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National Week of Conversation: Historic Movement Shatters Partisan Barriers

Created: 30 April, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
8 min read

Did you participate in the National Week of Conversation?

The Bridge Alliance, along with 100 sponsoring organizations, community organizers, elected officials, and more, held hundreds of events -- public, online, and private -- in cities across the country from April 20-28 with one goal in mind: Put partisan bickering aside, mend divides, and have meaningful conversations about the biggest issues facing the country.

It was a historic event that followed a tumultuous year of political and social activism -- some of which turned violent, harming and even killing people.

The groups behind the National Week of Conversations believe now is the time for mending political and ideological divides -- even if that means doing it one conversation at a time.

"I am grateful that there are tens of thousands of people out there who understand that our non-violent path forward is through connection and with each other," said Bridge Alliance Co-Director Debilyn Molineaux, in an interview for IVN. "To me, this is the most important thing we can say to people right now."

ALSO READ: Lawmakers Join Powerful Coalition to Cure America’s Toxic Political Environment

Debilyn says she was encouraged by what she saw, but she also experienced first-hand some hard lessons on the path to healing America's social and political divisions.

A Time for Healing

One of the most striking things I took away from my conversation with Debilyn was her experience and reaction to a weekend of events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- specifically, this notion that we don't take time to grieve anymore and this alone is creating barriers between people not only across political divides, but within communities.

Many will remember the Unite the Right rally that took place in downtown Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, that erupted in violence and resulted in the deaths of one protester -- Heather Heyer -- and two troopers, who died in a helicopter crash.

The response in the media was quick. We heard a lot about the hate and the anger during the rally -- protesters clashing, violence spreading, people divided. Fingers were pointed and the blame game ensued.

Many wondered why a group of mostly white supremacists were allowed to gather for such a rally, while some turned the blame to agitators amongst those protesting the rally, focusing attention on groups like Antifa.

A city that had become ground zero to sociopolitical violence had turned into a political battleground for who to blame. Meanwhile, the citizens of Charlottesville became the collateral damage of it all.

To this day, the people of Charlottesville are still recovering from what happened in August, and Debilyn says their pain was felt at the NWOC events, particularly the Listen First event she attended and spoke at on April 21.

"There was a lot of internal tension in Charlottesville that we walked right in the middle of," said Debilyn.

"The are some people who are trying to move on, and put things in place, and improve the quality of life for the people of Charlottesville. And then there are people who are still traumatized, and in a process of healing or trying to heal. It didn't feel to me, though, that Charlottesville as a community has pulled together to go through the healing process together. It feels like they have been more embroiled in the blame game."

"They feel invaded and betrayed," she added.

Pearce Godwin, Founder of the Listen First Project and one of the principal organizers of the event, added:

"We were struck by the level of dishonest, vitriol that met our suggestion of conversations amongst a diversity of perspectives. Unfortunately, this idea was deeply threatening and alarming to some of Charlottesville’s self-described radical activists. Most conversation participants, especially the people of color under intense pressure to stay quiet and avoid sharing their voice in diverse conversation, stood strong.

Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed in the violence last summer, told me she spent all weekend when she wasn’t with us defending the value of conversation against attacks on Facebook.

She shared afterwards that many in town secretly want to know what happened and what was revealed in conversation, but pride and peer pressure kept them from showing up. Yet as Susan said, 'We can have hope, despite opposition. We can move to a place of healing, while we are still wounded and in despair. Healing does take time, but it also takes work. Great work was done this weekend.' I hope Susan is right.

The sad reality is that for many, the events of August 12 haven't concluded -- particularly for those who are dealing with injuries and the loss of life, as well as those who are still going through the criminal process.

Debilyn says one of the most poignant speeches at the Listen First event came from Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. She hit on the idea that we do not give people time to grieve anymore.

"We move so immediately to taking action that people who are still traumatized can't go with us," Debilyn remarked.

"Somehow in this country it has become unpopular to grieve, especially to grieve publicly. We are still in a period of grieving -- a lot of us are. Not just about what happened on August 12 in Charlottesville, but what happened in past elections or what happened recently in Toronto. We have all of this trauma happening and we don't really have a place to share and process it by pulling together. Instead of pulling us together, it ends up pulling us apart."

"Charlottesville, nor any other community, can heal and reconcile following tragedy if it remains divided against itself. Relationships and unity are not abstract platitudes, they are necessary conditions of moving a community forward together," says Pearce.

Our social infrastructure has collapsed as a result of people further alienating themselves from those around them. The point of the National Week of Conversation was to begin the process of rebuilding this social infrastructure so we can connect with each other once again.

Both Debilyn and Pearce agree there were plenty of positive things that came out of the week.

Shattering Barriers and Bridging Divides

From high school students in Boulder, talking guns and responsibility and connecting with other high schools throughout the country, to former party chairs talking race and politics, to workshops on how to discuss touchy political issues across political divides, the National Week of Conversation had no shortage of events nationwide.

The Common Ground Committee organized a discussion with former RNC Chair Michael Steele and former interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile. The two discussed the role government should play in bridging racial divides, and agreed on about 90 percent of what was discussed:

"A former DNC chair and a former RNC chair, both African American, discussing the role of government on race relations, and both agreed that the first thing we need to fix is redistricting," said Debilyn.

TableTalk Global held several events in honor of the National Week of Conversation. The TableTalk Penn Chapter, for instance, set up inflatable couches at the University of Pennsylvania where anyone passing by could stop, sit, and meet new people.

Sophie Beren of TableTalk Global shared a story from the event, during which a student from Haiti discussed the cultural differences she had with the other students sitting with her, and a cancer survivor discussed the strength she now has as a survivor.

A man living in rural southwest Wisconsin hosted a discussion in his home about guns and responsibility, which he says he was forced to limit participation for because of the huge interest in it. Those present developed a list of concerns and possible solutions that were categorized into 5 topics:

  • Gun Ownership
  • Gun Responsibility
  • Gun Safety
  • Guns and the Family
  • Gun Use by Law Enforcement

"It might surprise many urban colleagues to know that there was overwhelming support for a number of gun regulation concepts (more extensive background checks, limits on high capacity weapons, etc) among this weapon-toting crowd," said Dennis Boyer, the organizer of the event.

Leaders of three congressional civility caucuses came together and committed to working across the political aisle:


“For far too long we have allowed partisanship and political tribalism to erode civility within the halls of Congress,” said US Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, co-chair of the Civility Caucus. “While we may disagree on some issues, we can all agree that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. As members of Congress we have a duty to set an example for the American people and I look forward to working with the other caucuses in an effort to restore civility in Congress.”

National Institute for Civil Discourse Community Organizer Cheryl Graeve, who I previously spoke to about several elected officials, community organizers, and faith leaders getting involved in the National Week of Conversation, also participated in events organized by the League of Women Voters to discuss the best ways to bridge social and political divides.

"The League of Women Voters of Rochester, Minnesota are true civic leaders of courage and I really appreciated being with them and other citizens of Rochester, Minnesota to discuss ideas and concerns about how to improve the tone in 2018," Graeve told me.

These are just a handful of the many stories that came out of the National Week of Conversation, and they keep coming in.

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There is a clear hunger in America -- from the coasts to the nation's heartland -- to rebuild our social infrastructure and have real, nuanced conversations about the biggest issues facing our country -- from guns, to immigration, to health care, to the economy and jobs. People are tired of a partisan-driven narrative that targets people's anger and their fear, and keeps us divided.

And last week, tens of thousands of Americans did something about it.

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