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Utah citizen summit explores ways to bridge state, nation after divisive election season

By Marjorie Cortez. Reprinted from KSL.

SALT LAKE CITY — In what was part group therapy and part community conversation, participants in the Utah Citizen Summit spent a full day talking and listening Saturday about the best way to move forward after the divisive election season.

While many of the participants were elected officials and community leaders, bridging divides and reaching out to people who feel afraid or marginalized is everyone's job, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

"We have the responsibility to comfort them and tell them, 'We're in this together. You're a citizen. You're my neighbor. You're my friend. I’m not going to be silent and let something happen to you. We're in this together,'" Gill said.

Catherine M. Stokes, a community leader and a former public health care administrator in Illinois, said Utahns and Americans need to take inventory of who they are as the nation strives to move forward.

"Unless we face the reality of who we are, I do not believe we can get to the place we need to be," she said.

In many respects, overcoming differences starts with simply acknowledging one another. After a visit to Glacier National Park, Stokes gave the cookies she bought, which were shaped like the wildlife in the park, to her neighbor, a young Muslim boy.

His mother cried at the gesture. "She was so hungry for somebody to notice her child," Stokes said.

"You start with small steps."

Saturday's summit was an event of the Utah Civil and Compassionate Communities Initiative, which is led by Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox, a Republican, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, both Democrats. The initiative's primary sponsor is the Salt Lake Civil Network.

When the event was organized months ago, McAdams said he believed the hot topic of conversation would be health care. Then came bitterly fought national election and for some an outcome that left them afraid and shocked.

At the University of Utah, the reaction to the presidential election "was as if someone had passed away," said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

While McAdams said he is still processing the outcome, "one thing we know in our nation right now is that we are deeply troubled and deeply divided. That's true, regardless how this election had come out."

After the election, McAdams' office received telephone calls from refugee families, new Americans and others "who are saying, 'We're afraid,' who are taking (Trump) literally and seriously and wondering what their future holds. Are they going to be forced to leave this country? Are they going to be employable? Are they going to be able to secure the rights as American they're entitled to. I think that fear is deep."

But the daylong event was also an opportunity to celebrate uniquely Utah initiatives and laws that resulted from collaboration and cooperation: the Utah Compact, a statement of principles intended to guide the state's immigration debate, and the Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015.

Specifically addressing Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Republican, and former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a Democrat, author Mark Gerzon observed, "I don't know about you, but I can feel this level of trust and respect between these two men. … I think that's what I'm feeling more than any piece of legislation or any particular innovation. What I'm feeling is a sense of respect, collaboration and dialogue between the folks here on the stage."

Gerzon, author of "Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide," added: "Clearly that magic sauce seems to be missing on the national level. I know for a fact that's missing in other states."

Liz Joyner, executive director of The Village Square, said Salt Lake City's collaborative approach to problem solving and dealing with difficult community issues "has been on our radar for a long time."

The nation could learn from Utah's example, she said.

"I think you have something really special, which is in no small part due to the LDS Church," Joyner said.

Joan Blades, founding partner of Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit organization that encourages people of different backgrounds to share their perspectives in small group settings "with a few basic ground rules," encouraged Utahns to keep talking to one another.

"When we care about each other, we hear each other differently and everything changes," she said.

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