The universal sense of cross-partisan anxiety lingering after the recent mid-term elections seems ironic. Voting served as much a referendum on the increasingly evident dialectic between voter apathy and political reactivity as anything else.
A good example is Minnesota’s Governors election results, which remain in flux for the foreseeable future. State GOP leaders are calling for recount lawsuits on behalf of Tom Emmer. DFL leaders are scrambling to defend Mark Dayton’s near 9000-point lead—and salving the sting of statewide losses of incumbent seats.
All this public perseverating heightens citizen’s perception that both their public and personal values are being violated by big-time power games which determine their fate, but in which they can’t possibly compete.
Two construction workers surveying a road in Burnsville gave voice to the sense of futility. One resides in a rural area, the other in a suburb. Neither mentioned which candidate they preferred. Both qualify as so-called populists yet lack trust in either party. Neither identified with citizen movements.
They noted today’s populist movements seem co-opted by often hidden heavy hitters. Or, conversely, are undermined by widespread fears people of marginalization, if not more serious consequences of guilt-by-association.
Pondering solutions to their and others’ civic inertia, the men considered the possibilities of a very different kind of social movement.
This movement would not demand members identify to a specific political perspective. Its only demand would be a common sense of commitment to a cooperative, crosspartisan, co-productive government.
Implied and clearly stated would be the demand that politicians themselves, not their PR handlers or party proxies, clearly demonstrate their democratic leadership abilities.
This would call for a “show, not tell” attitude that audaciously contrasts the creative iterations recent campaigns used in winning with rage-rhetoric or losing with touchy-feely talk strategies.
And would require, instead, measureable evidence of leaders’ very specific and sustained involvement in and impacts on expedient and respectful solutions.
The carrot–or more aptly stick, incentive behind the movements’ message would be: “If you can’t play nice politics, don’t plan on surviving the next election.” Which, as evidence and history suggests, would otherwise likely engage partisan passions just enough to swing the populist pendulum back to reset again.
This and much more troubling evidence increasingly shows that short-term change is unlikely at best. The underlying point for liberals is if you don’t get into the game, you’ll be out. For conservatives, if you don’t support all citizens get ready for an uprising.
Both parties need to remember relevancy requires relationships which embrace what Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” And “The People” are not only organized institutions and polarizing populist groups. The People, whether politicians like it or not, translates as “You and your political foe, too.”
This Team of Rivals strategy, embodied by Abraham Lincoln, remains the only viable solution to political paralysis. This is not to say leaders, civic or citizen groups must “feel the love.” Only that they must have authentic “let’s get real” talks that lead to “let’s get ‘er done together” work.
Were the United States a fledgling democracy such as Pakistan or Indonesia, one could expect a big political learning curve. But, one of the few things bipartisan Americans want to believe is that we are the leaders of the free world—the early adapters of what by now we’d like to brag of as a mature democracy.
In truth, though, what few Americans argue is that our bipartisan behaviors call our developmental abilities into quite serious question.
If the measure of a mature democracy is founded, as ours was, on the ideal that “We the People,” are responsible for the posterity of our country, all citizens should be called to see and engage their personal power. All politicians should be called to engage their humility and service to act as co-leaders of mature and co-mutual progress. They should not act as caricatures displaying regressive dramas.
In the words of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey, this attitude would embody a very American-style “art of the possible.”
The good news is, despite so many citizens’ current sense of impotence, the undercurrents of our collective potential for equity and common cause have not been fully scrubbed from our society.
Each day real citizens overcome deep differences in critically important ways in support of each other and shared communities. It can seem impossible to conceive such cooperation in a cacophonous culture which so insidiously steals our attention away from each other, and, indeed threatens our values and potentials to do good.
And yet, it happens every day. But they won’t and can’t be publicized by media or political campaigns until we as citizens see it, name it and loudly tell it.
We can witness our abilities in action in the seemingly innocuous acts of cooperation we engage in conjunction people whose idealogies might differ from ours, but whose deeper intents are not. When we see the dignity of our own and others’ differences, and engage them in co-productive solutions in our communities, we are achieving civic progress.
This is not to say that when and if we do, we should self-righteously brag of better abilities than politicians.
It is to say that we, as real people—whether we are road surveyors or elected officials—can help lead our country in critical ways, by clearly and persistently proving through our cooperative actions the larger point of our country.
To do so, we need to do as two road surveyors did recently. Our conversations, as theirs, must transition from obsessions about our problems to a clear and shared focus on our potentials.
Though it might seem counterintuitive to both common knowledge and campaign strategies, imagine the possibilities:
An authentically all-American spontaneous social movement that demands sustained, measureable evidence of politicians’ abilities to act up to their human potential to be real and act in ways that best represent a mature democracy.
It’s a fate we all hope. But will only be realized when we transcend our apathy. And when, in no uncertain terms, we compel our leaders to prove how they play nice, for posterity sake.
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom, founder and co-leader Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue
In his essay The Political Pot Boils Over, Humphrey Institute’s Brian Atwood notes how polarizing political campaigns promise to defend the causes of “The People.” http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/105541253.html
Politicians understand the deep doubt and sense of citizen disempowerment as at the core of populist angst. But candidates’ contrary claims to the cause of the people, begs the question, which specific people do they propose to represent?
What to take back
Presuming the call to “take back our country” is a sincere populist intention, not just the public front for a partisan campaign strategy, a question Atwood asks is critical: What are we trying to take back?
To conceive answers, we first need to consider what “We the People,” means. The phrase, in it’s original context reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Written as the preamble to the US Constitution in 1787, the phrase didn’t then and doesn’t now call for mass revolt or regression to any specific time in our history. Which is not to say the lessons of our history aren’t relevant. Indeed they inform, at least, and scaffold, at best, who we are today. Few argue that “Securing Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” is an immutable ideal that prevails across nearly all partisan and citizen lines–and thus, might be a good thing for us to “take back.”
If we truly seek to reclaim our common right to liberty, or as it is often referred to, freedom, we should be aware that obtaining it demands far more than putting into power appropriately earnest leaders who will take their responsibility as public servants to our “inalienable” rights as their unequivocal job. Certainly we intend to elect politicians to uphold and assert policy with due commitment to our Constitution.
But freedom, nearly by definition, can never be fully realized if it is only distributed through institutional means. The Founders clearly implied that American rights, ideals and freedoms are not intended to be static distributions doled out by government. But rather, the dynamic, human embodiment of our common rights, which must be ever-engaged and enacted by, with and through We: “the People.”
Only when we as citizens, regardless ethnicity, income or idealogy accept and act on what we’ve been given can we obtain Liberty. Among the most critical assets we have been given are the specifically American and collective opportunity to succeed and our specifically human and unique abilities (what Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship refers to as civic agency) to succeed by working together–as We.
Mission “We,” not Me
In other words, our Constitution didn’t intend its interpretations to be expressed by or for any one “Me.” It intended for “We the People” to access and interpret our individual freedoms together and co-constructively. Or, as Atwoods’ essay explains, a shared sense of decidedly American”destiny and mission.”
Thus, only by participating in solving our problems with each other and our government can we take back our country. This requires that we respect how our own and diverse others’ contributions are critical. If we can, we’ll realize our power to attain our inalienable rights rely on focusing on a lot more “We” and much less “Me.”
Freedom, we as Americans should know better than most has never been achieved when individuals are isolated by institutional or interpersonal means or who isolate themselves from collective process.
US is us
Our country tis of thee–translated, that would be us–can only be taken back when we all, from the marginalized to the powerful, see it as just what it is: Us, We, United.
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
Founder, Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue
By Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
I missed my bicultural neighbors when I moved from Eagan, Minnesota. Among them were Ukranian and Ghanaian immigrants, both two-parent families led by business owners. They didn’t speak perfect English, but were great neighbors. They brought my family home-cooked meals, sent their teens to help with chores and shared stories of their homelands geography classes don’t teach.
My move was made easier by the knowledge that Eagan leaders at the time seemed intolerant of diversity. I felt relief crossing border into nearby Burnsville, where productive people, regardless language or ethnicity, seemed welcome.
Perhaps Burnsville accepts what others don’t—immigrants make great leaders.
Leaving the familiarity of homeland for a foreign country requires courage, persistence and problem-solving savvy. Given the chance, immigrants often reinvest these characteristics in valuable ways in their new communities.
Troubled times innovation
Like my Eagan friends, my own family is an example. In the early 1900s, just before the Great Depression, my great-grandfather immigrated to Minnesota from Italy.
The construction company he and his cousin started was located in the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis, then, as now a haven for immigrants. Lacking English, education and cultural sophistication, my relatives were disparaged as greasy wops.
Meanwhile they imported and installed Italian terrazzo that still remains in many buildings, including at University of Minnesota. Over the years, they’ve employed hundreds and partnered with many. When my grandfather led the company, he helped organize the tile-setters labor union.
Many of my relatives are conservative. Some are liberal. Most are active as community leaders. We all inherited a commitment to family and work. In my case, our intrepid immigrant genes benefitted my career.
During the early 1990s recession, I co-founded a start up. I was like an “immigrant” to the corporate world. A young woman, I wasn’t fully versed in the language of business.
Being a naïve outsider was something of an asset. I bypassed obstacles others who worked hard to the fit models of institutionalized cultures struggled against. The characteristics that led us to strike out on our own, were the same ones that helped us conceive technology innovations others wouldn’t have dared try during the tough economic times.
Risk reward equation
Luckily investors and advisors sensed our potentials. The language of our generation and market was foreign to many of them, and our inexperience caused some fear. But they accepted the risk and supported us in return for future gains. Many jobs were created. One of my partners was later named Twin Cities Monthly Entrepreneur of the Year.
Had we conformed to standard methods, these outcomes would not have been possible. Other professionals with requisite pedigrees were let into corporate communities. Still stereotypes quietly steeped, undermining their cultures. Many women felt they had to adopt the look and lingo of men, many men felt women didn’t understand business etiquette. Racial diversity was scant, at best.
The homogenized environment, not unlike those conservatives are calling for in today’s political campaigns, might have seemed expedient, but wouldn’t have permitted boundary-pushing innovation.
Institutional vernaculars have struggled to evolve. More troubling, the gaps are growing. Resulting in unprecedented investments of time and money being invested in polarized reactions in civic and economic realms. One side is locking down to maintain stability. The other is countering to re-engage opportunity.
Such us v. them efforts sap precious resources of human intellectual capital the U.S. needs now more than ever to compete. The standoff squanders both hard-won experience and powerful, if nascent, potentials. The bottom line? Everyone loses.
Businessmen breaking cultural boundaries
Which brings me back to Burnsville. I’m encouraged by it’s efforts to embrace both the experience of existing citizens and the potentials of immigrants. I saw this ethic in action at a recent Burnsville Rotary meeting.
During a discussion about how to engage all citizens in co-productive efforts, one leader raised this important question:
How do we cross literal and figurative language barriers to access and amplify the authentic abilities of all—be they brown, black, white, young, old, male or female?
None in attendance, mostly white businessmen, suggested a common language law.
But many were energized about innovative methods focused around boundary-breaking relationships wherein diverse citizens are engaged to work with, rather than against, one another.
I suggest these ideas echo the initiative and instincts of immigrants.
Literacy of immigrants
Think about it. Immigrants forge out of comfort zones to forge new paths. They traverse tough terrain by learning to trust their own and others’ unique intelligences. They communicate what is most critical. They avoid isolation and it’s outcome, depression, by engaging in whatever community is available. Always moving forward, not back.
Regardless if leaders are locals or imports, such momentum is stalled by exclusionary controls. By contrast momentum is catalyzed when communities see new people not as obstacles, but as agents of opportunity.
Cultural illiterates of the past—like my great-grandfather—were such agents. Their leadership has left imprints that infuse Minnesota and its people. I’ve seen similar agency in action at my YMCA, where people of all ages, ethnicities and genders are welcome.
One is a burka-wearing woman who escaped Somalia’s deadly destruction and, at age 15 obtained work in a grisly southern Minnesota chicken factory.
Basketball lessons transcend language
Her English still lags a bit two-decades later, but it is a minor barrier. She now spends her overnights working. Her days are spent parenting, while her husband goes to his job. In her spare time she studies for her Masters Degree and exercises with her four boys.
We met when she invited my son and I to play basketball. We overcame verbal and athletic illiteracy as her family taught us pick-up. My understanding of court-mores still lags. But this intrepid immigrant overlooks my deficits.
On breaks, we commiserate how to teach our children to be productive citizens. We question why prevailing culture obstructs our efforts. Why leaders can clearly communicate strategies to lure million-dollar athletes, but don’t diversify with more investments in the deeper, more authentically dimensional cultures. What we can do to give our children a broader view.
Our courtside chats amount to mutual learning. And I suspect my son is learning more than how to play hoops. I hope he’ll remember. Competition on a basketball court can accomplish unexpected lessons.
More meaningfully, I hope he’ll recognize that cultural power is communicated by the literacy of many different people. Including everyone from Muslim moms to his Italian ancestors. And someday apply his potential working with diverse others.
Knowing the biggest winners break down barriers—and their own biases’—to co-construct shared solutions.
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty appeared on this week’s edition of NBC’s Meet the Press. The clip was taped Thursday when NBC News anchor David Gregory came to Minneapolis to moderate a hour-long discussion with Pawlenty, coverage that implies he’s one to watch for a 2012 Presidential run.
Pawlenty deferred declaring his candidacy, but did demonstrate his considerable rhetorical skills, smoothly navigating Gregory’s runs at his controversial positions while simultaneously warming up would-be voters with snappy sound-bites.
Such as christening “common-man” identities like “Sam’s Club Republicans” and inciting populist passions by saying social movements like The Tea Party for having the necessary “creative energy for the next generation” of government.
No doubt Tea Party tactics turn media pundits and policymaker’s heads. But whether their polarized ideological agendas reflect the actual ideals of real people, however, remains a critical question.
Pawlenty also wove in linguistical inferences which play well in educated vernaculars, like those of academics who attended the event, which was sponsored by University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Including the term “high order government,” necessary, he said, for prioritizing a sustained “turn-around” of US policies. And an antidote to what Pawlenty referred to as the “phony effect” of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, which has produced, he acknowledged, “near-time” economic gains.
“It’s simple math” Pawlenty explained, suggesting his Jr. High daughter has a better grasp of macro budgetary issues than Democratic leaders do. He went on to defend his rejection of federal education funds in favor of performance pay for teachers using standardized testing methods to measure results.
Pawlenty’s demeanor touched audience member’s nerves. “You carry yourself as if you’re the only adult in the room,” said one, calling Pawlenty out for distain of people who don’t agree with his policies.
Triggering impassioned exchanges like these make for attention-getting press, a fact of which politicians like Pawlenty are well aware. But long-term proof shows they are effective for producing little more than further polarized political positions.
It’s a point Pawlenty made in his closing remarks. “I see a corrosion in the discourse” in public leadership. “I worry about how we can be more thoughtful.”
His statement resonates with research implicating political upheaval as a key factor fueling “a sense that society has lost its way.” And showing nearly 90% of Minnesotan’s don’t trust government, data outlined in a recent report by Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
Such indicators should sound the alert for the critical importance of “higher order thinking,” an education term referring to advanced knowledge that transcends rote repetition of one-dimensional facts. Such thinking requires the employment of analytical, evaluative and creative abilities that seek and find connections between diverse concepts to synthesize effective solutions.
A key characteristic of higher order thinking is the ability to reflect on critical questions that trigger deeper understandings of complex issues and isolate the most authentic and accurate answers to them.
Pawlenty’s Meet the Press appearance triggers some such questions:
How can creative energies be employed to overcome deficits of thought which incite people’s lower order impulses?
How can leaders stimulate the next generation of government to prioritize the kind of common wealth corrosive discourse has failed to achieve?
How can authentic public leaders raise the standards of achievement for the pro-social skills we should have all learned when we were in Jr. High?
© 2010 Andrea Grazzini Walstrom, Nonpartisan/Nonidealogical Productive Dialogue
©2010 Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
Wednesday evening 800-some influential business and civic leaders met at a fundraiser for Minneapolis-based Center for the American Experiment, one of the most respected conservative think tanks in the country. The dinner program, featuring a cerebral talk by a Fox News commentator, started with a military color-guard escorting a young woman to the podium to sing the national anthem and was capped off with a rousing auction for the use of a private suite at a local stadium, which fetched a high sum.
Over lunch Thursday 1200-plus influential women’s leaders met at a fundraiser for the Minneapolis YWCA. They heard moving talks by a teen girl who credits a committed mentor for supporting her after she had been abandoned by her parents, and a single mother who credits the YWCA for providing an embracing community her family has come to rely on. While she goes to college and work, her children attend the YWCA’s Early Childhood Education Program which was recently recognized as one of the top ten accredited programs in the country.
But perhaps the most stunning talk of the week occurred at a small gathering at Tom’s Drugstore in Minneapolis Thursday evening featuring star athletes who, when they aren’t filling expensive stadium seats, are quietly influencing younger men and boys.
The scene couldn’t have been more contrasted: six hulking black University of Minnesota football players who, along with the white University of Minnesota volleyball players and civic engagement students who invited them to the talk, sitting in a circle with cerebral educators from local universities and visiting scholars from South Africa and China.
As elderly educators applauded the athletes for showing up and taught them about the tough work of civil rights leaders and leader-athletes of the past, the players leaned in, listening closely.
The discussion was, by design, not scripted. None came with prepared notes. But when the young athletes spoke all were as articulate as the cerebral intellectuals.
The players spoke of the complicated culture that informs collegiate football. Of the disconnect between the consumer-driven institution of sports which entices them with hopes of NFL sized-salaries and spoils them things like plasma screen TVs and far better facilities than women’s or other teams get.
More significantly, they said they wanted to be recognized more for their substance and intelligence than their physical prowess and the public personas largely created for, not by, them. They talked of hidden pressures and sacrifices their families have endured so they can get an education.
“Many of us are the man in our house,” said one who had been raised by a single mother. “I worry about my sisters and mom everyday.” Another said: “When I came to college we lost our house,” to pay tuition. Yet another spoke of missing the largely black Atlanta, Georgia community he left for the largely white Minnesota institution he plays for.
They spoke with uncanny honesty about the stereotypes that diminish their aspirations and abilities with reductive cultural scripts that sum them up as either, in the words of one: “slaves” for heavily funded sports organizations or, as another put it, “thugs.” And of the pedestals they are propped on which suppress their full potentials to serve as productive citizens.
Not surprising, these poised young men are positioned by the university to share their gifts in community service efforts where they speak from podiums to audiences of students about the importance of putting studies before sports.
What was surprising was what the players do without being asked. When questioned if they personally mentor students, their answers demonstrated integrity and insight no floodlights can adequately capture.
Senior defensive back Marcus Singletary proudly explained how he informally mentors freshmen to teach them how to evolve from “boys to men,” while defensive lineman Brandon Kirksey smiled broadly. “You don’t know this,” Kirksey said to his teammate, “But I overheard you talking about “boys to men” in the locker room and I am doing it, too.” Another player piped in, “I am the product of a Boys to Men program in Chicago!”
These young men are changing far more then freshmen. An elderly professor who has long taught a popular American history course, tried to capture the point: “I’ve seen many students, but this is the first time I’ve seen black athletes speaking in an open and frank discussion.”
To which quarterback Marquis Gray, demonstrating his keen read of reality, responded by calling out his esteemed elders. Who—for all their experience—utterly underestimated his and his teammates’ wisdom.
When white female athlete Tabi Love suggested her black fellow athletes might have something to prove, he agreed. Addressing the assembled scholars, Gray noted their surprise at realizing the players’ intelligence: “As soon as we opened our mouths you guys were shocked.”
Their daring discourse proved powerful lessons: when people sit down in respectful dialogue with very different others long enough to discover the real, complex person behind faux cultural caricatures, superficialities can be surmounted and begin to breakdown the larger cycles that destabilize our culture.
These athlete-leaders showed star-leadership strengths. More compellingly, they proved that the most powerful influence can’t be bought or taught from a high-minded podium—but must rather be persistently practiced with real people.
And when it is, everyone wins.
–Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is founder and co-leader Nonpartisan/Nonidealogical Productive Dialogue
Two senators–one GOP, one Democrat—engaged in polite discourse at Minneapolis’ Augsburg College over pizza with a dozen or so politically diverse students recently.
The conference-room talk competed with events outside: a softball game and large courtyard gathering, music blaring at both. Though less boisterous, the bantering between Senators Steve Simon and Pat Garofalo ought to earn some points.
By coming out to speak (with scantily funded students, no less) in the middle of a harrowing legislative session the two demonstrated their mutual mission to disprove the perception that policymakers are just superficial get-the-vote performers.
And underscored a deeper point: When different people consciously acknowledge the importance others have to their own personal and professional success, all win.
But what became clear as they spoke of the expert-created avalanches of data they try to sort and filter to balance budgets and otherwise serve their constituents, was this: The very citizens policy-makers support are increasingly lost in the paper shuffle. A problem, both acknowledged, that isn’t likely to change soon.
I asked them about what seems to me to be a “solutions saturation.”
Why is it that increasingly fewer elite professional researchers and advisers are paid so much to produce endless spreadsheets while the “human capital” of ever more numbers of citizens represented in so many rows and columns is being increasingly underutilized? In other words, how do we balance our human assets and investments?
The senators seemed equally stumped by these, admittedly abstract, questions.
By constrast, concrete answers were provided at a public event Saturday night. Staged in this case by business leaders and performed by their creative counterpoints in suburban Burnsville to benefit southern Twin Cities- metro community causes.
Nearly 1000 tickets were sold. Music—by everyone from precocious prodigies to PhD’ed elites—blared. Inter-generational genres from classical to jazz to rock were covered. As were cross-partisan perspectives spanning conservative-style patriotic to liberal-style pathos. The performers’ costs, however, were little.
Most happily engaged their passions and shared public-good purpose. Some, including a group of men’s accapella crooners from a regional high school, are amateurs. Others like folk-fusion group Days of Rae are emerging stars. Still others, like, sculptor Gene Piersa are seasoned professionals.
Regardless experience, their combined efforts can’t be quantified by numbingly numerical spreadsheets—but were nonetheless powerfully proven in artistic languages all in the community could understand.
…and thus most entertainingly summed up what paid experts haven’t. Real people, investing their unique gifts can solve the problems overwhelming our culture.
That’s civic music all ought to hear.
— Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
Founder and co-leader Nonpartisan/Nonidealogical Productive Dialogue