How to Build Political Bridges in a Divided America

This week, we had a chance to sit down with David Nevins, president and founder of the Bridge Alliance, a growing movement of more than 80 civic action organizations committed to creating and finding common ground and productive dialogue. Our conversation covered their work and what we can all be doing to help America build the bridges it needs.

David, you’re the founder of Bridge Alliance. Can you just give a little background on what the organization is and what the inspiration was for co-founding it?

Due to the obvious break-down of our government to function in a healthy way, about eight years ago, I began devoting my time, energy and financial resources to organizations and leaders who are working to fix the political system and deliver on America’s promise of government by and for the people.

It became obvious that all this great work was happening separate and apart from each other as organizations worked in their own silos independent of each other.   My business sense told me that for significant political transformation to occur, a network must be established to build a shared identity, raise visibility, and expand the level of collaboration between the organizations and individuals dedicated to civic problem solving and public policy innovation.  And to that end, the Bridge Alliance (www.BridgeAlliance.US) was founded in 2015 and we are now a collaborative reform community of 83 organizations who believe that together we can go beyond suffocating partisanship and fix our politics, improve our governance and engage our citizens.  The Bridge Alliance is supporting relationships so that by working together we will improve participation at every level of government and engage citizens across the political spectrum in healthy, productive debate and dialogue.

You have a wide range of organizations you’re working with. How are you all partnering to overcome divisions in our country? How are you using grants to do further that work?

The Bridge Alliance mission and strategy is predicated on the principle that there is no single solution to the revitalization of our democracy. There is no one organization and no single area of focus that can fix our political system. Hence the need for a strong collaborative community that collectively will bring more funding, more media exposure to the important work of revitalizing our democracy

With the above in mind,  the Bridge Alliance created and funded a portfolio of projects in 2017 – the New American Tapestry of political reform focused on three broad categories: 1) civic engagement, 2) campaigns & elections, and 3) governance & policy making.  We weave these seemingly separate areas of focus into a tapestry of projects to revitalize and invigorate our democracy.

The portfolio in 2017 consisted of leadership training to State Legislators by National Institute for Civil Discourse, State Legislative Leaders Foundation, and National Foundation of Women Legislators working together to Improve the workings of state legislatures nationwide by bringing together legislators from across the country to study how to talk with others with opposing views and how to reach policy decisions without or with minimum acrimony.

Another grant provided funding to 92 Y and Village Square creating a new model for Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs to come together in face-to face conversations, using social media tools and guidelines to allow all participating groups to organize powerful “circles” and moderated dinners for cross-party dialogue and civil debate.

As a last example of one of our 11 grants,  we funded a program to empower citizens to engage and run in local politics.  Led by Unite America (formerly the Centrist Project), Independent Voter Project and Represent.Us, a campaign was funded to encourage and enable more people to run for public office, with social and other media outreach to potential candidates and the public at large, to foster a more representative, responsive, and functional government. This pilot project in Colorado has resulted in a number of independent candidates running for office.

These of just three examples of the 11 projects the Bridge Alliance funded.

I think a lot of citizens feel sort of hopeless right now. How can they get involved to address the divisions in our country, especially if they’re maybe pre-disposed to a certain political leaning?

There is much that we as citizens can do. First, we need to be patient and impatient at the same time, recognizing that we’ve spent 40+ years creating the divisive and partisan environment that now defines our democracy and it will take concentrated effort by We the People to revitalize and reform our democracy.

Citizen involvement can be as simple as making a pledge as the Listen First Project asks its’ followers to commit to that “ I will listen first to understand and consider another’s views before sharing my own. I will prioritize respect and understanding in conversation. And I will encourage others to do the same.”

Or we can make our local government more functional by attending meetings and becoming involved in the process and learn how to do so through  our members like Participatory Budgeting Project or Public Agenda.

Or imagine a government run by people instead of monied special interests.  We can join together and work with www.Americanpromise.net to be involved in  the 50-state Citizen Uprising to support the 28th Amendment so that people – not money, not corporations, not special interest govern America.

The options are unlimited as to how ordinary citizens can help reform our democracy and the Bridge Alliance is here to offer citizens the the level of engagement that is best suited for each individual.  If more Americans listen to these words of Thomas Jefferson the political process can change:

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.

We are making a difference.

You’re in a room with three groups–a handful of non-voters, some Clinton supporters, and some Trump voters. What do you talk about to create common ground?

To set up reasonable expectations, let’s assume this group will meet at least three times. Due to the level of demonization that has occured in our society, one short conversation is not enough.

We listen differently to people we like so initially, we start talking about our children, our favorite foods, or something that we all have in common thus showing  that our we all have similar hopes for the future and other common human interests. These are all good starting points. Even talking about how to listen–deeply listen with empathy (not to debate, respond or be otherwise distracted), helps people to like each other before tackling any political topic.  And start with non-wedge issues. In other words, the Bridge Alliance believes it is less about what you talk about but more about how you structure the conversation. As one example, Living Room Conversations, citizens learn as much about listening then about talking over each other. Through a structured conversation guide,    participants look for a common ground they can agree on, and also take an interest in the differing beliefs and opinions of others. The topics can range from immigration to health reform, or any of the most contentious subjects that typically divide us as Americans. The data shows that when participants are curious and open to learning and speak authentically from their own personal experience the results can be amazing.

In a couple of weeks (April 20-28) a project of the Bridge Alliance Education fund will organize thousands of Americans from across the country in conversations on the important issues of our time.  To join the conversation and start the process of bridging the divide visit www.Nationalweekofconversation.org .

What’s your source of hope that things can get better?

My source of hope comes from my belief in the indomitable spirit and compassion of most Americans.  As I speak to younger citizens across our country I have learned that they feel politically homeless.  They are craving a better way for our democracy. They are tired of our elected officials many of whom thrive on misleading statements and ethical lapses and get excited when they learn that there can be a better way by supporting candidates who are direct and honest in public statements and put ethical commitments about partisan or career objectives.

My optimism comes from the conversations I have with the incredibly dedicated and talented social entrepreneurs who comprise the Bridge Alliance Leaders Council who are dedicating their lives to be champions of democratic reform, and who are daily turning ideas into Action.

I realize that the work of citizens from across the country to change the political process of governance has just begun, and the task is not an easy one.  But I am encouraged as I think back to our our Founding Fathers were considered to be idealists by some, and yet the Constitution they designed still endures 200-plus years later.

As I talk to citizens of all ages, and ethnicity from across our country I can’t help but remain optimistic that We the People will build upon our Founding Fathers brilliant and exemplary framework to finish what they collectively intended.

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