During the pandemic I have gone on some fairly long bike rides with band members and friends, exploring parts of our city that some of us are somewhat unfamiliar with. Most of us New Yorkers have been trapped in our apartments, so getting out has been, for me at least, both enlightening and a life saver. 

I organized some rides to Staten Island recently, the island borough just south of Manhattan, promising my fellow riders “a visit to the land of Trump and Wu-Tang.” That pitch is exaggerated, but not entirely untrue — Staten Island has earned its conservative reputation — but of course, it’s more complicated than that. There is a whole artistic mural culture on Staten Island, and the stories on this island suggest that divides here are being bridged, and that its politics are more nuanced than they first appear.

After taking the (free!) ferry from Manhattan we stopped for lunch at a Sri Lankan restaurant called Lakruwana, which has an amazing bas relief mural facing Bay Street. 

Lakruwana Restaurant
Credit: Mario Burger

The food was good, and the rest room had plaques all over with messages on them. 

Staten Island
Karma is a bitch, eh? Credit: David Byrne

At least 5,000 Sri Lankans live in the northeast part of Staten Island. How’s that working out? It depends on how you look at it. Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war only ended in 2009. In that conflict the minority Tamils fought against the Sinhalese-dominated government after being stripped of citizenship, though they had been living there for hundreds of years. The “Tamil Tigers” were guilty of frequent bombings, and the Sinhalese government was likewise accused of committing many human rights abuses including bombing civilian targets. It was nasty all around.

Sometimes when folks immigrate from a conflict area, they bring their old rivalries with them, and end up living cheek by jowl with their former enemies in their new adopted home. This can mean these two sides don’t communicate much. There’s an uncomfortable silence. But food can be a bridge. Customers at the restaurants here come from both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict. They put aside their differences to come together for the food they miss. Julia Wijesinghe, the daughter of the owners of Lakruwana, decided to go a step further. She opened a museum of Sri Lankan culture in the basement of the restaurant in 2017 — a celebration of the culture that is shared by folks on both sides of the conflict.

There are signs that the divides in the community are healing. In 2019, following a rash of horrific bombings in Sri Lanka, the Staten Island immigrants united to hold candlelight vigils to honor the dead in their homeland. 

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

As we enjoyed our lunch we looked across the street at a building covered by a massive mural and wondered who was Charlie B, what is NYC Arts Cypher, and what is this place? Of course, there’s a story here. 

The late Charlie Balducci (he passed in July) was an early reality TV star — a young artist who landed a “part” on an episode of the MTV show True Life. Stressed out over all the filming, at one point he ripped into a limo driver who was an hour late picking him up for his wedding: “[I’ll] hunt you down like fucking cattle and I’ll gut you!” Charlie later said that’s how any Staten Islander would have reacted. 

But there’s another side to Charlie. He used his cash and his notoriety to start NYC Arts Cypher, the non-profit in this building, where he and others mentored young artists. The organization confronts social issues like bullying and drug use, and trains the kids in branding, design and how to make a living doing legal street art. Those murals we saw everywhere. One way they raise funds is through an annual Halloween haunted house in the building. One of the folks sitting outside in the picture above told me that the haunted house is still on this year, and that there would be “stuff jumpin’ out at ya.”

So Charlie is maybe not the cliched reality star some of us might at first assume. This guy really did something incredible with a lot of heart, and it’s still going.

Credit: David Byrne

We moved on until we hit the boardwalk that lines the Atlantic beaches. It goes for miles and it’s gorgeous.

Then we headed back inland, passing by a lot of wild turkeys. WTF! Apparently there are over 250 of them on the island. At first we thought: a nice Thanksgiving dinner maybe?  But I wouldn’t mess with them  — they’re big, and like true Staten Islanders, they didn’t seem afraid of us at all.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne
Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

Nice lucky segue here from turkeys to flags — there are a LOT of flag murals on Staten Island. Some of us saw them as dog whistles for Trump supporters. While sticking up a Trump sign in NYC might get you some looks, who could argue with the flag?

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

It turns out there’s a story here too. As reported in The New Yorker, many of these flag murals were painted by a local artist, Scott LoBaido, and yes, he’s a Trump supporter. But once again, it’s a little more nuanced than that. 

He says that he has painted at least three flag murals in every one of the fifty states. The acquaintance asked whether he paints Confederate flags. “No,” LoBaido answered immediately. He raised his Martini glass to salute a driver who was saluting him with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup through the open window of a pickup truck. “I can’t say I would never paint any particular thing,” he went on. “But a Confederate flag? No. I know some people say it’s not racist, it’s about Southern heritage. But I’ve never painted a Confederate flag. It’s nothing like the American flag. The American flag is the greatest work in the history of art, because it’s about everybody—Blacks, whites, every immigrant, every person who dreams about this country. It’s about me, it’s about you even though I know you don’t agree with me politically”

This gives me hope, hearing a Trump supporter say that the flag represents a country that is open to people of every race and background. It just goes to show that things are sometimes a little more complex than I might at first assume. 

Staten Island
There are other kinds of murals on Staten Island, too. Here’s one at a school playground that celebrates what LoBaido is talking about. Credit: David Byrne

We took Old Town Road (!) on into the neighborhood of Richmond until we came upon a mural proclaiming the area to be the Wu-Tang District. Yup, last year the borough made it official. At the event inaugurating the new district, Ghostface Killah said, “I never saw this day coming. I knew we were some ill MCs, but I didn’t know that it’d take it this far.”

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

The projects depicted on the mural are just off to the right. The right side of the mural now incorporates a memorial made of painted cinder blocks.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

So, Staten Island seems to be, in some ways, a lot more nuanced than my snobby Manhattan biases might have led me to believe. Check your attitude, David! It’s a work in progress for sure — how these communities can get along. But even in these brief trips I learned that things aren’t as black and white as I first assumed. These trips we take aren’t just good exercise and a way of getting out of the house, they change the way I see things. 

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.”