Americans working to heal divisions in the Re-United States

February 21, 2021

“The Reunited States” sparks optimism. There are indeed people around the country who are trying to promote reconciliation and mend divisions. To genuinely make nice, they realize, the hard work starts with listening to the other side.

If your mother was like mine, you were told to “make nice” when you were growing up. It was your mom’s way of making sure you behaved in a polite or friendly manner.

Lately, it seems, a lot of Americans aren’t ready to make nice.

Even amid calls for unity in the country — the theme of President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech — there’s scant agreement about what unity looks like. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are ready to take a unity pledge. It’s not even clear that many people want to be unified with their fellow Americans.

But political differences are just the tip of the iceberg, symptomatic of our larger and deeper divisions — according to race, religion, economics, geography and gender. The Democratic and Republican labels provide cover for a profound brokenness in our country.

That revelation came to David and Erin Leaverton during a 50-state journey with a simple mission: meet and talk to Americans about what matters in their lives. It’s a method that’s very familiar to me as a longtime mediator — to resolve disputes, begin by looking at underlying interests.

The family sold their home in Dallas, Texas, bought an RV and traveled across the country with their three small children, hoping to listen and learn how to heal what divides us. A former Republican strategist, David Leaverton regretted his contributions to our toxic political climate.

The Leavertons are featured in a new documentary, “The Reunited States,” executive produced by political commentator Van Jones and Meghan McCain, co-host of “The View.” The movie — which airs on CNN this month — was inspired by Mark Gerzon’s early-2016 book, “The Reunited States of America.” The National Conflict Resolution Center is a promotional partner.

The couple came face-to-face with an uncomfortable realization: that divisions are borne of a belief that certain people have more value than other people. The Leavertons saw the consequences of this thinking when they visited a Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico. There, they met a man who described the grim living conditions, with little in the way of opportunity but rampant crime, alcohol and contamination from uranium mines, the last of which were closed in the late 1990s.

In Oklahoma, Erin Leaverton was profoundly touched by her conversation with a Black woman who told her, “I don’t like White people.” She went on to explain her experience in a hospital emergency room: Left unattended and in distress for several hours, she prematurely delivered her baby. The infant died. The woman believes she was ignored because she was Black, unwed and poor. As a mother herself, Leaverton was brought to tears as she processed the painful reality of a life needlessly lost due to disparate care.

“The Reunited States” also features Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed when a car mowed down counterprotesters at the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. Bro has embarked on a quest for social justice in her daughter’s name, to reduce hate crimes in our country. She is practically apologetic about the attention paid to Heyer, a White woman, especially as Black Americans continue to be killed by police. Bro travels the U.S. urging people to have difficult conversations about race and better understand the subject, so hearts and minds can change.

The movie sparks optimism. There are indeed people around the country who are trying to promote reconciliation and mend divisions. To genuinely make nice, they realize, the hard work starts with listening to the other side.

Still, I wonder if the task of transformational change will fall to the next generation. That’s the premise behind the Millennial Action Project (MAP), a bipartisan organization founded in 2013 whose mission is to support young leaders committed to countering polarization in our country. MAP’s founder and CEO, Steven Olikara, is also featured in “The Reunited States.”

The group was formed out of a deep concern about the country’s direction and a belief that the next generation of leaders has the potential — and the urgency — to change course. MAP works directly with young policymakers on both a national and state level to identify and promote innovative policy solutions to issues affecting younger Americans. The group’s 1,500 members have advanced legislation on critical matters, including entrepreneurship, technology, skills training, immigration and volunteerism.

Olikara was inspired in part by Robert F. Kennedy, who was fond of pointing out that the generation with the fewest ties to our country’s past has the greatest stake in its future. If they are indeed motivated to do more than engage in political battles, our young people may finally restore the unity that seems so elusive now.

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Rep. Sara Jacobs


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