Like so many Americans, I have struggled to process the events of the past few weeks. I started and stopped writing “statements” and emails like this one many times. Our organization strives, in general, to reflect, consider, and act, rather than react. And we’re proud of that. So that ideal is, I think, embedded in the timeline for how we write emails like this.
We don’t have easy, simple answers to any of the challenges resurfaced by the racist violence in Buffalo or the horror of Texas. We simply don’t. And we also know that the lack of easy answers is not an excuse for inaction. Every single one of us has agency to do something. As our staff had conversations about these difficult past few weeks, our north star continued to be: how does our work do something to make things better? How can we leverage our networks to act?
We are not here to prescribe a specific action that everyone should take. But as I’ve reflected on the past few weeks, I’ve been struck over and over again by one theme that runs through the idea of taking action.
We need to get proximate.
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has maybe done more than anyone else to promote this concept of “getting proximate.”
“It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see,” Stevenson says. “The things we hear and see are critical to our knowledge, and our capacity to problem solve.”
“To change the world,” he says, “We are each going to have to find ways to get closer to people who … are living on the margins of society.” It’s only in proximity that we get close enough to problems to understand how to solve them and understand their complexity.
And at the One America Movement, we would humbly add to Stevenson’s quotes. When done right, getting proximate to our fellow Americans who think, vote, worship, or look differently than us can help heal the divides tearing our nation apart.
For the One America Movement, getting proximate means working alongside others to solve pressing challenges in our communities. It means experiencing religious traditions and cultures that aren’t yours and building trust and relationships with communities that are different from yours. As a non-profit, it means listening to faith leaders tell us what they’re facing in their communities and then designing resources and projects to fit those needs, rather than us coming to them with all the “answers” in a box.
For our country, getting proximate is going to be different for everyone. But this is a year of reconnection. A year when we can and must address not just the great political questions of our time but the hovering darkness of loneliness and social isolation. A year when all of the forces fueling toxic polarization will urge us deeper into our echo chambers, deeper online into our own corners, further from them, further from the mess, the complexity, and the basic human-ness of our beautiful, tragic world.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get proximate with some amazing leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We learned the history of Black Wall Street, the most prosperous African-American neighborhood maybe in US history. We learned about its birth, its destruction in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, its astonishing rebirth, and the crippling economic impact of a freeway built right through the neighborhood decades later. It was an emotional and inspiring three days.
At that event, I spoke to how our work builds trust without an agenda. And when we build trust without a deeper agenda, doors open. And we never know what insight, meaning, or connections might come of it. A few days after we left Tulsa, the racist violence in Buffalo took place. And as I was reading about that community, I couldn’t help but notice a paragraph in a news story about how near the grocery store where the murders took place, a freeway had been built right through the neighborhood, destroying a park and other community assets in the process. African-American neighborhoods more than 1,000 miles apart, both under assault, not just from physical violence but also from policies that tear at the fabric of healthy communities.
Seeing those connections is something I can confidently say every American would benefit from. Seeing them and getting proximate enough to really feel them, even if we are not the ones who are personally impacted . . . that’s the door that opens when we build trust.
(For an example of what can come from opening those kinds of doors, check out this podcast.)
Our country needs us. All of us. Not to tweet about our political views. Not to double down on how much we hate them. Our country needs us to show up. Stick around. Get proximate. And to love this country and our fellow Americans with ferocity.
Nothing worth doing ever is.
President and CEO
One America Movement