Crossing Our Divides, One Honest Word at a Time

My column in the Brattleboro Reformer this month examines the role that honesty plays in our ability to cross divides, whether it’s a class divide, a racial divide, or if it’s about guns, a theme that run through The Benefits of Being an Octopus. I also had the chance to talk with Olga Peters on WKVT-Green Mountain Mornings Radio on this topic, and I’ll include the link below.

We have to believe that a less divided society is possible.

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Ann Braden: Crossing our divides, one honest word at a time

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Usually divisive issues are the last thing people want to talk about. For example, the class divide is at the root of so many stresses and conflicts in our society, but in our regular interactions class is rarely outwardly acknowledged, let alone discussed. Fortunately, the group Act for Social Justice is working to change that one conversation at a time.

For several years they’ve been offering a series of Cross-Class Dialogue Circles, and I’m currently participating in one in Bellows Falls. In the circle not only are we exploring the way class shapes our lives and build walls between people, but we’re practicing talking about it across class lines so that we can find ways to take down those walls.

Just the simple act of talking about something — especially something that’s often considered taboo — is powerful.

 Kiran at the National Muslim Women's Summit at Harvard University


Kiran at the National Muslim Women’s Summit at Harvard University

I recently had the opportunity to interview high school senior Kiran Waqar for a children’s book podcast I’m starting with Pakistani American author Saadia Faruqi called “Lifelines: Books That Bridge the Divide.” Thinking back about growing up in South Burlington, Kiran said, “I desperately tried to be white but obviously I was brown, obviously I was different ” It was when she came together with three other friends to form the slam poetry group called Muslim Girls Making Change that she stopped running away from conversations about racism. She explains, “Being able to go up on a stage with other people who understood where I was coming from really gave me the courage to say, ‘Okay, I’m not alone in this. There are other people who are just like me.’ Because if no one talks about this, then we’re all just hiding in the dark, and it’s time to come into the light. There’s so much more out there than being scared of your brown skin.”

Every time I have gotten to watch Muslim Girls Making Change perform I have left inspired by their bravery–and breathless at the power of words spoken with such clarity and truth.

Lucky for us, Muslim Girls Making Change will be performing at the Boys and Girls Club as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival’s second annual teen poetry slam, “Poetry, Prose & Pizza Slam” on Saturday April 21, at 8 p.m. In addition, earlier that day, Muslim Girls Making Change will be leading a workshop.

Even on the divisive issue of guns, people (and teens in particular) have found ways to speak about their aching need for safety and to bridge cultural divides.

We have all seen the inspiring videos of teens speaking at walkouts around the region and the country and at the Marches for Our Lives, but I want to talk about some of the students who aren’t at the microphone.

Two days ago, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop about finding common ground on the issue of guns at Rutland High School.

The students represented the full range of opinions on the issue, and together we discussed what they perceived to be the main talking points on each side.

We discussed the deep beliefs and emotions at the root of each side and looked for similarities.

And then, we brainstormed statements that represent the common ground between them.

As a group they ultimately offered up the shared desire for safety and the need to keep guns out of dangerous hands as a place of common ground.

The world of online comments might be ferocious right now, but here in this classroom, the conversation was thoughtful, honest, and filled me with hope. At the end when we went around the circle to capture the students’ final thoughts, the word that came up most was “unity.”

At the Cross Class Dialogue Circle, working together on an activity that explored the dynamics of inequity and division.

At the Cross Class Dialogue Circle, working together on an activity that explored the dynamics of inequity and division.

We have been conditioned to see the divides between us more than the similarities that bind us. But the right words make it possible to bring down those barriers.

In my first Cross Class Dialogue Circle the facilitators had us share the story of our experience with class before the age of 12, a time in each of our lives when we basically didn’t have control about where or how we were living. Those stories immediately highlighted each person’s empathy and vulnerability. Even though the 15 of us represent nearly every segment of economic class, when we sat in the circle together we were simply all human.

Our dialogue circle is finishing up today, but there will be another circle soon. For more information or to give a donation to help support future circles, visit: www.act4socialjustice.com/cross-class-dialogue-circles/.

As Kiran says, it’s time to stop hiding in the dark, and step out into the light.

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Green Mountain Mornings – WKVT

April 12, 2018: Ann Braden discusses her new podcast. Braden co-hosts ‘Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide’ with Saadia Faruqi. Braden also shares her thoughts on Vermont passing new gun legislation.

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