In the summer of 2016, on a research fellowship to study the effects of poverty on American K-12 education, I lived in three communities—Cotulla, Texas, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, and a few neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio—and drove the 7180 miles between them in my mom’s blue Mazda CX-9. I knew little about each community or the issue I was researching, and I was willing to admit it. Therefore, in order to learn, I had to listen.
After two months, I had discovered a whole section of the country that was before unknown to me, and came away with fresh perspectives, insightful research, and, best of all, many new friends. If that trip can’t be the prototype of the antidote to our current critical illnesses— polarization, social isolation, and inequality of opportunity—then I don’t know what can. My research became my senior thesis and what follows are the concluding thoughts about what I found on the road. They get close to the point of what it means to #ListenFirst ...
“Many characterize ours as a nation divided, polarized to the point of dysfunctional. The nation’s new and defining -isms and characteristics reveal its flaws; protectionism suggests fear, nationalism suggests vanity and false patriotism, globalism suggests treacherousness, inequality suggests the self-interest and indulgence of the powerful, and our nation’s neglected schools suggest terminal ignorance. These seem to have become the realities of our time, the defining markers of our generation. Venture from Miami to Seattle, from Cheboygan to Corpus Christi—or, as I did, from Massachusetts to Cotulla, to Pine Ridge, to Cleveland, and back again —and this is what you will find, many say. I disagree.
I found a much different nation during my time on the road, one full of vast and resplendent landscapes and kind-hearted, hardworking, and immensely capable people. One of battered but well-bound communities, of common courtesy and curiosity. One down, at times, on hope, but ready to believe. One that laughs at jokes, says, “Good morning” to passersby, and enjoys a chat. One inclined toward righteousness and honesty. One of optimism, fairmindedness, and ideas—many, many ideas. One that cares, deeply, about our children. One that welcomes the stranger. Perhaps more than any other, this fact gleaned from the trip affirmed the endurance of the better nature of the American character.
The problem is not the -isms and trends so many bemoan, the problem is we’ve come to believe them and see them in ourselves. We’ve let an extreme, out-spoken, and delusional few define the American identity. We’ve given in to adversity and hopelessness. In the people I met, I saw hopelessness much more than I saw helplessness; but not the kind of hopelessness that doesn’t know what a good thing looks like, the kind that bubbles up again and again, only to find itself unfounded. We are not, though, on the whole, the people those -isms, characteristics, and out-spoken few portray. My repeated presence as the stranger across the country exposed this. In every community, I was welcomed graciously and treated with kindness and respect. A fearful, self-interested, and ignorant nation does not welcome the stranger. A generous and dignified nation, intent on progress, does. Let’s not forget what we seem already to know.
And it won’t work if we don’t listen to those with experience, those in the middle of it. Education teaches us to learn, and learning comes from listening. Inherent in that action is humility, curiosity, and confidence. As Thomas Jefferson suggested so many centuries ago, we will not get very far unless we are informed. Learn first, inspiration and action will follow. The answers exist. We simply need to find them; to believe in better days and to listen.”
Inspired by my experience and the example of projects like #ListenFirst, I, along with a bipartisan group of accomplished journalists, academics, clergy, military men and women, business people, activists, and friends from my trip, have started a nonprofit. Our organization is called “Us.” It seeks to inspire friendship and collaboration between disparate groups of Americans of all generations in an effort to heal political polarization and provide fewer degrees of separation between our nation’s most distinguished people and our most neglected communities. It is our greatest hope that these times of fear and uncertainty leave us with a sobering perspective on the consequences of division in our country. And instead of falling apart, this realization might help us come together in a web of new social relations that reform the unity so essential to our great democratic experiment.
Happy #ListenFirst Friday!