“Diverse groups that figure out how to cooperate outperform and outlast groups that don’t…Social virtues such as trust and generosity and compassion may seem like they’re for suckers, but in fact, they’re for winners. They help groups cohere in ways that enable all members to survive and thrive and the group to endure.” -Eric Liu, You’re More Powerful Than You Think

I have been reading a lot over the last few months about how change happens and what initiates it. I’m intrigued by how cultures shift, the power of ideas, and how we interpret current events. How did great movements begin in our country, and what inspired that transformation? What are the traits of the people who lead the charge? Maybe not so surprising, it is ordinary people like you and me who out of necessity decide that it is time. Often it takes one courageous person who ignites the hearts of others. On every level of involvement and in every age, citizens in this country have been asking questions, articulating visions, and redefining who gets to make the rules from the beginning. Many groups unite around a particular issue and take into account what we value and cherish together. Against the odds, how can we cooperate with each other to get to where we want to be? How do we decide who has power?

In recent years, with streaming news, social media and information at our fingertips, we are inundated with ideas and options of what is real, and we continually have to sift through it all to find the power of truth. It is incredibly time-consuming and mentally overwhelming to keep on top of it all. However, uncovering the truth makes a big difference. One thing I witnessed and have challenged despite it seeming so contrary is this idea that we are a nation divided from one another. I audaciously reject that notion in The Civil Graces Project and suggest we are not separated, but we are diverse, so naturally, we don’t see things the same. Choosing to see each other as opponents changes how we engage with one another. Why do we keep listening to this diminishing sense that we are at odds with one another? 

I believe it has to do with power–who is speaking the loudest, who is trying to retain power, and who we perceive has power. Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave.” We hear a reality that doesn’t make sense, and before we can get to the bottom of it, another issue arises, taking our attention off the first crisis. This cycle is a pattern you can see throughout history when fear is used to control. Imagine if we challenged that reality and decided to make one of our own based upon values we cherish, like cooperation, caring for our communities, and having compassion for each other. Think about how things would shift if we started engaging around the ideas that each of us has something to offer.  Each of us has power.

What I love about Eric Liu’s quote above is that if we change the way we see power, we can redefine how we will move forward. We can challenge the notion that those in higher echelons, offices, or even financial status know better because we have seen plenty of examples where this is not true. We have seen that some have motives beyond the public good that have damaged us and our society.  That is not to discount what anyone offers, but it is to call out the assumption that status equates to wisdom and ability.

We each approach things from our perspectives and our experiences. Those viewpoints are valid to us and can contribute to discovering a better way. It is the sharing of ideas that helps us determine what is needed. We find solutions through civil discourse. That dialogue is extremely powerful in shaping policy, where our dollars get allocated, who speaks for us, and what deserves our attention. So imagine what happens when the civil discourse breaks down because we believe it is impossible? We start looking outside of ourselves for the solutions and soon disengage from the process because we don’t have confidence that our voice matters. We give our power away.

One of the reasons so many conspiracy theories have been cropping up is the lack of truth in leadership. Common sense gives way to the bizarre because fear is a potent tool in a time of insecurity. Historically, false narratives are often the justification of discrimination and harsh treatment of one group by another. Once enough people buy into the story, it takes on a life of its own. Then artificial nostalgic visions of how things used to be are created, and we start looking for someone to blame. With this sense of “the other,” we lose our human connection. Power gets diffused and then concentrated into the hands of a few. We have seen this repeatedly happen throughout time, and what changed it was the people recognizing the call to reclaim their power.

This past election was an excellent example of how that happens. The one take away…when we show up, we get heard and we change power structures. Did it show we all have the same feelings? Absolutely not! This past election showed that we are a country that is in a hot debate with one another. Ancient hatreds and prejudices came into full view, but so did those who stood up to say this is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Our democracy is being tested. We cannot sit back and assume those who hold power will always do the right things. We have to remind them that they hold it in trust with us. We have to act upon those ideals that strengthen us as a nation, and not allow others to control our reality. That is why showing up in this election was so important. It was about standing up for who we are as a nation. By engaging in the process, we took our power back, and many stood in line for hours to make sure they got their vote counted. That matters, and every single vote made a difference. We now have to see this through that the will of the people be honored.

I believe we are at a turning point. The recognition of what we can do together should inspire us. Our diversity is our strength. When we act with those attributes we admire and respect, like integrity, compassion, generosity, and responsibility, we create a new direction. We no longer buy into the “every person for themselves” mentality, and we rediscover our individual and collective power. It may seem impossible when we think about all that we have witnessed in the past years, but Margaret Mead said it best when she stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We are beginning a new era, and it is the civil graces that we can call upon as guides for how we make that more perfect union upon which this nation envisioned itself. These lasting values which connect humanity are the things we can lean upon as our foundation.  We have to rebuild and decide what we are going to be together. It is by recognizing our power and taking action from the heart that we can transform our world from this current place so that all may not just survive but thrive.

Photo credit: Vince Moro, The Women’s March in Philadelphia 2018.

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