Coming Together Across Difference

The second event in a new, cross-university series offered inspiration for dialogues that ‘enable peace while honoring difference’

“I am because we are, and because we are, I am.”

That traditional proverb reflecting the African concept of Ubuntu was one of the quotations and sentiments with which moderator Layli Maparyan opened “Coming Together Across Difference,” the second event in the Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides panel series, on February 13.

In invoking the proverb, Maparyan, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, noted the purpose of the saying: to remind us of “the depth of our human interconnectedness, that we cannot—indeed, do not—exist without each other.”

That was the purpose, too, of the panel discussion: to highlight the importance of connection across difference. The speakers also offered strategies for making those connections, even amidst controversy and significant conflict.

The Dialogue and Action series was established in January by nine colleges and universities in Massachusetts. In addition to Tufts, the participating universities are Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts, and Wellesley College.

Joining Maparyan for the February 13 discussion were three panelists: Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and Professor of Government at Harvard; David Lazer, University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Northeastern; and Alexandra Piñeros Shields, Associate Professor of the Practice of Racial Equity at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis.

Maparyan asked the panelists to weigh in on the “divisive rhetoric and action” on college campuses prompted by the Israel-Hamas war and to bring “[their] best thinking and most hard-won wisdom to the table of discourse.” Prompted by Maparyan’s framing, the speakers shared insights drawn from research and trends as well as personal experiences.

Brandeis’s Piñeros Shields recounted a success story from her work as executive director of the Massachusetts-based Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), an interfaith, interracial, and interclass network of 40 faith congregations with a racial- and economic-justice mission. The group spent two years working in the city of Lynn, Massachusetts, on issues of police accountability, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Lynn Police Department eventually adopted changes including implicit bias training and the establishment of an unarmed response team. According to Piñeros Shields, the secret to ECCO’s success lay in its having built community power across divisions of race, class, and religion. “We moved to understanding and owning racism and violence as dynamics in which [we] had also played a part,” she said. Through the concept of “radical vulnerability,” those involved were able to establish trust with people whom they had previously seen as the enemy, she said.

An Alternative to the Narrative of Discord

Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern, reflected on the fact that individuals are today far less likely than they would have been 40 or 50 years ago to have neighbors from a different political party. This is one of the “substantial spatial divides” in American society, he said, with other physical separations including those by class, race, and religious tradition.

In stark contrast to spatial separations, Lazer said, the current tensions on U.S. college campuses derive from the “proximity of strong disagreement,” with students who hold different beliefs living in community with one another at their universities.

Lazer said that proximity did at the same time represent a virtue, offering opportunities for engagement and discussion.

Lazer acknowledged that technologies like social media can isolate a group with similar views from groups with different perspectives. But he noted technology’s power to potentially reduce prejudice across groups by intentionally exposing people to other views, even on highly controversial issues.

Harvard’s Allen reflected on the perception of the United States as a nation marked by deep political division. However, shifting one’s focus from the national political landscape to state-level politics can offer an alternative view, she said.

According to Allen, it has been increasingly the case that citizens across the country are supporting ballot propositions with supermajority levels of support, that is, the support of at least two-thirds of the voters. Among her examples: Florida’s Amendment 4, in which voters in 2018 restored voting rights to people who had served their felony convictions, and a 2020 Mississippi ballot measure by which voters approved a new state flag free of any Confederate symbols. Allen suggested that the success of these ballot initiatives—both by supermajorities—shows that voters from both sides of the political aisle are willing to form coalitions and work together toward a common purpose.

That, said Allen, is a compelling counternarrative to the perception that we “are just at each other’s throats all the time.”

At the end of the discussion, Maparyan encouraged audience members to consider ways to “enable peace while honoring difference.” The core elements of making change inspired by a common purpose, she said, are “focusing on the human, building relationships, forming coalitions and allyship, and doing the work of keeping that core commitment to human dignity front and center.”

Visit the Dialogue and Action website for information about the next events in the series, including the April 2 panel, "Constructive Dialogue in the Age of Social Media."

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