Connecting Across Difference – My Answer to the Question: ‘What Do We Do Now?’

We’re coming up to 2 weeks since the American Presidential Election, when Donald Trump was elected on Nov 8th 2016. I, like so many others, are still walking around in shock, disbelief and in a state of sadness. My sadness comes from the realization that there are so many people out there who are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and quite frankly, mean. For me, the election of Donald Trump has taught me a difficult lesson: that I live in a lefty bubble, I have lived in this bubble for pretty much my whole life, and that bubble has now burst.

And at the 2 week mark, my question is: what do I do now? I have seriously contemplated hiding under a rock (with my guitar of course), and pretending this world out there doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t seem sustainable or hopeful. I think we are all asking this question: what do we do now? For those of us who have been committed to social justice work for many years, this political reality can feel so discouraging and exhausting. We thought we had made progress but it feels like we have taken a giant step backwards. So utterly discouraging.

In the midst of this despair, reading Facebook articles and disturbing acts of racism that are becoming normalized, I have been kept afloat by an article that has given me inspiration during these dark times. The article ‘The White Flight of Derek Black’, by the Washington Post (which I read just before Nov 8th) is such a powerful story of the power of connection and dialogue to create positive change in our society. The full article is here. Briefly, Derek Black was born into a family of prominent white supremacists and was completely indoctrinated into this ideology of white nationalism. He went to New College of Florida, a liberal arts college, and students found out that he was a racist. While most of the lefty students ostracized Derek Black, a Jewish student by the name of Matthew Stephenson, decided to invite Derek Black to his weekly Shabbat suppers. This was after knowing that Derek Black had written extremely anti-semetic statements on his Stormfront website, such as ‘Jews worm their way into power. They must go.’ and ‘Jews are NOT white.’ To make a long story short (and I highly encourage you to read the full article – it is an amazing story!), Derek Black becomes part of Matthew Stephenson’s Shabbat community, and they build a relationship that is strong enough to start to honestly dialogue about his viewpoints. Derek begins to question his views, and in the end, he publicly denounces the white nationalist movement.

The article is very focused on the story of Derek Black, which is a fascinating story. But I have been thinking a lot about Matthew Stephenson, who is only featured briefly in the story. In my opinion, Matthew Stephenson is an unsung hero, and I am inspired by his bravery, to consciously invite someone who is publicly anti-Semitic to his Shabbat supper table. He extends a hand and expresses love, to someone who hates him (or fears him). And that connection changed the trajectory of Derek Black’s life in such a profound (and positive) way.

I wonder what gave Matthew Stephenson the bravery to make this critical choice, to invite Derek Black to his supper table. Could I make that choice, to invite someone who hated me (or feared me) to break bread together? How many times have I done this – consciously reached out to connect with someone who doesn’t share my lefty politics, my anti-oppressive practice, my enthusiasm for social justice? I sheepishly have to say, never. I do the opposite – become defensive and angry, turn away, create a barrier, and encircle myself with ‘my people’, those who share my views. But what could life look like, if I was open to real, difficult dialogue?

Maybe change can happen for the good, through connecting across difference and engaging in honest and authentic dialogue. By that, I don’t mean fights on Facebook, but I mean breaking bread with people who are different from us, in their viewpoints and policy perspectives. By authentic dialogue, I mean staying in the conversation even when it gets tough and feels painful, listening with an openness that allows space for silence instead of constant rebuttal. Dialogue instead of debate.

I think there are so many valid responses to the messed up society we are living in right now, and I don’t want this post to invalidate anyone else’s response. We have a right to our anger, and there is a lot to be angry about right now. But for me, in terms of where I’m at, I am putting my ‘eggs into the basket’ of connection and dialogue, where I believe there is potential for fundamental, radical change. If Derek Black could change his perspective and denounce white supremacy because of Shabbat suppers, then I believe there is hope for widespread change.

P.S: I need to do a shoutout to the amazing Colour Code Podcast about race in Canada, by Denise Balkisoon and Hannah Sung. It is through listening to this podcast that I was introduced to the Derek Black article, and I am thankful for this! If you haven’t listened to Colour Code yet, it is amazing, and so important that we openly talk about these issues.



Strangers Meeting – Bridging Social Capital

I think a lot about social spaces, where people meet each other, and connect, even if its for an instance. I am especially interested in connections that go ‘outside the box’, outside of our comfort zone, stretch our understandings. When we have a choice, generally we stick with people who are similar to us – similar often in education level and class, age, family status, political opinons, ethnic background etc.

There’s been a lot written on social capital and Putnam’s concepts of Bonding and Bridging. While we rely more heaving on our bonding relationships, it is actually our bridging relationships that can move us forward in life, transform us, help us in finding new jobs, new ways of thinking etc etc.

I think a lot happens, individually and socially, when we’re in spaces with people who we don’t know, who we aren’t comfortable with, who come from a different ‘walk of life’. I am currently teaching at my local community college, and what I love most about it is the diversity of my students, and seeing this interaction and conversation happening. The learning feels so much deeper when experience and points of views are so drastically divergent. And if I, as a teacher, can keep the space safe so that everyone can speak freely, then it feels like transformative learning can happen.

A few examples of bridging social capital:

1. Social media – explosion of bridging – this is an amazing example of a Prof showing the power of bridging and social relationships through twitter with a 1.5 contest –!

2. One of the many unsung benefits of volunteering is the opportunity that volunteers have of building their social capital, through meeting people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. The most interesting example that I have seen is in a Meals-on-Wheels program. For Meals-on-Wheels, I recruited ‘drivers’ and ‘runners’. The drivers need to own their own car, have time in the day and drive to deliver the meals. The runners go with the drivers, sit in their cars, and deliver the meals. The drivers were VERY hard to recruit, because we needed to find people who owned their own cars but had time during the day to volunteer. So – I recruited mainly retired middle-class people and people who ran their own business (with flexible schedules). For example, I recruited my real estate agent, who has loads of money and owns a big chunk of the west-end of Toronto! The runners were easy to recruit, and many of our runner volunteers faced barriers to work and social participation for a variety of reasons. To be a runner, you needed to be reliable, friendly and polite. That’s it – you didn’t need to read or write English or possess other skills that other volunteer roles required. SO – bridging social capital was happening in those cars every day. My real estate agent actually spoke with me a few times about the learning that she had, meeting people who she would not otherwise meet and understanding the challenges they faced in life. It was an eye-opener for her, not just delivering the meals but through the meeting of other volunteers.

3. I love this – I don’t know that it really counts as building social capital because I’m not sure if the relationships in any way continue after the photo is taken. But I love that this photographer is challenging the norms of ‘strangeness’ and creating intimacy in the moment –!