The Kryptonite of Common Ground

Western States Center
7 min readDec 2, 2021

By Eric K. Ward

Three organizations symbolizing hundreds of courageous efforts underway to establish places of common ground in the midst of rising political sectarianism.

Since we got the call that the Train Foundation would for the first time name an American as Civil Courage Prize Laureate, we at Western States Center have been immersed in a conversation about what constitutes courage in these times.

To counter bigotry and authoritarianism and the rising political sectarianism that flows in its wake, we need to shine a spotlight on efforts that carve real common ground. It is upon that ground that successful governance can meet the needs of all.

I’ve previously written about some of the heroes of the emerging movement opposed to authoritarianism and organized bigotry — the women working for inclusive democracy who have long taught and inspired us, the WSC Momentum team who galvanize a united response to hate and political violence in a critical moment for our country, and the artists who connect us to our common humanity while we navigate the contradictions of our grief-filled times.

As we approach the end of this difficult and perhaps pivotal year, there’s no shortage of causes for alarm. But there are also countless sources of encouragement, if we have the discipline to embrace nuance.

Hope is a bit of a trickster. It’s future-focused and implies a calculus, a weighing of the odds. I’m finding it more useful to focus on the seeds that are sprouting in the messy mulch of today. Seeds of possibility, inventiveness, stimulation. Projects that embody values-based vision, an aspiration that we can be more than our fears. Stories that motivate and embolden us to break out of our ideological boxes.

Today we’re sharing just three of these efforts. They are models for the emerging movement growing all around us, in towns and communities across the United States and the globe. They represent hundreds and likely thousands of known and unknown bridges being built across the polarities, identities, and ideologies that are fracturing our ability to see each other as human family with a shared fate on a wounded planet.

Shaharit, “Creating Common Cause” in Israel and beyond. The Peacebuilding work of Social Change Initiative, rooted in Northern Ireland. And here in the U.S., the Center for Inclusion and Belonging housed at the American Immigration Council. Each are expanding our understanding of what Shaharit leader Eilon Schwartz calls deep diversity.

At a time when too many of us prize purity — and the certainty that only those who share our beliefs are the righteous ones — these groups dare to tolerate complexity, and nuance, and the possibility that there isn’t only one right way. We’re in a moment where every social and cultural dynamic is politicized. Where we’re pushed to create a false pole that reifies what makes us different from one another. Where we critique confirmation bias in others but seem unable to see it in ourselves.

In this moment, our muses are those focused on commonality. Commonality is kryptonite to authoritarianism and social movements that rely on division.

Shaharit: Creating Common Cause in Israel & Beyond

Let’s begin in Israel, one of the world’s flashpoints for sectarian violence — violence that made its way back to the city streets of the United States in 2021. Eilon Schwartz recently wrote about what we can glimpse if we look beneath the headlines:

“Under the radar, beyond social-media echo chambers, and outside the toxic culture wars where all leftists are traitors and rightists are fascists, people in Israel have been searching for a way to live together…. Its growing leadership is made up of… people of the borders: people anchored both in their own worldview and communal commitments, and in a commitment to building together with others, with all the compromises and contradictions that this entails. People who see cultural and moral complexity as a societal asset and not a zero-sum game. People who come from different and often conflicting worlds of meaning, the dizzying kaleidoscope of Israel’s body politic…. They are people who recognize that our futures are embedded in our ability to hold on to our own identity while creating bonds through our differences, rather than somehow trying to ignore or transcend them.”

~ Eilon Schwartz, Deep Diversity, the Common Good, and the Israeli Future, Sapir Journal, Autumn 2021

Shaharit is a synergistic mix of thinktank, leadership incubator, and community organizing hub nurturing a new social partnership among all Israeli communities, forging a common ground and shared political values between its Jewish and Arab citizens. The group focuses on the implications in the public sphere of a full embrace of both Israeli and Palestinian identities while building a future rooted in the common good.

Through bringing together Israelis from diverse ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, they’ve identified five lessons about creating a different kind of Israeli politics:

  1. Culture matters: “Deep diversity starts by embracing our cultural differences, not ignoring or flattening them — and definitely not disdaining them.”
  2. Belonging is primary to most of our identities: “When a conflict with our group’s identity is ignited, we return to that first and most basic allegiance… (and claiming not to have an allegiance to a tribe is one of the central characteristics of the liberal tribe).”
  3. Feeling acknowledged and accepted is essential: “It takes courage to truly open oneself to the world as seen through other people’s eyes, but everyone has the power to do this.”
  4. First names matter: “Relationships need not be conditional on ideological commitments…. Unlikely alliances are built on human relationships that create a foundation for working together, breaking out of viewing social change as one group pitted against another.”
  5. Loosening ideological restraints leads to new possibilities: “The dissonance between different perspectives gives birth to different options.” (From Deep Diversity, the Common Good, and the Israeli Future.)

Schwartz is writing about Israel primarily, but the implications for us in the U.S. are clear. His description of Israel’s crossroads is mirrored by my own view of the choice point we are at with American democracy:

The future of Israel’s democracy, the continuity of the State of Israel, can assume two different forms. One, self-righteous and ideological, will pull us inexorably apart. The other, more modest in its claims and more generous in its sensibility, will reach out to find partners who can pull us together. The jury is out as to which direction will win, both in Israel and around the world.

~ Eilon Schwartz, Deep Diversity, the Common Good, and the Israeli Future

Social Change Initiative: Peacebuilding Based in Northern Ireland

Just as Israel serves as a case study for the impact of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland provides an example of a once deeply divided society that has found its way back together. Social Change Initiative (SCI) works globally to share peacebuilding resources drawn from their years of struggle and success.

SCI’s work is dedicated to making communities fairer, more inclusive, and peaceful. The painstaking work of building peace, they believe, requires the active participation of those most affected by a conflict — one “side” cannot do it alone while continuing to “other” the other.

Knowing that “significant benefits also come from drawing on the experiences of other societies emerging from violence,” SCI supports this transfer of knowledge by strengthening activism in countries experiencing violent conflict, supporting philanthropy to invest in peacebuilding, and encouraging reflection and best-practice sharing.

One such convening is coming up December 7, when SCI and other partners host Tackling Violent Extremism: Lessons from Greece — what can be learned?

“Learning about what has not worked is often as important as sharing what is successful,” SCI reminds us, which in itself is an antidote to the certainty and self-righteousness that are supercharging our current divisions.

It’s instructive that the key themes SCI sees as inter-related with peacebuilding are human rights and equality, and migration. The white nationalist movement in the U.S. believes controlling immigration as critical to maintaining white dominance. The more gains we’ve made in human and civil rights, the more violent the backlash.

Center for Inclusion and Belonging

Here in the U.S., the American Immigration Council recognized that this tangled knot couldn’t be unbound by policy alone. The Center for Inclusion and Belonging is a cultural project “committed to building a cohesive America where all people are welcomed and included.”

How do we change hearts and minds towards those considered the “other” and build bridges across differences? The Center for Inclusion and Belonging believes it’s through interventions and campaigns that “provide all people in America with unifying experiences that reinforce their sense of connection, community, and shared destiny.”

Through research, trainings, campaigns, and supporting a community of practice for cross-sector groups working on social cohesion, anti-polarization, and bridge building (which includes Western States Center), the Center for Inclusion and Belonging aims to “provide all people in America with unifying experiences that reinforce their sense of connection, community, and shared destiny.”

Belonging Begins With Us, a partnership between the Ad Council and a range of groups, provides a beautiful array of stories of understanding, community, and belonging from people across America. Read more about the strategy behind this campaign to foster simple acts that make sure everyone in a given community feels like they belong.

Rapid change, social alienation, political polarization — these are the dynamics that research shows are making so many Americans (and humans around the world) so receptive to divisive messaging. Our work is to be informed by these dynamics without succumbing to them ourselves. To hold open the possibility for connection, community, and a shared destiny in which everyone, and our planet, can thrive.

Finding Common Ground

We at Western States Center are deeply grateful to Shaharit, Social Change Initiative, the Center for Inclusion and Belonging, and the scores of similar efforts big and small around the world.

The last thing authoritarian leaders want is for us to find common ground. What common ground efforts can you point to in your own community? In your own work?

We’d like to count you among our community as we envision a world where everyone can live, love, worship and work free from bigotry and fear.

To the courage of common ground!

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.