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“That was really good,” Tyree told me at the end of the meeting. “Sitting down face-to-face changes everything!” 

A home healthcare worker studying to become a teacher, this marked the first Bridging the Divide event Tyree attended. Although we at Bridging the Divide had been hosting bridge-building conversations for several years, this meeting marked another first--it was the first time we used a free Conversation Guide produced by Living Room Conversations. 

“Our topic tonight is the ‘America We Want to Be,’” I announced to kick-off our discussion. I scanned the room pleased to see racially and politically diverse participants. “Let’s get into groups of four, preferably with people you don’t already know, and a group leader will navigate you through the LRC guidance.”

“What role do you experience our history playing in America today?” asked Dawn, one of the small group leaders.

“Slavery is a major part of our history,” Tyree said. “My ancestors were considered ⅗ of a person.”

“That ⅗ rule was wrong, but I’ve read that it was written by Northern abolitionists to reduce the population count of the South and deprive the it of members of Congress,” said Dan.

“My parents are immigrants from China,” said Jen. “So it’s hard to watch how immigrants are being treated today. I hope I’m not told to go back where I came from.”

“I grew up in India, where there’s a caste system,” said Devya. “It wasn’t until I came to America that I learned what life was like without one.”

The LRC Conversation Guide offered us a well-organized structure to have a meaningful conversation about our country’s history and the values we cherish today. 

“I liked how the guidance got us to talk specifically about our views, rather than broad generalizations,” said Dan as we wrapped-up.

“This made me think about my family’s history and how it plays into my political beliefs,” Jen said. “Very thought provoking.” 

The feedback of LRC’s Guide was positive, but nobody professed to have changed their mind on any of their pre-held views. Over the years hosting bridge-building conversations in the San Francisco Bay Area, skeptics have asked me, “What’s the point if nobody changes their mind?” It’s an interesting question to consider in our divided times.

The goal of the LRC Guide was not to compete in a debate or convert anyone to a certain way of thinking. Rather, the goal was to connect diverse members of our community and communicate. Not as enemies, but as people and neighbors. That’s exactly what happened. We told our stories, spoke about our values, and listened to others who did the same.

It’s a reminder of an important but simple truth: sitting down face-to-face changes everything. Our human nature yearns to be connected with each other. The power of connecting with our neighbors in spite of perceived differences speaks directly to our souls, gently reminding us that there is hope. 

Agreement across lines of division isn’t always easy to find. Yet here is an example of a diverse group of seemingly divided citizens who overwhelmingly agreed that our two-hour bridge-building discussion was worthwhile. Perhaps telling our stories, speaking about our values, and listening to each other is the America we want to be.

J. Christopher Collins is the founder of the Bridging the Divide project at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and the author of the forthcoming book Reconstruction Revival: A Citizen’s Guide to Healing Division in Our Relationships, Communities and Country. @J_Chris_Collins

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