3 Steps to Responding to America’s Turmoil

By Rich Harwood

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, which sadly has become synonymous with gun violence. There, I keynoted a conference of 1,100 public school communications officers, who, like many Americans, are deeply troubled by the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Orlando, among others. For many Americans, it feels as though the country is splitting apart. The toxic tone of the presidential campaign and our own community discourse only heighten these fears.

At issue is what will the nation and individual communities do: split apart, or find a common path forward?

There is no guarantee of a good outcome here. We must work at it. But the choice is clear: Either we will remain on the path of the status quo, which is filled with disappointment, frustration and, for too many Americans, despair. Or, we will choose a path of possibility and hope, where we restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.

More than anything, people want to know that they are seen and heard by others, that their reality is reflected and valued in our public discourse, and that we will work together to address their concerns. This is a basic human need. Making meaningful progress requires that we know this—and authentically act on it. But not just any actions will do, as many will only exacerbate our troubles. Here are three steps we should take to move the nation and our communities forward given where we are:

1.      Start with people’s shared aspirations for their community. A Texas man asked me at the school conference this week how can we find answers to our challenges when so many people see things nowadays as you are either with our side or against us? His point is important. Increasingly, we run the risk of breaking up into fragmented groups, isolated from one another. Too often discussions about tough challenges only reinforce this by asking people to talk about “problems.” These discussions soon descend into complaint sessions, where people point fingers about who is to blame for the lack of progress. In turn, we get locked into old arguments, which raise fears and push people into corners, and place us squarely on the path of the status quo.

Instead, the opportunity is to reframe our conversations in terms of our shared aspirations, revealing what we seek to create in our community together. These are not utopian wish lists, which will never come true. Nor will people agree on everything, but we already know that. People’s shared aspirations are rooted in things that are actionable, doable and achievable that we can get started on and build on, together.

2.      Allow room for different issues to rise up. It’s critical to recognize that there is no one single issue at work in the current environment, but rather a web of issues, which involve police and policing, racial equity, poor public schools, gun violence and more general concerns about community safety, among others. My own reading of the situation is that different issues in this web will rise to the top of the agenda in different communities.

And so we must resist the temptation to impose upon communities a frame for what needs to discussed and done. Otherwise, people will once again feel acted upon by the powers that be, productive work will be short-circuited, and people’s sense of possibility—and their own agency—will be dashed. This leads to mistrust, even cynicism. It is the path of the status quo that we must forcefully reject.

3.      Focus on building things together. Talk is good, but not enough, especially now. Indeed many Americans are fatigued from too many conversations in their communities that do not lead to productive action. I share their frustration. To restore our belief and can-do spirit, we must come together to build things together that move us toward achieving our aspirations and meeting current challenges.

How we do this work will be as important as what the work is. This is critical to know. We must make room for people in communities to come together and set goals, identify ways forward and implement solutions. The measure of these actions is not how grand or big or complex they are; rather, it is that people are coming together to act on their aspirations and concerns. Now is the time to build our civic confidence, which often will mean starting small and building upon our common successes. Undertaking solutions that are bound to stall out or die from their own complexity and weight is the path of the status quo.

In the rush to action we must avoid skipping over these steps, or else inevitably we will be right back on the path of the status quo. Nor should we simply rig up a laundry list of expert responses as a way to diffuse the situation and “show” progress. People don’t want to be sold yet another bill of goods. The task at hand is to understand and address what really matters to people. And people must be involved in creating and building these responses.

The issues we face are often complicated and difficult to deal with. They are highly emotional and often rooted in the nation’s history. But that shouldn’t stop us. Nor should it make us afraid. We must summon the courage to move forward and the humility to see and hear one another. But let’s be clear, a fundamental choice is before us: Either stay on the path of the status quo, or choose a path of possibility and hope. Let’s start with these three key steps to get on the right path.