Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

It’s Time To Make Room For Difference

The word politics has come to imply profound differences in beliefs, unresolved disagreements, and passionate people left feeling frustrated or apathetic. Conversations with folks outside our political ideologies have suddenly become burdensome and often avoided altogether for the sake of keeping relationships amicable.

As alternative breakers and active citizens, we know that we can (and must!) reframe conflict into an opportunity for growth rather than attempting to avoid a potentially negative interaction. (Interested? Chapter schools, join us next week to hear more about using conflict to build relationships.) With this shift in our viewpoint, we can come to understand that we need different approaches to the troubles of the world and we need to share ideas and opinions to find the best possible solutions. We’re bound to encounter components of debate within the practice of dialogue, but we need to practice using our differences productively to build stronger communities and a stronger nation.   

“The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose.” - Barack Obama

Every single person is of worth in this democracy. No feelings or experiences are invalid. And while each of us has something to contribute to the growth of a community - the hard part is decentering ourselves to acknowledge that other perspectives deserve a place at the table, as well. If we find ways to hear others’ stories (regardless of what their beliefs are), we may be quicker to come to a common understanding and move forward to create better solutions for all people.

So take a step back from that scary word “politics” and embrace the notion that if you are a person inhabiting a space, (guess what - we all are) then you have something to contribute and you have a vital role to play in your community. The next time you find yourself venturing into a dialogue based on difference, try to speak from your feelings and experience and find ways to ask the opposing voice to speak from their feelings and lived experience too. Decenter yourself, listen to understand, and practice patience in finding (or solace in not finding) a solution, together.

When Words Aren’t Enough

Well-respected and irrefutable active citizen, Nelson Mandela once shared, “Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely daydreaming, but vision with action can change the world.” Action following intent may not be a brand new concept, but it’s important to return to this foundation when moving forward feels like an impossible feat.

A vision is a powerful statement - words strung together that create something for us to grab onto, a dream we can get behind. This is, however, only half of the equation. We’ve spoken to the need for a vision in the past: a completely student-led program, a program culture - based on values of justice - influencing your campus, or reaching a fully inclusive society.

We’re no stranger to the potency of words and ideas. We are emboldened by historic speeches of past social movements. We are moved when we witness stories of those wise and weathered leaders and activists among us. We soak up words of advice given from mentors or role models. It’s true: language that gives rise to a vision carries power. But it’s also true that words can only take us so far.

Once you’ve established a vision, or a dream of what you hope to accomplish, there’s a need to act - sometimes urgently, sometimes slowly and deliberately. Regardless of pace, one without the other holds a threat of emptiness.

Constant action isn’t easy and can often be exhausting. Creating systems of structure and support can be helpful in order to succeed. For example, identify your top three daily objectives (ensuring they’re SMART, of course) and ask a friend to help hold you accountable, join a group that meets regularly to discuss and take informed action around community identified needs, or follow a national platform that will give you ideas for action to meet a vision established by a movement.

Achieving your vision requires articulating intended outcomes and acting accordingly. Whether you’re a leader or a member of a group or movement - silence and inaction is a luxury, vision and action is power.

In Times of Change, Embrace Each Other

The last couple of weeks brought our staff together in personal reflection and group conversation surrounding both the history, and the future of our country: Former President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address sparked conversation around the difficult, yet urgent, need for dialogue; Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminded us of the notion of Beloved Community - a society grounded in justice; and the Women’s March on Washington compelled us to be in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people who rallied and marched to defend the rights of marginalized identities.

Just as the 2017 namesake pays homage to the 1963 March on Washington, so too does their commitment to nonviolent resistance - reminding us that the concept of embracing others through an ethic of love isn’t anything new. In his essay, An Experiment in Love, Dr. King powerfully explains that nonviolence should never be mistaken for passivity. Rather, nonviolence is an active decision to center the principles of love and community. This recognition assures us that in the current state of our democracy, utter divisiveness and hateful rhetoric will only push us further apart, and prevent us from building a more inclusive and yes, “perfect union.”

Our vision of a society of active citizens falls parallel with MLK’s hope for Beloved Community - it acknowledges that while we have differences in beliefs, values, and action, we must practice patience, understanding, forgiveness - ultimately, uniting as one thriving and vibrant community. This vision includes - and demands - involvement from every single member of society.  

Watching Obama’s Farewell Address reminded us of acts of genuine community building that are often easy to dismiss:  

“For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles - whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds - surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions… And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

For us to achieve the Beloved Community, we need to consider the lives of others (all others), and not just folks who look or think like we do. It’s a tiresome role, but our history of civil rights and the teachings of nonviolence has illuminated a particular truth: we need to be the ones to take the first step toward reconciliation and avoid condemnation.

In times of uncertainty, we must challenge ourselves not to cling deeper into the safety of own echo chambers, but rather, find commonalities with those who don’t share our identity. We must hold tight to the words of our former President: democracy requires “a basic sense of solidarity - the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

Nonviolence is an active choice. It implores us to resist without savage actions or words. As we enter a time of transition, let us stay true to our values, challenge what is unjust, and embrace each other.

The Pledge to Yes

I moved to Pittsburgh not knowing a single person. It was exciting and frightening, a mid-twenties plunge and break from the rhythm of my post-college life with Break Away in Atlanta. Tense, and then smiling as I unpacked books, I thought of Joan Didion, who asked as she navigated her own plunges: “has anyone ever been so young?” Yes, they have, sitting on the porch after unpacking, wondering if a new city would ever feel like home.

Resolved to meet people and build community, I made a pledge to say “yes” to everything in my first six months in Pittsburgh. Any invitation, any event, any request, any opportunity (within reason), “yes.” No excuses or breaks. This was hard and tiring. And like any pledge, I had moments of waffling. Did I really want to go to any of the two dozen networking events and hear about X disruptive startup? No. Was that adult male bocce ball league how I wanted to spend Thursday nights? Not always. Was I excited about the neighborhood Chinese take-out potluck? Yes, actually – that was the highlight of the fall.

Unaware of Shonda Rhimes and modern copyright law, I started calling this my “year of yes” (I was drawn to the alliteration, despite the pledge only being six months long). Each day I had to fold up my introvert tendencies and recommit to say yes to “saying yes.” But by the time the pledge ended and I started giving myself permission to say “no, thank you” to things, I had built a number of strong relationships, with different types of people - usually through the events or moments I had said “yes” to. These relationships were crucial to figuring out the city, and to shaping my expressed civic life in Pittsburgh.

Now, I know this approach to rapid community building is a bit drastic - I don’t think the only path to community life in a new place is to give over your life to stray invitations. But, hopefully, it’s a reminder of the power of being actively open to new experiences and relationships. A year and a half later, I’m still grateful that I got up off my porch and didn’t look back.

Community life continues to be, for me, much more than a box you check off. It’s a continual -  sometimes daily - recommitment to saying yes to one another. To this messy, often beautiful social compact. Which is needed now more than ever. That said, it’s okay to sometimes stay in. Unless there’s a Chinese take-out potluck.