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After A Bitter Election, Can Americans Find A Way To Heal Their Divides?

Maren Bruin for NPR

As the nation careens into the 2020 presidential election amid a damaged economy and a surging pandemicthat has infected more than 9 million people and killed more than 230,000, Americans are facing historic division.

The divides have affected the country in myriad ways — even influencing who we choose to engage with. In one survey by the Pew Research Center, 47% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats said they "wouldn't want to date someone who voted for the candidate of the opposing party in the 2016 presidential election."

This polarization has left many worried that the results of Tuesday's election will lead to conflict that risks spiraling into violence. Experts in global conflict are warning that such a scenario is a real possibility. In cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., businesses have begun to board up their windows in case of civil unrest.

So how can Americans move past their differences and find a way to heal their divides?

Over the past four weeks, that question has been at the center of a series of conversations by NPR's All Things Considered. Host Michel Martin spoke with people who've led truth and reconciliation commissions; experts who help communities heal from loss and deep division; violence interrupters who try to break cycles of violence and retaliation; and those working on peace programs with youth from around the world.

Their experiences were all unique, but they spoke of common themes of truth, difficult conversations, listening and understanding. Healing is possible, they say, but people have to be willing to try.

When Denise Altvater was seven years old, she and her five sisters were taken from their home and placed in foster care while their mother was away shopping. It would be four years before she saw her again.

"When they drove us away from the reservation, they drove me away from the only thing I'd known my whole life," Altvater says. "And for four years, the foster parents tortured us and the state left us there."

Decades later, Altvater co-founded the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body convened to address a history in Maine of taking Native American children from their homes and placing them in foster care or adopting them to white families.

Truth commissions most famously worked in Northern Ireland and post-apartheid South Africa to help bring about accountability for past atrocities. Though little known, similar commissions have been formed in the U.S. The commission set up in response to what happened to Maine's native children is one example.

The commission established following the Greensboro Massacre of 1979 is another. Reverend Nelson Johnson was among those injured during the massacre, when members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked peaceful civil rights marchers with the apparent complicity of local law enforcement. Five people were killed.

"It's difficult to heal trauma without truth telling ... You have to uncover and acknowledge what has been done wrong before you can fully move forward."

Some 20 years after the massacre, Johnson set out to establish the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the Rev. Mark Sills. Johnson says that many people thought "we were responsible for our own deaths," but that creating the commission opened the door for change.

At a time of deep division in America, Altvater, Johnson and Sills say there are clear lessons to be learned from the truth and reconciliation processes they participated in.

"There is a fact that truth commissions exemplify that cannot be denied, and that is it's difficult to heal trauma without truth telling," Sills says. "You have to uncover and acknowledge what has been done wrong before you can fully move forward."

Altvater says that for her, the most important part of the process was "having the space where my voice and others voices could be heard and believed in a place where we knew that something was going to happen ... It was so life changing to tell your story in that type of an atmosphere."

Johnson says that the importance lies in teaching people the truth.

"There is a truth that Native Americans' land was stolen and they were nearly annihilated as a people," he says. "It is true that women were devalued and still devalued. These are truths that are deep and enduring unless, first of all, we acknowledge this depth of truth."

In 2012, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Rich Harwood set out to help the community in Newtown, Conn. heal and rebuild.

Harwood is the president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit dedicated to building community and effecting positive change.

In Newtown, Harwood found there was an overabundance of division about how to move forward from the massacre. Complicating matters, he says, was a 28-person task force of elected officials from four governing boards that turned the town's despair into "a political disaster, for attention, for acrimony, for divisiveness."

His job was to work as a mediator and organizer to help everyone come to a solution they could support.

"When I was asked to go in, it was about whether they should rebuild the school where it is, start on some other site, and what I discovered really quickly was that the challenge is much more profound," says Harwood. "The challenge is whether or not the community could pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope."

"There's no magic wand that we can wave and correct all of the challenges that we face today ... It's going to take us taking small steps forward."

Harwood sees the divisiveness in the U.S. today and says those tensions exist because people aren't feeling understood.

"We need to understand the human dimensions of this," he says. "Why do divides exist? I think they exist because people feel aggrieved, because they haven't felt seen and heard, because they feel as though their dignity has been stripped from them, that they feel trapped. And when people feel these things, they hunker down and protect themselves, build walls and form smaller and smaller groups that they belong to where they want to fight it out with other groups."

He says it's crucial to "not simply sit in that pain and sorrow," but to start envisioning a different path and how to get there. That's what happened in Clark County, Kentucky, he says, when he met two women who went from sitting in their local church and listening about drug addiction, to starting a program to create coaches for people going through the recovery process.

Harwood has been working to reconcile differences within communities for 30 years. He calls 2020 a uniquely challenging moment, in that the nation is facing four crises simultaneously: a pandemic, economic upheaval, systemic racism and social injustice and a political crisis.

"There's no magic wand that we can wave and correct all of the challenges that we face today," he says. "It's going to take us taking small steps forward, rebuilding our trust, restoring our belief in ourselves and one another and knowing that we can get things done together."

Tyree Head says he "grew up rough" in Chicago. When he came home from prison, he says he felt that he owed it to the other kids who grew up like he did to "teach them to try and change the norm and let them know the flip-side to the coin to the life that they live in now."

So he attended training at the Metropolitan Peace Academy, which teaches street outreach workers how to help break the cycle of street violence and retaliation that can end with people being killed. Head, who now works as a violence interrupter at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, says the program teaches its students that "hurt people, hurt people."

"There's a lot of hurt people walking out here in society for whatever reason," Head says. "So me working with these individuals on a day to day basis, I build a rapport and a bond, so that helps. And nothing is a facade. My heart is open. The way I come to them, they understand, they relate, because they know I walked the same path they walked. I'm now trying to divert the path so it won't be identical to mine. That pays dividends."

Troy Harden helped to develop the curriculum for the Metropolitan Peace Academy. A professor of sociology and the director of the Race and Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A&M University, he says the success of the program is owed in large part to credible messengers like Head.

"Every human being not only has a right to exist but has certain rights on this earth."

"Tyree works to establish relationships before the incidents actually happen," Harden says. "And many of the relationships go back a very long time. People who know him and both his former and current life and have seen the change that he is. One of our core philosophies is 'be the change that you want to see.'"

Asked to imagine the country as two people on the street locked in a bitter fight that could escalate to violence, both Head and Harden say there are lessons from the work of violence interrupters that can be used to break cycles of mistrust and mutual animosity.

"Part of it is acknowledging the harm that's happened and really being able to see that there are different interests that people might have, but they're also mutual interests that people have," says Harden. "I would argue that we're at a turning point in our society where we can begin to recognize the harm that's been created historically and really begin the process of healing that through realizing that every human being not only has a right to exist but has certain rights on this earth."

"Love cures all of that," Head says.

The Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine first brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in 1993. Now, the camp and its year-round programs facilitate conversations between young people from all over the world — Israel and the Palestinian territories, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and even the U.S.

The camp brings those young people together for an intense summer of physical activities, talking and listening to create friendships between people whose forebears have been locked in deadly conflicts for generations.

Twenty years ago, Spencer Traylor was part of a class of attendees who came to the camp from the U.S. — he was part of a group of teenagers from Maine that was experiencing tension with the arrival of East African immigrants. He says the program was "confusing at first," because he was just "a kid from northern Maine" comparing his struggles to a Palestinian camper "who's experienced significant loss because of a conflict."

Traylor, who is now a history teacher and the co-founder of Next STEP, an alternative high school program, says the experience fundamentally reshaped his view of conflict resolution.

"When we encourage the airing of those conflicts, even if it's messy, even if it is scary, if the shared purpose is trying to understand and be understood, it can bring people together."

He says there is a pervasive idea in society that if you open up conflict, it's going to disrupt a community and cause divisions, so it's best to keep quiet. Seeds of Peace takes a different approach, encouraging participants to have uncomfortable conversations in order to quell divisions.

"You have to talk about divisions," Traylor says. "You have to talk about conflict in order to have a functional community. And you have to create methods and give tools and resources for young people and adults to be able to have those conversations in ways that are productive and constructive and in ways that people can start to see and understand each other rather than try to hide their feelings and thoughts away from each other."

Eliza O'Neil, one of the directors of Seeds of Peace, says that one of the biggest takeaways from the program is a "paradigm shift around navigating conflict."

"Being misunderstood, mischaracterized, right in front of your eyes is extremely painful," O'Neil says. "But what we've found is that when we encourage the airing of those conflicts, even if it's messy, even if it is scary, if the shared purpose is trying to understand and be understood, it can bring people together. And then I think a key part of it is that no matter how heated or upsetting the session had been that day, everyone shows up the next day. They're still friends."

O'Neil says that it's powerful for people to see that you can have a disagreement and still keep a relationship intact, and that the knowledge that this is possible brings "a sense of openness and willingness to engage and courage in future conversations with those who disagree with them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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