigid political mindsets and see the other’s point of view.

            One technique that has gained interest in political advocacy is “deep canvassing.” Traditional political canvassing involves identifying your supporters and making sure they get out and vote — basically, it seeks to leverage partisan feelings to the party’s advantage. Deep canvassing, on the other hand, does the opposite: Canvassers go door to door, but instead of pumping up the passions of their supporters, they listen closely to those who hold opposing views. “What we’ve learned by having real, in-depth conversations with people is that a broad swath of voters are actually open to changing their mind,” Dave Fleischer, one of the technique’s best-known practitioners, told the New York Times Magazine in 2016.

            Deep canvassing can leverage the same tribalist power of partisan politics, but turn that power toward finding common ground rather than fighting to the death, according to Theriault. “Just by showing up on someone’s doorstep to talk to them about what they believe, you’re essentially building a new relationship” — a tribe of two — “even though it’s a very short one at the door,” he says. And in an age when so many political affiliations are cultivated online, the face-to-face offering of an olive branch becomes all the more powerful. “It’s difficult to be genuinely listened to on social media,” says Theriault, “so I think being genuinely listened to is a way of building a connection to people — and even working out what you believe, too.”

            In essence, deep canvassing functions not unlike Parnamets’ experiment with the iPads. Both encourage their participants to slow down, rethink their initial position, and then, engage in a meaningful narrative about the opposing point of view.

            Such narratives have powerful effects on our brains — we are more easily swayed by them than we realize. In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky writes that simply naming a game the “Wall Street Game” is likely to make players compete more ruthlessly than if they are told the game is called the “Community Game.” Telling doctors a drug has a “95 percent survival rate” makes them more likely to prescribe it than if they’re told it has a “five percent death rate.” Subtle cues can alter even our most cherished beliefs. In one experiment conducted in the U.S., survey respondents were more likely to support egalitarian principles if there was an American flag hanging nearby.

            “I think we have an untapped reservoir for flexibility in our attitudes and beliefs,” says Parnamets, “but it’s difficult to access because there are many reasons for holding tightly to beliefs — sense of security, sense of belonging, self esteem — and those might actually close you off to other views, even if you’re the type of person who could actually hold a different belief than the one you’re holding.”

            “But if you can have a discussion with yourself, which our method allows you to do,” adds Parnamets, “we see a real possibility of change.”

            Victoria was sitting on the hood of a parked car looking down at the number she had been given by a staffer at the Planned Parenthood clinic where she’d had her abortion a few days earlier. She felt sure she had made the right decision by terminating the pregnancy. She was just 20 years old, holding down three jobs and on the cusp of finishing college. 

            Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had let her Catholic, pro-life family down. “It felt to me to be very shameful,” she says. She called the number and, before she knew it, she was telling the woman, a peer counselor for an organization called Exhale, about a recurring dream she had been having. “I would be speaking to my sister, but she would not turn to face me when we talked — no matter how I walked around her or asked her to.” 

            The counselor listened intently and helped Victoria — who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy — to reflect on her experience. “It was really good for me to put everything on pause and be like, ‘Oh, this is actually a little bit confusing what I’m feeling,” she says. She called the talk line a few more times and each conversation was the same. “Nobody said anything except things like, ‘You deserve to heal’ or ‘You deserve peace.’”

            At a time when attitudes toward abortion are deeply divided along ideological lines, organizations like Exhale — whose clients include both feminists from California and churchgoers from the Bible Belt — are a rarity. 

            Most abortion counseling organizations are either pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-life organizations believe abortion is morally wrong and often see counseling as an opportunity to “save” women who have committed what they view as a grave sin, sometimes through shame or coercion. Pro-choice organizations seek to normalize abortion and often downplay or dismiss women’s feelings of loss, confusion, or regret after having one. 

            “There’s really no space to wrestle with it because we’re just screaming over one another,” says Susan Chorley, a Baptist minister and president and co-founder of Exhale. Chorley got pregnant for the second time when her son was two and her marriage was on the rocks. The thought of having another child overwhelmed her and she chose to have an abortion. After the procedure, she didn’t dare talk about it with people at her church for fear of being ostracized. At the same time, pro-choice groups didn’t acknowledge the full range of emotions she felt about her abortion, which included intense sadness.

            Both sides made her feel judged. “It was like, ‘Just do it and who cares’ or, ‘If you do that, you’re forever damned,’” Chorley says. “It’s so much more complex.” 

            The isolation she felt led Chorley, who is still a minister, to co-found Exhale, a non-profit that helps people process their experiences around abortion without any preconceived notions about what that should look like. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum,” says Chorley. “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation. And there’s no space to have that conversation if we’re just talking about whether it’s right or wrong.”

            exhale staff
            Staff and volunteers at Exhale. Photos courtesy of Exhale

            Founded in 2000, Exhale is staffed by 40 volunteers from across the country trained to act as non-partisan, non-judgmental sounding boards for women (and sometimes men) who have experienced abortion. It has staunchly resisted pressure from donors and others to plant its flag in either the pro-life or pro-choice camps. Instead, it has tried to carve out a space, which it calls “pro-voice,” in the sparsely occupied territory between the two extremes. 

            “I think that some of the division and isolation that we’re experiencing in this country has been because there haven’t been enough opportunities for people across those quote-unquote divides to find one another, to know one another, to listen to one another,” says Chorley. “Ultimately, that’s what we want to create in this space.” 

            The organization recently hosted a series of virtual healing circles for people who have had an abortion and have also been victims of violence (many women make the decision to abort because they have been victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse). The circles consisted of three activities per week, including journaling, yoga and weekly group discussions, for a period of six weeks. At any time, people can connect with a counselor via the organization’s text line (this year, Exhale transitioned management of the talk line to another organization, Connect and Breathe).

            Most people reach out because they have nobody else to talk to or are afraid of what people will say. “You need to sit there and hold a safe space for them so they can talk about their feelings,” says Jenna Sprague, a peer counselor for Exhale who also sits on the organization’s board. “It’s giving people the chance to actually use their voice.”

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              Clients set the agenda for the conversation with peer counselors following their cues, right down to what language they use. “If they say baby, we reflect that back and talk about their baby,” Sprague says. 

              Text line counselors attend eight hours of virtual training over two weekends, where they role play situations they may encounter with clients — a college student grappling with the decision, a father wanting to support his teenage daughter, a grandmother coming to terms with an abortion she had years ago.

              One of the goals of the training is to unpack participants’ assumptions about abortion.

              “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation.”

              When Sprague trained with Exhale in 2016, the organization was doing in-person sessions at their now shuttered office in Oakland, California. In one session, the trainer asked participants questions like, “Do you believe abortion is a form of killing?” and “Is abortion a form of birth control?” “We had a ‘Yes’ section and a ‘No’ section and you could stand anywhere along that wall,” Sprague recalls. After hearing why other participants felt the way they did, several people shifted from their original positions along the wall.

              For Sprague, this simple exercise was revealing. “It was a great way to tangibly see that it’s not a black-and-white issue. There are different layers to this.”

              That approach reflects a level of empathy and complexity that is arguably missing from the abortion debate — but it hasn’t been an easy sell. 

              “The middle ground isn’t flashy,” says Sprague. “Being on the extremes…it brings in more money, it brings in more followers, it generates more conversation.” In recent years, the organization has struggled to attract donors and funding constraints have forced it to scale down, including divesting the talk line.

              Despite these challenges, Chorley isn’t budging. “I’ve given up on trying to fight to belong,” she says. “I am committed to creating space for people who want a nuanced conversation.”

              As the pace of change in our world accelerates, humanity is confronting unprecedented challenges: the climate crisis, economic inequality, endemic military conflict, the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality and systemic racism. At a deep, primal level, this degree of transformation triggers anxiety both about the future and about who we are. We often wonder, will we even have a future? 

              But as we approach uncertain futures, there are many paths we can take. Some incite more fear and polarization, while others encourage cooperation, collaboration and solidarity. One makes the “other” a source of that fear and anxiety. A more hopeful approach sees each other as a source of connection and possibility.

              This is the time to discern the difference between them — between actions that can instigate what we call breaking, and those that can lead to what we call bridging. Breaking causes fractures; bridging fosters cohesion. When we break, we propagate a fabricated notion of separateness. When we bridge, we soften our identities. We discover multiple identities.

              But bridging is not same-ing. Colorblindness, assimilation and smoothing over difference as though it does not matter bypasses much needed repairs we need to make.

              Credit: Neil Moralee / Flickr

              Bridging is about increasing acceptance of diverse peoples, values and beliefs while giving us greater access to different parts of ourselves. Building bridges can help expand our social networks, revitalize our communities and establish a more fair and equitable society. It can help us build a large “we” that does not demand assimilation.

              So we have a choice. We can either turn on each other, or toward each other.

              We can turn our attention to the version of our current reality that says that our common bond is wearing away. Or, we can pivot toward ever-present examples of hope, and find that solidarity is the modality that enables us to thrive.

              We find hope in stories of the Jewish and Arab women in Israel driving hundreds of Bedouin women from their remote villages to polling stations to protect their right to vote. We find it in the youth soccer program in Lewiston, Maine, where Somali refugees play side by side with their American teammates to set an example for the rest of their community. We find it in the NFL’s reversal of its position on players taking a knee during the national anthem, and the league’s eventual support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

              We also find hope in the fact that BLM is widely embraced by Americans: two-thirds of U.S. adults support the movement, including majorities of white (60%), Hispanic (77%), and Asian (75%) Americans. The growing diversity within the movement is illustrative and informative.

              These examples and statistics signal a sea change. Both individuals and institutions are dislodging entrenched belief systems and rebuking pressure to “stick with the party line.” While there’s still much work to be done, these are important representations of bridging in this historic moment as we work to abolish long-standing oppression.

              Stories of bridging not only offer a salve in a fractured world, they provide tangible frameworks and replicable strategies. They teach us that oneness is not sameness, and that we can overcome the false illusion of separateness by honoring our differences to weave toward common purpose with many tributaries. We can transcend the notion that difference divides us, and instead see that it makes us stronger.

              This moment finds us at an inflection point. We can choose to continue the well-worn path of exclusion, supremacy and othering, fueled by narratives of fear and threats. Or we can elevate stories and practices of mutuality and interdependence. We can interrogate the stories we have and identify what might be the most productive and life-affirming story we can inhabit. We can co-create stories where we care about each other. We don’t yet know how our story will end, but this is a great place to start.

              This essay is adapted from On Bridging by john a. powell and Rachel Heydemann.

              Last fall, Jax Richards ducked into a coffee shop near the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis to talk about criminal justice reform at a discussion hosted by a student organization. Richards is a junior majoring in economics and public policy, so he is no stranger to discussing hot-button political issues. He considers himself politically liberal on almost every issue though he emphasizes that he doesn’t “walk the party line.” He’s been called a “baby killer” by conservatives for believing in a woman’s right to an abortion and “incompetent” and “stupid” by those to his left for not supporting Medicare for All. A lifelong Boy Scout, he was labeled a “fascist” by some for attending the national jamboree in 2017 where President Trump spoke. 

              With criminal justice reform, however, the issue is personal. Richards survived childhood abuse at the hands of his father, who is now a convicted felon. When he sat down with eight other students at the discussion, hosted by the OSU chapter of a national student group called BridgeUSA, he had a hardline view of how the U.S. should treat people convicted of crimes.

              Jax Richards
              Jax Richards

              “We should throw the book at them,” he told them. “I believed in the death penalty and that prison should not be a top priority when we start addressing social justice and social change.”

              When students started making the case for a rehabilitation rather than punishment model for addressing criminal justice, the conversation could have easily gone off the rails, with Richards drawing on his backstory to shut down dissenting views. “I did what a lot of people do with an emotional issue,” he says. “I came right off the bat and said I think rehabilitating the prison system isn’t feasible and my personal experience was what I used as my evidence.”

              But the conversation did not devolve into a shouting match. Rather than push back or retreat to their preconceived views, the other students were empathetic to Richards’ experience. They asked him questions to better understand his mindset. Some brought more empirical evidence to the conversation about the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color and offered up alternative European criminal justice models that focus on reintegrating convicted criminals into society.

              An hour and a half later, Richards had begun to soften his view. “That conversation with BridgeUSA opened up new possibilities and curiosities for me to learn more about alternatives to hardline punishment,” he says. “It also provided more objective opinions from my peers and was a supportive environment that understood why I would hold those views.

              While Richards didn’t walk away that fall day with his convictions changed, it sparked him to explore the issue more in depth in his classes, through his own research and in conversations with others. Several months later in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, he has come around to a different attitude. “At the end of the day, rehabilitating individuals is a lot more beneficial as opposed to putting them in a horrible system.”

              BridgeUSA is a national campus-based organization working to promote civil discourse in an increasingly polarized era through facilitated small group discussions. As higher education institutions struggle to balance free speech policies, safe spaces and deplatforming, BridgeUSA is one of several groups working to foster intellectual tolerance on college campuses. For Richards, the experience captures the best of what the college experience can be for young people still working through their opinions and worldviews.

              “Bridge isn’t even at the level of contentious political family dinners,” says Richards. “The closest comparison I can make to the conversations I’ve had at Bridge are the long midnight car rides I’ve had with some of my best friends — not debates, but conversations of mutual understanding.”

              That spirit of friendly, empathetic curiosity was sorely lacking at the University of California, Berkeley on February 1, 2017. That evening, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech amid a climate of rising ultra-conservative and white nationalist views just weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president. Student protesters attempted to block the event nonviolently. They were eventually joined by self-identified anti-fascists who turned the protest into a riot by launching fireworks at police, then smashing store windows on campus and in downtown Berkeley. University police put the campus on lockdown and canceled the speech.

              “The only dominant narratives are the extremes. Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

              BridgeUSA co-founder Manu Meel was a freshman at the time. He was leaving math class when he found himself caught in the melee. He later ended up in a campus building watching CNN, which was broadcasting a live feed of his own college going up in flames.

              “I was shocked at the state of democratic engagement and what this means for higher education and learning,” he says. 

              In the aftermath of the February riot and subsequent campus unrest over controversial conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter, who were met with a sometimes violent response from far-left demonstrators, the university appointed a free speech commission to examine the recent events. The commission grappled with UC Berkeley’s legacy as the bastion of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, when students protested for the right to discuss political issues like the Vietnam War on campus. In 2017, the Berkeley College Republicans and invited speakers, who ranged from political commentators to fringe alt-right activists, argued that they also had a right to free speech for their views.

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                Meel volunteered on a student council advising the commission, which concluded that students are either apathetic about politics or, if they are engaged, they take radically polarized approaches like right-wing trolling or anti-fascist property damage because violence and destructive engagement is the only model of discourse.

                “The only dominant narratives are the extremes,” says Meel. “Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

                Manu Meel
                Manu Meel

                That conclusion inspired Meel to engage with what he saw as a silent majority — those who were neither rioting in black bloc nor reveling in right-wing provocateurs — in the hopes of fostering an alternative mode of political discourse. Soon after the Milo riots, students at Notre Dame, which had started a non-partisan political discussion group called BridgeND, reached out to their Berkeley counterparts. In the heat of the moment, the concept took off at Berkeley. Over 100 people showed up at the first BridgeBerkeley conversation in mid-February to debrief from the Milo riots. 

                From Berkeley, the Bridge concept spread to 24 campuses. Meel graduated in June 2020 and BridgeUSA has since become a non-profit start-up with Meel its first CEO, working out of a San Francisco apartment with a handful of Berkeley alumni.

                “Our theory of change is that you have to show young people what it means to engage with democracy,” he says. “We elevate young people who believe in empathy, respect and engaged dialogue as a prerequisite to action.”

                While BridgeUSA chapters occasionally host speakers — provided they have a history of constructive engagement — the organization generally eschews lectures. “Talks are a one-way mode of engagement. The core principle of Bridge isn’t about presenting your views, it’s about listening and engaging,” says Meel. 

                Instead, Bridge favors small group discussions like the one Jax Richards found his way to at Oregon State, where Bridge-trained moderators facilitate the discussion parliamentary-style, so that speakers address the moderator rather than someone else in the room with whom they disagree. 

                A student discussion at UC Berkeley organized by BridgeBerkeley. Photo courtesy BridgeUSA

                Not that there aren’t moments of tension. Meel recalls an immigration discussion with thirty-odd students in attendance where a DACA recipient, or “Dreamer,” made her case for why she believes Dreamers have a right to stay on campus. At the time, Trump was pushing Congress to cancel the DACA program and the university administration reacted by providing financial and legal support to undocumented students. A white student from El Paso, Texas stood up to rebut her argument. He put on a red “Make America Great Again” hat before stating his views that allowing so-called “illegal immigration” is a bad precedent that risks crime and violence, making him scared for his family.

                Rather than the Dreamer backing away and leaving, or shouting in response to his argument, she responded to his values by expressing her fear of deportation and likening it to his fear of crime. After their back-and-forth, the moderator asked if anyone else had something to add. The other students, who had quietly let the two debate, didn’t talk about immigration. They latched on to the level of understanding that the two students, who couldn’t otherwise be more different, had reached. 

                “While they had totally different policy positions, they shared the same notion of safety, security and stability,” says Meel. “The process of empathy is to get at the level of values, and at the level of values you can break down arguments and find common purposes.”

                Observing the process was at least as important as actually discussing the issue at hand. “A lot of kids have never spoken with anyone they disagree with politically,” says Meel. “The chapter builds the clout for them to do that.”

                Flying book

                Moderation is also the key to success at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, which serves a politically mixed student body of more conservative Linn County and more liberal Benton County. Communications professor Mark Urista advises the student-led Civil Discourse Club, which arose in 2017 following controversy over sexually explicit artwork displayed on campus.

                “What stood out to me right away was a clear divide between those who were enthusiastically supportive and those who thought it was completely inappropriate,” says Urista. “They were talking in their own echo chambers but not with each other.”

                Promoting a collegewide discussion is difficult for a commuter campus, as many community colleges are. One experiment the club has tried is a public whiteboard that asks controversial questions like “Should vaping be banned on campus?” so respondents can weigh in at different times of day. While comments can be made anonymously, moderators from the club erase personal or partisan attacks.

                “We have an etiquette sign,” says Urista. “This is not a free expression whiteboard — we are trying to teach people how to do civil discourse.”

                Survey data and scholarly research on the political views of higher education instructors suggest that creating intentional spaces for students to share contrary views is necessary. In a 2019 survey on campus expression by Heterodox Academy, a non-profit advocating for viewpoint diversity on college campuses, 55 percent of students reported that the on-campus climate prevents them from saying something they believe, with one in three students reluctant to share political views in the classroom. Republican students were more reluctant than Democrats or Independents to talk about controversial topics like race, sexuality and gender, although not religion.

                That sensibility is backed up by the ideological tilt of professors. In a 2018 paper, Mitchell Langbert, a business professor at Brooklyn College, analyzed the political affiliations of 8,688 professors at 51 liberal arts colleges. He found the Democrat-to-Republican ratio at an overwhelming 12.7 to one. In several colleges’ humanities and social sciences departments, he found consistently there were zero registered Republicans.

                John Wood, Jr., Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and Ciaran O’Connor, a campaign staffer for Barack Obama and in 2014 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, speaking at a Respect + Rebellion event at UC Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Loren Curry / BridgeUSA

                Debra Mashek, a tenured psychology professor at Harvey Mudd College who is now Heterodox Academy’s executive director, identifies as very liberal. She knows the problem all too well. “One of our founders spoke at a psychology conference where I was in the audience,” she says. “I remember him asking if anyone who was Republican could please stand up. One person did.”

                Mashek’s field of research is close relationships, which is also where she finds the seeds of successful efforts to overcome division. “We need to cultivate the habits of heart and mind that allow you to engage constructively across lines of difference,” she says. Those habits start with relational aspects. “You need to know enough about the other person as a person, not as an avatar, to actually see where they’re coming from,” she says. “You have to take the risk of letting yourself be seen and known. When you do take that risk, it tends to resolve in more connection.”

                Finding those relational aspects is at the heart of Respect + Rebellion, which brings so-called “divergent speaker pairs” to college campuses who disagree vehemently but remain friends through a cross-cutting bond. With names like “Black & Poor + White & Privileged,” “Anti-abortion Feminist + Abortion Access Fanatic,” and several variations on “Red + Blue,” the framing of the pairs goes straight for the jugular of ideological divides. But by going to the precipice of fundamental disagreements over hot-button issues while ending in agree-to-disagree comity, the speaker pairs serve as models of successful relationships across political and ideological differences.

                Inside the Student-Led Movement to Depolarize College

                Jacob Hess, one of the organizers behind the project, is himself a participant: A politically conservative adherent to the LDS church, he pairs up with Philip Neisser, a Marxist atheist. They disagree on everything. Almost. “We’re both into uber-healthy stuff,” says Hess. “We both think Monsanto is the devil.” That connecting thread, plus their shared professional background in academic research, is enough to forge a friendship that can soften student attitudes when displayed publicly.

                “I have seen the shift firsthand with students who show up ready to fight us,” he says. “After they see that we’re just being real and human with each other, it loses the charge.”

                Respect + Rebellion brought its divergent speaker pairs to over 2,500 students during the 2018-2019 school year and conducted surveys at eight events across four campuses, drawing responses from 400 attendees. Overwhelming majorities responded that the event helped depolarize their views. 73 percent agreed with the statement, “I understand and/or like people who I disagree with at least a little bit more than before.” 78 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel like it is more possible that I could learn something from people on the other side of the aisle.” And 83 percent agreed with the statement, “I’m more optimistic about conversing with people whose political views are different than my own.”

                Shortly after the hotly contested 2018 midterm election, Linn-Benton College hosted the “Red Mom + Blue Mom” speaker pair. Several instructors brought their classes to the talk and built assignments around the presentation. “Students claim they really appreciated seeing two people model what civil discourse looks like in the flesh,” says Urista. “For a lot of people, civil discourse is this abstract term. They don’t know what it means or how to do it. Those results gave me tremendous hope about the future.”

                Meel feels that same depolarizing effect at work when students find themselves in a BridgeUSA-moderated conversation as opposed to yelling at each other across the campus quad.

                “I almost feel like I’m not a part of my generation when I talk about the need for relationships,” says Meel. “Social media has hampered our ability to engage.”

                With that uphill battle, Meel said, their work is cut out for them. “We have to figure out unique ways to market empathy to my generation, which is very pissed off and very angry.”