On Trust, Conversation, & Relationships from the Institute for American Values’ David Blankenhorn

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the sixth post in the series that details the experiences of David Blankenhorn, who is President of the Institute for American Values, which recently launched its Better Angels initiative, and which has been bringing people together across partisan divides for decades.

What is your group’s history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

Almost all think tanks focus either on the activity of government or the needs of individuals. IAV is distinctive in that we focus on civil society – those relationships and associations that exist in between the government and the individual. While often overlooked by both think tanks and policy makers, civil society is a big thing. From families to Little League to church socials to community service projects, the relationships and institutions of civil society take up most of our time and fill up most of our lives. This sphere of society is a primary incubator of our cultural values. In the 1980s and 1990s, we brought together liberals and conservatives to help reframe the conventional wisdom about the two-parent home, the importance of fathers, and the role of marriage. In the 2000s, we brought together American scholars and scholars from the Arab and Muslim world for sustained engagements on international civil society. We worked to give voice to those who had previously been voiceless, such as children of divorce and donor-conceived persons. And we brought together diverse scholars for a fresh investigation of thrift, which is the ethic of wise use. And in the 2010s, we are equipping up to eight millions Americans to become depolarizers in their communities and networks and make an enduring impact on American government and society in favor of nonpolar principles and practices.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Better Angels is not one organization, but rather a diverse group of leaders and co-sponsoring organizations working together to create a social movement. The three components of Better Angels are (1) scholarly research, (2) public argument, and (3) community organizing.

What We’ll Do: Years 1-3

In the area of public argument: annual reports to the nation, community presentations, articles and op-eds, media interviews, and a podcast series and other website-based and social media communications.

In the area of scholarly research: establishing the nation’s Leading Depolarization Indicators, contributing to the initiative’s educational and training curricula, convening interdisciplinary scholarly consultations on depolarization, publishing timely scholarly articles and reports, and evaluating the Better Angels initiative.

In the area of community organizing: recruiting and involving Better Angels affiliates, holding annual national conferences, creating, testing, and launching a national training program on nonpolar principles and practices, and helping to start new local initiatives for depolarization.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

We seek to be the change we want to make in the world, and our public conversation series models this.  Also, by partnering with grassroots organizations we are able to greatly increase the impact of our work.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

Stay true to mission and avoid mission creep.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement

Just as our topic is distinctive, so too is the way we approach our topic. Put simply, we aim to end the culture wars. Ending the culture wars does not mean putting an end to disagreements. Nor does it, or should it, mean splitting every issue down the middle. But it does mean putting an end to the paradigm of polarization that today so completely dominates, and so harmfully distorts, our entire public conversation.

That’s why we never call ourselves “liberal” or “conservative.” Why we focus so relentlessly on scholarly excellence aimed at reframing core issues. Why we insist on being interdisciplinary, bringing together scholars from across the human and natural sciences. Why we so often form diverse groups of scholars who work together over time, aiming for a fresh approach. Why we give such high priority to conversation and engagement. And why our signature product is the jointly authored public appeal or report.

What might you add to these ideas?

Patience and active listening to the other; the building of trust in relationships — when we wrote a public letter in 2001 to our counterparts in the Muslim and Arabic world (entitled, “What We Are Fighting For: A Letter from America”), they wrote us back in a public letter, surprised at having been addressed in a conversation. These letters were highly publicized in the Arabic world and in the Middle East and this led to the creation of our Shared Values project. The first year of the project was spent convincing the other side that we were trustworthy. It was only through patience and active listening of the other that we were able to accomplish this.

Where can others learn more about what you do?