We Belong Together

Written by: Andrew Hanauer

A Reflection on Five Years of One America Movement

Imagine you’re standing in front of a room full of people waiting to hear you speak, and the speech you’ve prepared has nothing to do with the seismic world event that just took place. Do you carry on? Throw out your speech? What do you do?

I threw out my speech. 

It was November 12th, 2016, and the United States had just been through a deeply divisive election. No matter who you voted for–Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton–there was a lot of animosity hanging in the air; a lot of polarization, even if that word felt new. Many people were waking up to the fact that our country’s divisions were entering a new, more dangerous phase.

I was speaking at a conference of Catholic college and high school students and teachers. I had previously written a speech about an international topic and planned to repurpose it. But the audience’s mind wasn’t overseas; it was here, in our country that we love. I knew I couldn’t give my originally planned speech — so I ripped it up and asked the audience to just share how they felt about what was happening in our country. 

A Lightbulb Moment

The fears and frustrations spoken aloud at that moment shared a common thread.

A person from rural America and a student from a high school in Brooklyn, NY, both felt isolated from their fellow Americans. We never talk to each other, they said. We don’t know each other. In many cases, we don’t even meet each other. Many expressed that they didn’t know a single person who had voted differently than they had. The conversation was more than just an opportunity to vent; ideas rose out of this challenging conversation.

What if we got together, one person suggested, not just to talk but to serve our communities?

 And the One America Movement was born.

Isolation Won’t Save Us 

We were officially born as an organization on April 1, 2017, five years ago today, and it’s been an incredible five years

From the beginning, we were motivated by an unwavering belief that as Americans, as friends, as family, as neighbors, we belong together. We still hold this belief despite what sometimes feels like overwhelming cultural currents in the opposite direction; currents toward division and isolation. We reject those currents. Belonging is everything. Community is everything. And toxic polarization attacks both, tearing communities apart and substituting a fake, surface form of belonging for the real thing. As we were launching in 2017, we made that exact argument in a magazine feature entitled Isolation Won’t Save Us.

We’ve found over the past five years that millions of Americans agree with us about the need for putting aside differences. They want strength and unity and are tired of the division. They’re just looking for a way to live it. So, as the One America Movement got off the ground in 2017, we knew we had to go live the work, not just talk about it.

On the Ground 

Our very first project took place in May 2017 at a men’s shelter in Anacostia, Washington, DC. A group of Jewish, Muslim, and evangelical Christian participants worked together to clean up the shelter’s grounds, listened to shelter residents talk about their lives, and then shared a meal as they discussed our nation’s divisions. This simple idea – to serve, eat, and speak to people who don’t look, think, vote, or worship like you – grew from there. 

Another one of our earliest successes was a project in Houston, Texas. The event was held at the new Islamic Relief volunteer dormitory, where a small group of people with entirely different backgrounds, religions, and races helped the Harvey Project Coordinator do small projects in the kitchen and dormitory areas. These activities included touch-up painting, laying shelf paper, breaking down boxes, and organizing supplies. Later, our One America Movement team facilitated a wonderful meal and discussed the neuroscience behind extremism, trauma, and hate. 

Coming together to help in the aftermath of a tragedy allows our brains to process and productively move forward. Uniting with others in challenging and meaningful conversations and service also unites our heads, hands, and hearts.

Sacha Bodner, Director of Community Partnerships

This successful event led organically to more on-the-ground relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Harvey. One America Movement created an exchange program that brought those groups together to build bridges and rebuild homes and more. In the process, this group built relationships through meals, joint-service projects, field trips, events, and more. 

A Pivotal Moment

The work has not always been easy. After the violent events of August 11 – 12, 2017, around the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, held to protest against the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the city was gripped by division, trauma, resentment, and sadness. The One America Movement wanted to help to heal those divisions. 

However, we also recognized that the city’s history of racial tension and racism didn’t start on that fateful day in 2017. We had deep and difficult work to do to heal divides within the community, and that healing required more than just a single event or a pre-packaged solution. We had to listen to the leaders who were already living, working, and serving in Charlottesville and find out what was missing. We had to show up quietly, not to promote ourselves, but to do the actual work, even if nobody but a handful of local clergy knew about it. And that’s what we did, bringing clergy together across divides to build new relationships and connect their congregations together, building new resilience to division, and opening new doors at an otherwise dark moment.

When I got involved with the One America Movement a few months after the Unite the Right rally, I immediately recognized that toxic polarization and trauma were playing out in my heart and mind. Over time, I learned about the neuroscience concepts of metaperceptions and perception gaps which occur between different groups. Simultaneously, I formed relationships with a religiously and politically diverse group of clergy and staff, and began to question my assumptions about people on the “other side.” There is so much more that unites human beings than divides us.

Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, Director of Jewish Programs

We worked with amazing leaders like Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin and Pastor Tom Breeden, who now do this work full-time as One America Movement staff. Charlottesville taught us there are no shortcuts, no easy answers, just a path you have to walk, a process for change that moves at the speed of relationship and trust.

Moving Forward During the Pandemic

Just as the pandemic began in March 2020 and knocked us all for a loop, we wrote an almost hilariously off-base Op-Ed. In that article for USA Today, we suggested that the pandemic was an important moment for Americans to unite. Sadly and clearly, that’s not what happened. And that meant our work was going to be more critical than ever.

We learned through this pandemic life how incredibly important connection truly is, even when that connection is through a screen. We learned how much people yearned for that connection, and we saw people show up for Zoom events, even after spending long days on Zoom meetings for work and school. We saw folks from across divides enter those virtual rooms to find friendly faces they used to meet at our in-person events; in that familiarity and warmth, community blossomed, despite being online.

Chandra DeNap Whetstine, Vice President of Programs and Operations

One America Movement regrouped, creating new materials, moving from in-person to virtual events, but never stopping our work to bring communities together. Out of the struggle amid world-imposed isolation, we found amazing new ways to work together, and we created incredible new resources that we will be using long after the pandemic is finally over. 

Fighting Polarization Means Supporting Leaders

One America Movement has two strong program initiatives (and more in development) to help us reach faith communities across the country. Our Christian program initiative, Matthew 5:9 Fellowship, connects evangelical leaders grappling with toxic polarization in the US and supports them to speak and act effectively to build a future in which all human beings are treated as image-bearers of God regardless of earthly divisions

Pastoral ministry in these polarized times is hard, but it’s easier when we do it together. Through the Matthew 5:9 Fellowship, pastors around the country are pastoring each other as they strive together to be the peacemakers that Jesus Christ called blessed. 

Pastor Tom Breeden, Pastoral Advisor

Our Jewish program initiative, Eilu v’Eilu Fellowship for Leading in Polarized Times, is a selective, cohort-based experience for Jewish clergy committed to reducing polarization in their professional and personal spheres. The clergy invited to participate in this fellowship demonstrate openness to hearing multiple perspectives despite the discomfort it might bring, as well as a willingness to cross divides. 

We Belong Together

We are so proud of how far we have come in the last five years. Everything that we’ve been able to build – the relationships, the trust, the programming, and the incredible growth in the size of our staff – has been possible to the extent that we’ve lived our core value: We Belong Together.

The recipe for rebuilding trust and community in America is right in front of us – it’s thousands of years old yet sometimes can feel revolutionarily new. It involves building relationships across divides and then being accountable to those relationships. It means consistently showing up for one another without regard for what we might get in return. It means serving our communities together, singing, worshiping, and laughing together, and it means challenging each other constructively and challenging ourselves to be better and better.

We can do this. Together, we can build a stronger, more united America by working together to tackle our most pressing challenges. We Belong Together. Let’s make it so. 

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