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Healing the Divide One Conversation At A Time

When Time Magazine selected Donald Trump as "Person of the Year," it said he would be president of the 'Divided States of America". This polarization can make it hard for people who are not like-minded to find common ground on difficult topics. One local nonprofit is trying to help people bridge those gaps.

Insults and just straight-up hatred characterized the entire presidential election. And by the time it was all over—regardless of who you voted for, many of us felt drained, divided and alienated. But over at Essential Partners in Cambridge, that’s just another day at the office.

“Our mission is to try to help communities have constructive conversations around very divisive issues that have resulted in stereotyping or demonizing or attacking,” says Dave Joseph, Senior Director of Program.

Essential Partners runs workshops made up of faith leaders, teachers, therapists and business people, to show them how to lead really difficult discussions-- ones that don’t end with people ripping each other’s heads off.

“Sometimes people worry ‘sitting down and talking with someone who disagrees with me’ means that ‘I am surrendering my values,’ says Joseph. But maybe we can become clearer and have a better idea of how we might be better to work together on some issues even as we know that we’ll never work together on other issues.”

Dave Joseph would know.  His team has worked with communities all over the world that have been torn apart by civil wars and inter-religious conflict. Since the election, though, they have found themselves busier than usual stateside.

“I think what we’ve seen as an uptick is a growing awareness of how many of us are suddenly seeing ourselves as living in bubbles. Bubbles of like-minded people.”

As someone who specializes in global trade and development, Mil Niepold, founder of Mara Partners, knows something about different points of view.  She wants to deepen her skills as a mediator, knowing she may need them as potential changes in trade policies by the Trump Administration could impact her day to day interactions.

“I’m really concerned, for example, that some of the U.S. laws around ending human trafficking, preventing child labor, that if there is any weakening of those laws or even a hint of weakening those laws,” says Niepold, “That people in other countries will take that as a cue to back off of implementing those laws.”

The Power of Dialogue workshop includes a lot of practice scenarios where participants lead structured dialogues but also need to think quickly on their feet.

In this round, participants are pretending to be on the phone with the president of the PTO in a rural town that has seen a large influx of immigrants and subsequent problems involving students. Dave Joseph says this actually happened a few years ago, and that the PTO president had contacted Essential Partners for help. Having trained people and facilitated conversations himself over the last 30 years, Joseph knows that it’s not about persuading the other side to agree with you.

“My sense is that if we can really be listening more deeply to each other, we can engage in real democracy, principled advocacy,” says Joseph. “We can experience a greater sense of community.”

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