Proof that Democracy is Possible

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


Categories: Uncategorized

Immigrants = Economic Assets

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.

Categories: Uncategorized