The ability of diverse groups to collaborate toward shared goals is a prerequisite for collective impact. But many communities can become segmented—including by demographics, experiences, and ideologies, and find themselves facing misunderstandings, misinformation, and intense polarization. In that turmoil, is working together across differences possible? And how does philanthropy play a role in helping to rebuild bridges and strengthen shared understandings?
In this discussion from the 2022 Collective Impact Action Summit, four speakers explore assumptions and complicated narratives about the opportunities for (and barriers to) collaboration across lines of difference, including what’s worked well, what hasn’t, and how funders can better support collaborating across differences.
Participating in this discussion are:
- Kristen Cambell, CEO, PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement)
- Wendy Feliz, Managing Director, American Immigration Council
- Andrew Hanauer, President and CEO, One America Movement
- Ted Johnson, Senior Director of the Fellows Program, Brennan Center for Justice
Please see further down this page for a full transcript of this discussion.
- Listen to a podcast version of this discussion.
- Read a blog post reflecting on this session: Being Proximate to Achieve Transformative Social Change
- Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement – PACE
- American Immigration Council
- One America Movement
- Brennan Center for Justice
- Bridging Civic Divides essay series by Decker Ngongang for PACE
- Complicating the Narrative, a discussion series from CEP and PACE
- Philanthropy Needs to Own Up to its Role in Fueling Polarization, Suzette Brooks Masters, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
- Ted Johnson’s book When the Stars Begin to Fall and this interview he did with Daniel Stid
- Ukrainian Leaders Show the Power of a Story to Move Policy. Immigration Advocates Should Take Note, Wendy Feliz in the Chronicle of Philanthropy
- New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World–and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms
- Amanda Ripley’s book: High Conflict and this conversation she did with PACE
- The Other Divide by Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan
- The works of Danielle S. Allen
- Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity by Lilliana Mason
Cindy Santos: I’m now excited to introduce as we go into the next part of our day, Kristen Cambell who is the CEO of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, PACE. Her partners and colleagues who are going to engage in a panel discussion about the role of philanthropy as a facilitator of collaboration in polarized times. We’re excited about that, that very nuanced topic. PACE is a philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in America. With that expertise and topic in mind, we’re going to introduce Kristen.
Kristen Cambell: OK, how did I do? Did I unmute myself successfully?
Jennifer Splansky Juster: Yes, you did.
Kristen Cambell: Wonderful. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m really excited to be a part of this discussion today.
As you enter, we are going to put up a four-question poll. We’re doing this in all—I’ll voice over this a little bit, but we’re doing this because we know that this topic can signal a lot of things to a lot of people. Knowing where you’re coming in from, how you’re coming in, what conceptions you might be holding about the idea of working across difference in deeply polarized times, will be really important for us as speakers to make sure that we can be responsive to the group. You’re seeing a four-question poll on your screen right now. If you can just take a minute to respond to that. Also, if you feel comfortable, please share in the chat what you’re hoping to learn from today’s session. What concerns or questions do you have coming in? What are you nervous about, about this conversation? Any of those things that you want us to know as we embark on this discussion today. I’ll give you all just a minute to complete the poll before I start talking over you. We’ll leave this up for a few minutes.
As Cindy mentioned, my name is Kristen Cambell and I have the honor of leading PACE. We are a network of foundations and funders that invest in civic engagement and democracy broadly defined. We bring our members together to share with each other what their investing in, why, and what they’re learning from it, in hopes that they can do more work, do it better, and do it together.
One of the things that comes up a lot in our work is this topic of bridging. We’ve always been a big tent organization. We’ve always worked across difference. We’ve always tried to strive for bipartisan, cross-partisan solutions to problems. That’s getting harder. I think that that’s part of why Cindy and her colleagues asked us to be here today. Because coming together is getting harder, and coming together is a precondition of working together especially in processes as intentional as collective impact. So we really wanted to raise the question, how can coming together be made easier or be made possible in some cases through relationship building and bridging efforts? What is philanthropy’s role in making those conditions possible?
Today we’re going to spend some time trying to complicate our understanding about what bridging is and what it’s not. There can be a lot of misconceptions about that, so what it is and what it’s not, what it can and can’t achieve, and who gets to decide what’s worth it in terms of when is it worth it to bridge, with whom is it worth it to bridge.
We’re also going to say some hard things about some ways that funders, even the most well-intentioned funders, can perhaps inadvertently make polarization dynamics worse. We’re going to spend a few minutes in discussion, about half of our time in discussion with some brilliant friends and colleagues that I often call on to help me understand the nuances and complexities of these issues. Then we’re going to engage with dialogue with all of you.
This session is titled, Collaboration in Polarized Times, which again, can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. You’ll hear us using a lot the shorthand of bridging. We’ll talk a lot about bridging, bridge building. This was a word that I noticed that a lot of you used to identify the one word about how you would describe your job earlier. We saw where it’s like bridger, bridge builder, connector, weaver, all really great things. We’re going to lean into that shorthand a little bit into these conversations.
Just so that we’re clear from the outset, when we say bridging, we mean, and I’m going to read this definition. It can be broadly defined as efforts to bring people together in a curated, semi-structured way in order to build stronger relationships, understanding, and connectivity across differences. I’ll put that in the chat in just a second. But that’s the definition of bridging that we’re leaning into today.
A quick reminder for anyone who might have joined, please be filling out the chat and then we’re going to take a second and look at the responses to those in just a minute.
I am honored to introduce three people who are going to help steward us through this conversation today. These three folks are friends, they are colleagues, they are brilliant leaders, and they are all people that I find myself calling on. Sometimes the first people that I find myself calling on when I need a dose of hope, when I need to have my assumptions checked, when I need to complexify my own thinking or challenge my own understanding. I’m really excited to be able to share them with you today.
Wendy Feliz is the founding director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. The center houses the signature, culture, and narrative change programs of the council. The center also convenes institutions and individuals nationwide to share the common goal of building a more cohesive America where all people are welcome and included.
Next is Andy Hanauer. Andy is the president and CEO of the One America Movement, an organization founded by faith and community leaders to fight toxic polarization. One America works with faith communities and faith leaders across the country and across the religious, racial, and political spectrum to build resilience to toxic forms of division, including misinformation, racism, toxic partisanship, and more. One America is one of the fastest growing organizations working on this issue and has quintupled in size in the last two years. I also know Andy is actively recruiting for several jobs if you all know anyone, please help him fill those roles.
Last, and certainly not least, Ted Johnson. Ted is the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which works to craft and advance reforms that will make American democracy work for all. Ted’s work explores the role that race plays in electoral politics, issues, framing, and disparities in policy outcomes. Previously, he’s held roles at New America and Deloitte, and is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy. He also is a relatively recently published author for a book called When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America.
So with that, I’m going to have them introduce themselves a little bit more in a second. But let’s go ahead and pause and stop the poll and let’s have a peek at the poll results, if we can. Let’s take a minute, especially my fellow panelists. Let’s take a minute and just review the responses. When we ask how familiar you are with practices or concepts that allow for collaboration across lines of difference, most people said somewhat familiar, a handful not familiar, and a couple of people said very familiar. We’re working with an early to mid-stage audience on collaboration. On how familiar would you say you are with the phenomenon of toxic polarization, and how that differs from concepts like disagreement or partisanship, a little over half said not familiar, so we’re going to be able to dig into that a little bit today. Some folks said somewhat, and again, the smallest number being very familiar. We also asked you to tell us who you think is responsible for creating and fueling toxic polarization. There’s a good diversity of responses here, seeing a high response for news media and social media, both the companies and the analysts, as well as a good amount of folks saying political actors on both sides of the ideological spectrum. We asked you, we wanted to do some airing of conceptions, so we asked some conceptions or associations that we often feel about this work. Some of them are a little positive. Some of them are a little skeptical. That’s OK. This is an open space for all of those conversations and we asked to share which of them you agree with. Seeing lots of agreements that bridging is a way to find unlikely allies and to scale and expand impact. We also heard a majority of folks saying we have more in common with those who are different than us than we think. Again, a majority saying bridging with people different from us is a good thing and an end in itself. That’s great. Those three are the ones that are more positive in valence. Smaller, but not zero responses in three of the more skeptical ones, the highest one being bridging with someone who has problematic views risks normalizing or legitimizing those beliefs. Understand where that comes from and we’ll definitely get into that today. Also, a couple of comments around concerns about having to minimize one’s identity and beliefs to come into space with people who are different and some concern about a mushy, middle compromise being the goal. Thank you all for sharing that with us. That’s a really important way to ground us today.
With that, I’m going to invite my friends to—there we go. Thank you for anticipating my needs. Person that’s driving the Zoom. With that, you can see the beautiful faces of my beautiful friends. I want to invite you to introduce yourselves to the group. Who you are and the what you are is important, but equally important for our discussion today is understanding how you think and how your lived experiences form your beliefs. I gave the who and the what of your introductions already. I’d love for each of you to introduce yourself with a response to two questions. I carefully worded these so let me make sure I get them right. No, that’s not it. There we go.
When you talk about collaborating across lines of difference, what are you talking about and what are you not talking about? That’s the first question. The second question is, I think we might have an assumption that you accepted the invitation to be here today because you believe that bridging across lines of difference, even in polarizing contexts, is possible. What about your experience leads you to believe that that’s possible? Wendy, let’s start with you.
Wendy Feliz: Hi Kristen, hi Ted, hi Andrew, hi everybody. It’s so nice to be here with you on Zoom. Hopefully, you haven’t had too long of a day so far, being on this Zoom call. I’m really excited to have this conversation and I did give some thought to Kristen’s excellent prompts.
I come at the bridging work through the lens of immigration, where I’ve been sort of stationed working on immigration issues since 2008, very early days of the first Obama administration. If you remember back in 2008, Obama said within 100 days he would pass immigration reform. I was all in for that and for implementation and then I was go work on another issue. Sadly, 15 years later, I’m still here. I’m still working on immigration and I believe immigration is now one of a number of issues that has been gridlocked because of the state of polarization in America.
I also think one of our biggest problems is that we lack a social connection and a sense of shared destiny across the polity, not just immigrants and nonimmigrants, but across the country. I think our most vexing problems like immigration are stymied not only because of polarization but because of that lack of, or that sense of a shared fate and a common purpose.
I always say immigrants are essentially like a canary in a coal mine. I think how we treat the most vulnerable people in our country says a lot about our nation, says a lot about the state of our politics, and its sort of sense of connectivity and care, mutual care about each other. At my organization, the American Immigration Council, we kind of have begun to understand that in order to achieve our vision of a more fair and just society, we’re going to have to reduce polarization. We really have moved into this new body of work, in addition to all the stuff we’ve always done on policy and litigation, we really have moved into a new body of work around bridging divides.
There’s different kinds of bridging divides and I’ve only been doing this for a few years so I’m absolutely not the total expert in it, but just to give you a little context, the type of bridging work that I’m very focused on and interested in is bridging work that helps create common in-group identities. What does that mean? It means the work that I do is meant to bring people together in ways that can help them form common or shared identities. The bridging work I do doesn’t ask people to come together and focus on being an immigrant or nonimmigrant, it really focuses on bringing them together around the identities they share, like parents, like custodians of their community, there’s lots of ways we’re piloting and trying to do that so people start to see the ground that they hold in common rather than hyper focused on the identities that make them different.
I think a great well-known example of this that Ted will probably talk about is the military. I think that is a common in-group identity where everyone shares it and it becomes the really superordinate important identity, but since we can’t conscript the entire population, we need to find other ways to engage people in work that allows them to find their shared identity and to become more deeply connected. We believe that will happen through everyday community-based activities. We have to develop and feed and care for the places that can really help us achieve those common identities.
My lived experience is something I don’t often think about but I did it because Kristen asked me to and I guess other people do too. I know it’s important to understand why we do the work that we do and so when I do a little bit of unpacking of that, I guess it’s my parents. I grew up in an interracial marriage, which was a very new thing in the 1960s. My parents made friends and connected deeply with their community through both their civic activities. They were in the Kiwanis Club, they ran a small TV repair business in our town. My dad was one of the first Mexican American business owners in town. My mom, in addition to helping my dad with the business, worked in factory and she was a member of the Teamsters Union and she believed deeply in the power of organized labor and fighting for the working class. That also has been kind of my DNA. They also raised me up in the Democrat Party which felt very different kind of a party back then. My parents were actively engaged in the party. They forced me to walk precincts when I was eight years old and I probably never stopped. I was in it for the doughnuts, but my parents were in it for the sense of civic closeness and engagement that I think made them feel more connected to community. Even though I grew up in a Democrat family, my parents had very good friends who were Republicans and it was completely the norm that we had Democrat friends and Republican friends. I guess I’ve lived a life where connection and community cross lots of boundaries and I know it’s possible. I think we can get back to that place. Let me stop there and hand it back to you, Kristen.
Kristen Cambell: Man, first time today. Thank you so much, Wendy. Ted, how about you? What are you talking about? What are you not talking about when you talk about bridging and what leads you to believe that it’s possible?
Ted Johnson: Thanks, Kristen. It’s good to see all three of you and good to be here with all of you. I’ve been thinking about these questions and it seems like every time I think through my answers, they change just a little bit from where they were the last time I thought through my answers. So we’ll just see what comes out when I start talking here.
The biggest thing, what I am talking about is empathy. I really believe that empathy is a precursor to bridging, but it’s an empathy that does not require my validation of someone else’s views or my co-signing of those views, but my understanding that they had a different perspective and that alone is worth engaging, assuming that we all come to the conversation in good faith. One of the ways I try to create empathy with strangers, which is not easy to do, is by telling stories, either person stories or historical vignettes, or try to create a human person connection with people before you start talking about the more divisive issues of racism or sexism or classes or the more technocratic issues around how to solve policy problems for specific sets of issues. It’s just been my experience that when you lead with stories, when you lead with empathy, when you lead with the human factor, you’re more likely to have productive conversations later than if you identify the places of difference upfront and try to interrogate those differences, my sense of it is that people often retrench to their positions so as not to proven wrong in the debate.
Another part of this is you have to get people permission to come to the conversation and also mandate they be met with grace. This is to say that there are a lots of conversations that people would love to have across difference. Again, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., but a lot of times the vocabulary in these circles around these conversations change or are so very specific that if you don’t arrive with the right jargon or the right vocabulary, you can identify yourself as an outsider or someone that’s sort of not aligned with the broader movement, and that can put you on the defensive. When we invite people into these conversations, we have to lead with grace to allow people to feel comfortable coming to these conversations as a place to learn and draw connections and not as a place to be proven right or wrong.
The biggest thing here is vulnerability and we have a—I think it’s a natural instinct to not want to be vulnerable with people we don’t know, with democratic strangers, and so I think empathy and storytelling and grace allows people to be more earnest and honest with how they feel or how they see an issue, and that creates the space to build bridges much more so than, again, a more technocratic or issue-focused approach. Those are the things I’m talking about and what I am not talking about is winning. I’m not talking about being right. I’m not talking about wanting people to see the world the way I see it so that I can get my way. I am happy to be influenced or to be convinced of the fact that the way I am viewing the world isn’t completely accurate and maybe there’s a better way to do something. This is not about building a bridge to my position and helping you walk across that bridge, but rather building bridges to connect to one another so that we meet in the middle of it and then we see where we go from there.
The second question about what I think makes it possible, Wendy was absolutely right, my experience in the military. I have people, I have friends that I’ve served with, deployed with, put the uniform on with, flew the flag with, etc., etc., some to the right of me who think CNN is fake news, who think the election has some questions that need to be answered, who think Hunter Biden’s laptop is more important than what Donald Trump might have been doing on January 6th, and people to the left of me who think that even though they served in the military, think that institutions in the United States are structurally racist, some who think that the nation may be irredeemably racist, and all of these folks, when someone gets a promotion or when someone has an achievement or shared something about their children on Facebook, we put aside these aspects of how we see the world and appreciate one another and engage one another respectfully. It just occurs to me that we put on the uniform to fight for very different Americas during our time, and we did that standing shoulder to shoulder. There’s a beauty in that and there’s also an open question about what sort of nation we hope to form together and leave for our kids and perhaps we have very different visions of this but the idea that we can put those differences aside even if temporarily, to fight for the country or to recognize each other personally gives me some hope that bridging is possible and again, we may not arrive with the same shared vision but if we can respect one another’s humanity, whatever version of this we arrive at will be one where we can all thrive a little bit more than the current version of our nation that’s quite polarized.
Kristen Cambell: Thanks so much, Ted. Your comments made me think about this tweet that I saw the other day from Adam Grant. He says the highest compliment from someone who disagreed with you is not you were right. It’s you made me think. Good arguments help us recognize complexity where we once saw simplicity.
It also makes me think of our friends at the Better Arguments Project who have—their whole premise is we don’t need less arguments, we need less stupid arguments. We need better arguments, and one of their very first principles is to take winning off the table. To the degree we think about these things as win/lose, for you to win I have to lose, we’re setting somebody up to fail and we’re not creating a bigger we or a sense where everyone can belong, we’re operating in a scarcity mindset. In our last conversation on this we talked a lot about abundance mindset so that’s an important thing to think about.
Andy, over to you. What are you talking about? What are you not? Why you think it’s possible.
Andy Hanauer: Thanks, Kristen, so much for having me, and Wendy and Ted, great to see you. I love what you said especially being in it for the donuts. I’m definitely in it for the donuts.
My name’s Andy and I am the CEO of the One America Movement. I’m coming to you from a WeWork in San Francisco. It’s really weird to be in a WeWork after just finishing the WeWork show on Apple TV. I don’t know if anyone else saw that but I keep looking for Jared Leto to walk by but he’s not anywhere to be seen.
I also want to just say—I want to talk about bridging. It’s really profoundly bizarre to be speaking to a group of strangers who I’ve never met and I can’t see anyone’s face, and so it’s just a bizarre—hi, Abigail, thanks so much. Hey, Sam. It’s a bizarre world we live in that such things happen so I’m looking forward to the conversation.
I guess I’ll take a quick shot at the difference between polarization and toxic polarization because that came up but first, I’ll say my answer to the second question is that everything in my life experience tells me that bridging is possible. I grew up in a secular Jewish home in Berkeley, California. My parents were activists. My wife grew up in Lincoln, Arkansas, which is, despite the name, not a northern bastion inside Arkansas. It’s very much a small rural town in Arkansas in a Southern Baptist family. I became a Christian in college. Her family does not vote the same way my family does, and certainly does not believe the same things about religion, and here we are raising kids who go to church on Sundays and makes matzo ball soup on Fridays.
To me the difference between polarization and toxic polarization is the difference between anger and contempt. When you’re angry at someone, you’re angry because you need them to be better. You care about them and you want and need them to be better. I know I think about our country, I feel a lot of anger and I’m sure a lot of other people who experience less privilege and less luxury than I have feel that anger much more so but anger assumes that you’re still in relationship and that you see a path forward, and that you need there to be a path forward. When you experience anger in a marriage, you are experiencing it because you love the person you’re married to and you want them to be better.
Contempt is when you’ve given up on someone. You believe they are beyond redemption. For me spiritually, I don’t believe that anyone is beyond redemption and that’s not always a popular belief but it’s something that I think animates for me why I do this work but when you feel contempt your brain kicks into different gear. You start to see the world differently.
As a country toxic polarization kicks into gear a whole matrix through which we view everything. It makes us less inquisitive about the world. It makes us frankly stupider about how we have arguments. It makes us less able to see things that should be obvious to us if we were able to look at them from an objective perspective. It makes us feel more contempt, more anger, more hopelessness. It makes us actually less able to accomplish our policy and justice goals.
Toxic polarization is not about getting everyone to be less angry and get along better. Fighting toxic polarization is about keeping us in a mindset where we are wanting our country to be better and demanding that it earn that but not giving up on millions of people that we’ve never met. So that’s what I think about in terms of the difference between polarization and toxic polarization. A lot more I could sort of go into there but I’ll leave it there. It’s really good to be with you all, really excited for the conversation.
Kristen Cambell: I just put a link in the chat—Andy, I hope I put the right one—of a speech that Andy gave at one of the largest megachurches in the country around what toxic polarization is and is not so I commend that to you in addition to a number of other resources that I know are available on the app.
Real quick, because we did the airing of conceptions in the poll, it was good in many ways to see the high response rate to the conceptions that had positive valence but I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that there was one of the more negative valence ones or skeptical valence ones that a third of people on this call said working with somebody with problematic views risks legitimizing or normalizing their bad behavior.
Anybody want to respond to that because that’s a real concern, and that’s a fair concern? Anybody want to respond to that or anything else from the poll that you either want to affirm or maybe pre-bunk before we go into the rest of the discussion? Andy?
Andy Hanauer: I was making the “Does anyone else want to take it?” gesture, but I’ll go if no one else wants to.
Ted Johnson: I always have thoughts on this. To the second question about what sort of stood out to me, one was that the cause of this polarization seemed to be three things: Conservative elites, liberal elites, and the media, which reads to me like it’s the parties’ fault and it’s the media’s fault that we are as polarized as we are. I don’t think that that’s wrong but what I do think is missing from that is those elites are trying to convince someone and they’re doing so successfully, and that media is selling ad space because those programs are being watched by someone, and the ones that seem to be the most sensational or the most polarizing seem to be doing the best.
So this reminds me of the poll that says Americans have a very low opinion of Congress but we love our congressperson. We always send the same person back to Congress but it’s everyone else that we don’t like. Similarly, polarization is this problem that is definitely driven or at least leveraged, exploited by elites in the media but there’s the we factor in this. There’s an incentive structure that allows for parties to behave the way they do and media to behave the way they do, and I’m grappling with how we can undo the incentives that lead us toward more polarization and replace it with something that’s more unifying. And then very quickly to the first part, I just lost my thought.
Kristen Cambell: Legitimizing…
Ted Johnson: Oh, yeah, legitimizing, right. So this is a personal approach to this. I don’t require convictions of the heart to try to arrive at good solutions to tough problems. I literally in a 36-hour span met with Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin, and Cory Booker to talk about federal prison reform, and the next day went to the White House to meet with Jared Kushner to talk about prison reform in order to get the First Step Act that Donald Trump signed in 2019. I wasn’t in the White House trying to convince of the racial justice issue that mass incarceration presents because the motivations for why they were in the room were less important to me than trying to find common ground so that we can help people get out of prison who do not deserve to be there. This can feel icky at times. Again, I know people who think that if Black people just work harder, racism wouldn’t be a problem for them. I know people who think that the election—the questionable election activities in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Atlanta deserve more scrutiny than maybe where actual election fraud has occurred in like rural North Carolina and some other places, and if I required them to confront the racialized facts that undergird their views, maybe we never get a First Step Act or maybe we never find common ground around voting so I see it as the work of bridge builders to find ways to find common ground without requiring convictions of the heart, and I don’t have a good way of suggesting how to do that but I do think it’s necessary.
Kristen Cambell: I appreciate that, Ted, because one of the things that often comes up especially when thinking about are we risking normalizing bad or dangerous beliefs is maybe there is a risk to that but what’s the risk to not doing it as well, and who decides I think is an important question.
We are already running lower on time than I thought that we would at this point which is just because everybody is so brilliant and I could listen to you talk all day. I’d love to talk about real specific concrete examples of a time that you saw people come together across a line of difference, what they were able to solve or not solve for that matter.
I’d love for you to touch on the role of philanthropy, how philanthropy helped make that possible or frankly was a roadblock to that in some ways, and what were the risks of trying, what were the risks of not trying. Can you touch on some of these questions in some stories? Andy, let’s start with you and then let’s go to Wendy.
Andy Hanauer: Absolutely, Kristen, thanks. An example I’ll use is the work we did in Charlottesville, Virginia, about six months after the White supremacist rally. We went to Charlottesville and started talking to faith leaders and trying to understand what is it that they actually felt about the divisions in their community rather than show up and use Charlottesville as a prop for us to do some big national thing that wasn’t rooted at all in the community. So what faith leaders told us was that the Nazis were one thing. The division that they were experiencing in their community was actually between progressive, multifaith communities, congregations, and the sort of White evangelical congregations that had not showed up in large numbers or at all in some cases at the counter protests. A lot of those evangelical leaders had said things like, well, we also are against Nazis. We think that by showing up we are helping Nazis because what they want is a big fight and what they want is for everyone to show up on TV fighting each other, right? This was sort of the divide. One side said “Where were you?” and the other side said “You’re basically accusing us of being as bad as those people when we actually oppose those people actively, we just do it in a different way.”
So we started doing relationships between those communities, and I think a story that I tell that I think is a good example here is an evangelical pastor and a young progressive rabbi, and the rabbi said to the pastor, I saw a sign among the White supremacists in Charlottesville that showed a bunch of scripture and said Jews are the devil or something to that effect, and how do you as an evangelical going to do something about that? The pastor sort of said to her, that’s not my person. I don’t know that person. That person’s not really a Christian. That person’s just a hateful bigot who has nothing to do with my faith. And then they sat with that for a while but because they were in relationship, he didn’t get to just leave it there, right? She continued to bring it up to him and eventually he said, you know, you’re right. It’s not fair for me to just walk away from that, pretend that I have no responsibility to that so he actually wrote a sermon about what the Bible, what the gospels especially say about antisemitism and what the obligation is of Christians to speak out against antisemitism. He did that not just because she made a good point. He did that because they had a relationship where they actually cared about each other, and he felt accountable to her as a person. He felt like what was hurting her, especially after everything she’d gone through as a Jewish person in Charlottesville, what was hurting her hurt him, and that’s an example where I feel you can see the combination of accountability and relationship put together.
Wendy Feliz: Thanks for that example, Andy. I love hearing stories of your work. I gave this a lot of thought and I was struggling, it’s like where are the solutions, and Ted gave a great example with the First Step Act.
I do think about the last time we passed comprehensive immigration reform, and it was a Republican president who signed that bill so we know that bipartisanship still matters, it’s just harder and harder to find that. The federal problem-solving examples, it’s a lot harder to find than we’d like so my mind really went to local examples of people doing things locally, just like what Andy said, because we hear animus and frustration very broadly when you talk about certain groups of people but it’s locally where people are solving problems all the time, every day, all day long.
So even though we can get bogged down and depressed about the polarization which we do, we have to remember people are solving stuff. Just the other day I was talking to a friend who is a service provider in Joplin, Missouri, and if you know Joplin, Missouri, it’s the Bible belt. They even call it the belt buckle of the Bible belt. It is as red of a state as you can get, and people are falling over themselves to support 25 Afghan families who have moved into the community. Everyone has a job. Everyone has housing, not temporary housing, housing. Most have cars. So it’s very different when people are right in front of you, and I know—I guess it was Aristotle—you’re going to have to correct me, Ted—that said the city state is easier to manage than the nation state. It just is. This is a big country with lots of problems, and so I do think having a whole lot of local problem solvers is really the way to go, and so many people are doing that, the weavers.
We’re looking for those people. The people are going to solve all of these division issues but also the community-based problems together, and I think where philanthropy comes in is—it’s funny because you have the community-based foundations that will fund the local work, and then you have these big national organizations that often won’t because you don’t want to make $5,000- or $10,000-dollar grants. That’s a lot of work. You want to make bigger grants. But I think you can really think of groups like Andy’s, groups like mine as ways to do subgranting where you give us all your money, OK, that’s the plan. I’m kidding. You make grants to us and then we do the work to make the 5-, 10-, 20-, 30-thousand-dollar hyperlocal pilot grants where you are testing strategies that start solving local problems locally that are very intersectional, that are bringing lots of community together. You figure out what works and what works well and under what conditions, and then you start to scale that up.
I think that could help but I do know that philanthropy gets in a bind when they think of themselves as national funders versus local funders, But I really think the brilliance, even on immigration, the only good policy is happening in the states. The only good integration work is happening locally, and so I just think maybe all of us need to just brainstorm about how we get money to the local people to do the work that that can really have immediate impact on people’s lives.
Kristen Cambell: I appreciate you raising that, Wendy, because I think there has been a big movement towards intermediary funding and pooled funding recently. That’s one reason that PACE embraced our philanthropic laboratory orientation, was kind of this question of how can we be better R&D partners for funders in some ways so we can talk about that later if there’s time.
I have two questions that I’m going to combine together, and then I want to open it up. They both really drill down on philanthropy, and the thing that I need the funders on this call to know is I asked each of my three friends here to be spicy, to be a little provocative, and to be a little counter normative in their responses to really help us challenge our thinking.
So my two questions that I’m going to combine together, one is that collective impact work tries really hard to create flat power dynamics and flat decision-making structures, and funders are often seen as having a lot of power. What are some of the ways that—“conventional ways”—using scare quotes—the conventional ways of thinking about philanthropy and power that you might want to challenge or upend in some ways. That’s question one.
Question two is what are ways that funders make your work harder than it already is or that it already needs to be? Again, reminder to everyone, I asked them to be provocative and challenge us so you can come for me if you have problems. Who wants to start?
Andy Hanauer: Ted does.
Ted Johnson: You know actually this may be the area where I have the least amount to offer mostly because, one, I spent over 20 years of my life in the military and funders—that was one issue the military has never had a problem with thanks to the taxpayer, and I’m new to the nonprofit world so I’m just learning my way around philanthropy. But let me give one answer that maybe answers both questions.
One of the biggest issues around this kind of work is how to measure success, how to measure impact, and a lot of times when dollars are connected to outcomes, I can’t show outcomes in the same way I could if it’s passing a bill or I had concrete or discreet kind of deliverables to show. I can’t say that people are 10 percent more open to bridge building or that relationships are 13 percent stronger this week or this month than they were six months ago but that progress is happening, and it matters but I can’t show you this. So the funders will need to be comfortable with ambiguity when they give money to people or organizations that are doing the bridge-building work.
There are times when I have been in rooms where I know that the only reason I’m in that room is because I’m Black or because I’m a veteran or because of both, and I can’t measure the impact of me being in the room but I know for certain that my voice in that room made a difference on the conversation in that room and hopefully on people’s takeaways from that conversation. Putting that into a proposal, putting that into a sort of end-of-year roundup of what we did with your money, extremely difficult. So maybe I’ll stop there and just say metrics and how to measure progress in this area is very, very difficult.
Wendy Feliz: How about I go next so that Andy can clean up afterwards and say, “I think what Wendy meant to say was—“and then he’ll clean up any damage I do. No, I’m not going to do too much damage.
Look, I think funders fall victim to the same thing almost everybody does which is we want immediate gratification, right? You want to see impact and you want to see it quickly, and I do too. We all have that same interest in mind. We’re trying to get to a certain place. That’s why you fund me, I share your vision, and the reality is that a lot of this depolarization work, bridge-building work, it is still in a lot of ways experimental. We’re still trying to figure it out and so you have to sort of take the leap of faith a bit with us and make the investment, and obviously you want to make sure people are thinking smartly and strategically about how they’re taking those risks but just assume that this is not—we’re not trying to pass a bill. We’re trying to reduce the temperature in the way we treat each other which is a little trickier to measure. So that’s all I’ll say on that.
The only challenge I’ll make to the flat model which is sort of funny that I had this immediate response is that so in the immigrant rights movement, we’ve channeled millions of dollars over the last 20 years, I mean tens of millions of dollars, maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of passing comprehensive immigration reform, and we haven’t. Nothing has passed since 1986 that is really big and really does solve the problem of legalizing most of the undocumented population, and we’re all over the place. We’re going in this direction, some people prioritizing one thing over the other. It’s not a secret but internally there’s been discussions over the years like why can’t our funders tell us what to do, right? Like the funders that came in and said we have a strategy on the Defense of Marriage Act, and if you want money, you’re going to have to get behind this. There were people who criticized the Defense of Marriage Act as the approach, right? It’s heteronormative. We don’t want marriage. Who cares? But they said that that’s not the point. The point is if we get DOMA, it’s a really important flag to stick in the ground, really normalizing kind of right to gain for the community.
So anyway, it passed as you guys know. That’s ancient history but I do think sometimes we wish the funders could herd us a little bit because we are all over the place. Sometimes we even work at odds, you know, in our community. Sometimes we turn into a circular firing squad. You pick the cliché but it does feel like there are moments in time where it might be OK to have a little bit of a top-down approach. We said that to our funders and they said we’re not interested. We don’t want to have that kind of a relationship with you guys, and I get that too but I do wonder how do we get organized around a North Star and a strategy to get there because right now I would say in many, many ways we are lost, and I don’t see a very hopeful decade ahead on immigration policy. All right, Andy, clean that up for me.
Andy Hanauer: What Wendy meant to say—no, I’m just kidding. Thanks, Kristen, for the question. I think the thing I would want to say about this topic is we spend a lot of time investing in projects and campaigns and initiatives and programs, and I think we need to invest in people. When I think about that, I think about a couple things.
First of all, everything that I’m doing as CEO of this organization, everything that we’re trying to build is dependent in part of the infrastructure that we build around the amazing people that we’re serving and employing. I can’t compete salary-wise with larger nonprofits. I certainly can’t compete with the corporate sector but I also can’t compete with philanthropy, right? And my jobs end up on the same job board as your jobs, and your jobs pay better. So if you’re going to invest your money in my organization because you believe in what we’re trying to do, we have to also have investment to compete to retain and attract the talent, like we just do. How else are we going to do what we’re trying to do? That rabbi in Charlottesville now works for us full time. If I was going to count the number of young progressive female rabbis in the United States who are able to do the work that she does, who have experienced what she experienced, and who have converted that experience into genuinely devoting herself to the work of reducing division in the country, that number is less than five for sure, right? So how do we invest in her? How do I pay her a salary that competes with synagogues that have resources or with philanthropy or with larger nonprofits?
So all that is to say when I look at the evangelical side of the work that we do, the same problem exists. Pastors are quitting like crazy. They’re quitting because they’re dealing with the very same dynamics, disinformation, conspiracy theories, people getting their worldviews from social media, that we’re trying to solve, and if they quit, a lot of what we’re trying to do is going to be less successful because the very leaders who most have the ability to speak out to their own people when they see them going the wrong direction are going to be gone.
So how do we invest in them, right? So what I would say is let’s not be so focused on a program, on a project. We have to invest in people who are actually doing the work if we’re going to be successful.
Kristen Cambell: Thank you to you all for jumping into the brave space of that question. I have a million more questions but I wanted to make sure that we have time to open it up. Does anyone on the call either want to raise your digital hand or just unmute yourself and voice a question for the group?
Emily: Thanks. Hi, everyone. My name’s Emily. I’m located in Oregon, and in our last session we were talking about how folks who are closest to the problem understand the problem best, and as philanthropists how can we be kind of like bringing those folks to the table and co-creating solutions with them. I’m curious if any of you can talk a little bit about the role of trauma and harm reduction by bringing folks to a table that do have those very opposing polarized views and the harm that comes from that, and trying to—I’m just thinking a lot about like is that a safe place for certain individuals to come into together, and how do we as philanthropists create that? That’s what I got.
Kristen Cambell: Great question. Who wants to take that? Trauma and healing as a precondition to be able to sit in places with people who are different than you and whether or not it’s them whose communities might have caused you that harm and trauma.
Wendy Feliz: I’ll take a little—I’ll bite a little piece of that off. Emily, thank you for that question. I think that it’s true that you need people with lived experiences to be at the table with you for creating solutions. I couldn’t agree with that more. I think there are some people who are more ready to have those conversations from a place of where they’ve healed a bit and are able to sort of have a productive conversation that everybody can hear and listen to.
Sometimes the group of us here will joke because I’ll talk to a lot of my immigration reform advocates saying we need to sit down with the other side or people that don’t totally see the world the way we do, and they jump exactly to the, oh, you want me to have tea with a Nazi. I’m like, no, no, no, no, that’s for the more experienced people among us, right? That doesn’t have to be the first step for you so I think we go to extremes when someone suggests bridging. People accuse me of coddling our oppressors, of selling out, of, you know, there’s lots of things but I think that is coming from a place of frustration, of exhaustion.
After four years of the Trump administration, I think a lot of immigration reform advocates are in a deep place of pain and anger, and they don’t feel like the progress has been particularly fast enough under the Biden administration. So I just think—I’m a strategic communications people. There’s certain people you send into certain circles, different messengers, and different messages, and different people prepared to have conversations, and we’re not all prepared to have the same conversations in the same way so I just think it’s—I think that there’s lots of people that can come in and talk about the trauma that was caused by Trump, by four years of Trump but in a really pragmatic way of how we move through that and forward on a new path, and I think it’s just, yeah. That’s what I would have.
Andy Hanauer: Yeah, I would—Emily, thanks for the question. First of all, I think funders should demand that groups like ours have an answer to that question, right? I mean that’s a no-brainer to me but actually it’s not because when I started, I didn’t get it, right? So when we first started the work, we would put out newsletters and things that said things like Americans should do X, Y, Z, and there’s no should necessarily. I think that people are in very different places in terms of how they want to engage people who are different from them, especially when those dynamics are present, and so we stopped saying should.
I also think a lot of the work of depolarization is not actually about bringing people who are different into the same room. We do a lot of work inside of groups. We work with evangelical pastors who may never engage with Muslim or Jewish communities to do the work inside their churches, and that work I think is often overlooked. You can’t put that on StoryCorps so much as you can put the alt-right person who hung out with Antifa. Put them in a phone booth, you have a story, right? But this is different so I think funders should hold groups like ours accountable for that because if we don’t have an answer for that, I think we are not doing our job.
Kristen Cambell: Ted, you want to jump in on this one?
Ted Johnson: I don’t have too much to add actually. I agree with everything that Wendy and Andy have said. I guess if there was one thing, and I’m going to say this inartfully so I’m sorry if it comes out a little rough but we also have to be sure to like—some folks will be ready, to Wendy’s point, to engage. Mothers of the Movement is one that stands out to me, women who have lost children to police gun violence, and Lucy McBath is now a member of Congress. She turned trauma into service but we also have to be careful not to tokenize the trauma by putting someone with a particular lived experience in the room isn’t a trump card for showing you why your policy is right or why your organization is closer to the issue than others, and yet we should have that experience in the room but how we use—when we have people with lived experiences in the conversation with us, we have to see them as part of the conversation and not like an exhibit for a conversation. Maybe I’ll stop there but I think that distinction is important.
Kristen Cambell: This was not unartful at all. Your inartful statements are still better than most of my intentionally artful statements so thanks for that, Ted. Other questions? Yeah, Micah. Please introduce yourself.
Micah: I am Micah and I’m with the Wyoming Community Foundation. This conversation has made me think about a lot of things that have happened here in Wyoming, and I just wonder how much or in any do you put toward working with youth. Sometimes I think that working with adults at this point can be more of a—more barriers from that side than working with our youth, and if you all have kind of taken that step to try to get civility started with our younger generation. That’s it.
Kristen Cambell: Who wants to take that? Are we more hopeful with young people?
Andy Hanauer: I’ll go quickly, yeah. I think my nine-year-old has more chance of fighting this than my dad, I’ll say that. I think for us one of the things that we’re doing is building out curriculum for youth groups and congregations to understand how social media radicalizes and pushes them towards extreme views.
For us that’s really critical because I think the impact of social media is just beyond what I think we even understand, and so giving them tools for that has been really critical but, yeah, in our work with churches we see generations—the whole spectrum of generations, and so we see a lot more potential with younger folks than with older in some cases but I know there’s a great group called Bridge USA that works on college campuses.
There’s another group called the American Exchange Project that brings high school students together from different parts of the country, taking kids from Boston to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and would highly recommend both of those groups as well. I know there’s a lot of initiatives out there. For us, we’re focused on faith so for us it’s youth groups, those sorts of things.
Wendy Feliz: I’ll just say really quickly, we think of young people as the untapped who can help us reach the unsure. So often children can be really good bridges to their parents, sharing their new world views, sharing their experiences so, yes, 100 percent. I’m also trying to make a point now when I’m sitting in rooms and we’re talking about, you know, the future of democracy, and the future of America, and what kind of world are we going to have in 20 years, and I look around the room and nobody is under the age of 30 most of the time so I am starting to at least point that out to everybody. It’s like you guys, we’re all going to be dead, and it’s them we’re leaving it for, and the future is theirs and so—also I’ll just say I have a 24-year-old son. While I do see lots of young people very engaged, I also do see that they see the world in a very different way. There’s just a different level of despair and frustration that I don’t have, and so I worry. I do worry about their apathy and just total frustration with what we’ve done and what we’ve left behind so, yeah, really thinking a lot about how we bring them more into the conversation. They are the ones we’ve traumatized.
Ted Johnson: Absolutely. I mean one of the things we are starting to work on at the Brennan Center is what we’re calling intergenerational civic learning, and that’s exactly what Wendy just said, the ways that engaging across generations can be civic learning functions for both young people and older folks both in how to engage, how to argue and disagree but also in how to respect the viewpoints of other folks you may disagree with, and then secondly also, something Wendy mentioned. Young folks tend to be very dissatisfied with the world around them but that—whereas when adults are that way, it makes us angry or disengaged.
Actually that anger is a kind of enthusiasm. It gives them energy. If you look at all of the civil rights movements, suffragists, these were all young people. These weren’t like 60-year-olds trying to break something that they grew up in. These were young folks that were disgusted with what was happening, and they were engaged and curious, and they were the ones that led the transformational changes for our nation certainly in the 20th century. So the question is how can we harness that energy, that curiosity to make changes in institutions that have little interest in being told what to do by young people. I think that’s where we sort of in the middle can be translators of that energy and action into institutional reform.
Kristen Cambell: That makes me think about your point around civil rights movements and so many other movements really being movements of young people. We often think about the founding fathers as, you know, old, white-haired men but Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he started writing the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison was 36 when he started drafting the Constitution. Those were radical things at the time. They’re still radical in many ways. The fact that we have the longest standing Constitution in the world is a pretty radical concept even though they are certainly not perfect documents, they invite us into a more perfect union.
It also makes me think about the book, New Power, Henry Timms and Asha Curran, and they talk about this kind of new power which is decentralized power, very community based, community organizing, citizen led in many ways as contrasted to old power which is more ivory tower, institutional, top down. A couple of points that they make that I think are super important, one is that new power is not always good. It’s also how people get radicalized. Two, new power still needs old power to create change so all of the movements for certain legislation, whether it’s March for Our Lives or March for Life, they still need an old power institution to pass the legislative reforms that they’re advocating for, and so it’s a very both/and thing that’s important to think about them in concert with each other.
More questions? I think somebody is on mute and wants to jump in. All right, then I will move us towards—because I’m going to throw in a surprise question at the end, and Ted, it’s for you so I’m going to put you on notice but as we start to close out, what is a resource? You all are resources to me. I mentioned at the top of the call you are three of the very first people that I pick up the phone to call when I say I have a question, help me understand, help me learn. I’m sorry for being some extractive of you but what or who are the resources that you draw on, that you would commend to people on this call who might be interested in learning more about this topic, whether it’s a person, a book, a podcast, and TED talk, what would you suggest the people check out if they want to go deeper into some of the themes of today’s conversation?
Andy Hanauer: I’ll go first. I think it be hilarious if we just did a circle and I said you should listen to Wendy, and Wendy said you should listen to Ted, you know. If you want to read something about this that is really good and is not boring, I would recommend the book, High Conflict, by Amanda Ripley. She’s a brilliant, brilliant person, and the book is all about—high conflict is her word for toxic polarization so good conflict versus high conflict, and it’s got some great stories that illustrate how high conflict hijacks our brains and our societies and fuels all sorts of bad things, and how we can do things differently.
Kristen Cambell: And how high conflict is a system, not a feeling which is really important. I also commend that one. We put some resources in the platform—is that the right word? Hopefully Dulcy or Cindy or somebody can help us put those in the chat too. In Whova, Jennifer says. All right, who wants to go next? Wendy?
Wendy Feliz: I’ll go so you can ask Ted his surprise question. I’m going to put it in here. I mean, yes, I call Ted. I do. I’ll be like, you have to talk to me. My brain is going to blow up. You have to help me organize my thinking so it is true. And, Andy, every time you talk, I learn something new but really specifically on this issue of toxic polarization, there’s this book called The Other Divide and it’s by Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan. Why I think this is an important book to read is because it really does talk about, yes, polarization is a real thing but it is being so lifted up by the elites, really smart people with good educations at elite institutions which is we’re doing it because we are worried about democracy. We are worried about the state of our polity. Yes, we are reasonably worried but we risk falling into this really vicious cycle where we have everyone convinced we can no longer figure anything out. We can no longer talk. This country no longer works, and we don’t want to create this vicious cycle where we’ve convinced everyone all is lost because as I said earlier, people are fixing things all the time, every day, and it’s usually in their local communities so I want us to keep having this conversation but with an eye towards we can fix this. We can move forward as a country. We can do it. Let’s not run around with our hair on fire all the time because then I actually think that can become a really negative loop for us and for the country.
Ted Johnson: Yeah, and so I basically read anything from Danielle Allen that I can get my hands on, either books or listen to her speak. It’s not for any one particular set of ideas. Just her way of thinking about issues and framing those in a way that still leans into a very strong prodemocracy sort of arena. I get lots of inspiration from her. Another source is the book, Uncivil Agreement, by Lilliana Mason. What she basically talked about is how, she calls them mega-identities, but whereas we used to be able to have more of a chance to be diverse ideologically within ourselves, that the politics and this hyper partisanship has caused these identities to collapse so that we are basically divided into two identities, Republican, Democrat, crudely, and double down on defending these identities so as not to cause an identity crisis in ourselves but the doubling down on these mega-identities makes it impossible to find compromise, and makes it too easy to see the other side as an enemy, even an existential threat instead of a side to be negotiated with. So the Lilliana Mason book reminds me of the depths of the challenges, and Danielle Allen gives me some hope that those challenges can be overcome.
Kristen Cambell: All right, I didn’t want to ask this question earlier because it’s a total mic drop, and nobody would be able to say anything afterwards. Ted, can you send us off on a high note, and can you please tell us the story of your name?
Ted Johnson: Oh, yes, OK, that I can do. I thought I was going to have to come up with something smart. So you see my name here is Ted Johnson. It’s short for Theodore Roosevelt Johnson, III, and this is a name I obviously share with my father and my grandfather. I carry the name because my great grandparents, sharecroppers and the Jim Crowists of South Carolina in the early 20th century decided to name their third son after Teddy Roosevelt because Teddy Roosevelt, after becoming president following McKinley’s assassination in 1901, invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner.
This was the first time ever a Black man had been invited to the White House in a way that implied social equity. Frederick Douglas certainly showed up to talk to Lincoln but usually through the back door and left through the back door. Washington waited for the first family in the blue room and then dined in the East Room, I think it was with the first family so Roosevelt could talk politics with them. Whereas Booker T. Washington, probably the most famous Black man in America at the time, renowned civil rights activist, educator, but my great grandparents didn’t name my grandfather after Booker T. but after Teddy Roosevelt, not just in honor of the dinner but also like a declaration that there’s nothing ridiculous about this sharecropping Black family in South Carolina being named after—naming their son after a rich, White, New Yorker, Republican who was president. They actually saw the dinner as representing the promise of the country, and basically made a stake on that promise, staked a claim on that promise by naming their son after the president.
So that was passed on to my father, passed on to me, and in a scene that probably my great grandparents, maybe they dreamed about but probably never thought would actually happen, in 2011 we had a Black president, and I was a White House Fellow. I was in the military and got to tell Obama about my great grandparents and my grandfather and our name in the Oval Office, sort of bringing the story of America, the story of my family, the promise of it full circle in just 110 years from the date of the dinner. So whenever I lose hope in our country, I remember the faces of those who came before us who faced much more dire consequences than we’re facing now and somehow managed to wake up with some optimism, some faith, and fight for a better tomorrow for us. That’s where I grabbed my name from.
Kristen Cambell: You can see why I end with that story because there’s nothing that you can possibly say after that except for thank you. Thank you for sharing that, Ted. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. Wendy and Andy, thank you. Thank you to Cindy and Jennifer and the entire team for the opportunity to be with you all. I hope that all of you will put your contact information in the chat so that people can reach out to you to continue the conversation and to find ways to collaborate on further collective impact efforts. So thank you all so much for the gift of your time and your witness and your experience with us.