I don’t have a great answer to a question like “What do you do for a living?” I could say “underpinning my family” or “building community” or “saving the planet.” All these would be true without saying much. Aren’t we all doing that? I grew up near Philadelphia. In 1991, I took schoolkids into the woods in northern Minnesota, a place I felt instantly at home in. That led to me guiding canoe trips for kids, mostly for girls from families with limited resources. The newly emerging restorative justice movement resonated deeply with me, and I moved inside to work directly with teenage girls and their families.
Restorative circles provided the space for people to safely discuss harm, its impacts, repair, and moving forward. I partnered with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, as an employee of Amicus [which facilitated friendships between volunteers and people caught up in the legal system]. We trained professionals around the country in what works for girls and women. We recited mantras:
Hope is not an option; it is your job. Everyone has a story.
Life is messy.
We do not solve the problem; we clear the path.
There are countless conversations I will never forget, like the mother who said, “Our family has been in therapy for seven years, but we have never had a conversation like this.” Or the girl who told me, “The only time I believe in myself is when I’m in my [support] circle.”
It was also exhausting work. I was unable to carry so many stories for long.
My life took a quick turn when I met my husband, Mark. We married and bore two daughters in short order. My attention moved to my family. Twice we moved aboard a sailboat and sailed for a year at a time. Eventually we began a family charter sailing business on Lake Superior.
In 2008, our family accepted the enormity of the climate crisis. Sea Change Expeditions was born. We hosted sailing trips that focused on local climate impacts and engagement, especially with young people. I began to realize that the growing rancor of political sides was eroding potential pathways to save the planet.
I knew it was time for me to return to critical conversations. In order to find common agreement about the problems of climate change, I believed we needed to start over in the ways we communicate.
I would have to find people to share this mission with me.
Braver Angels, a national nonprofit focused on depolarizing politics and re-imagining what it means to be an American, got me started. I took their “depolarizing within” test and discovered that yes, I too was committing the common errors. I worked on myself.
Braver Angels online debates on highly contentious issues gave me practice. I witnessed both “sides” trusting the process enough to share their nuanced, personal views. I came away feeling calm, hopeful, and humbled.
Curiosity began to bubble up more naturally. I was bored with my own “silo.” I enjoyed reading different sources, venturing to new places, and meeting new people.
While finding common ground with anyone who wants to engage in a healthy debate is important, I realized that meant I also had to be willing to re-examine my own “side.” My views on divisive issues, from climate to pandemics, moved to the middle through this exploration. Family dinnertime discussions got a lot more interesting, and difficult.
A fellow board member for an organization that served traumatized women publicly chose not to sign a resolution that supported abortion. I admired her courage in signaling her convictions with others who felt differently. I learned a lot by walking into her church and reading a book that offered pro-life positions.
A local mining employee acquaintance once expressed appreciation for the way I had characterized an ecosystems debate in a column for our local newspaper. His wife told me that they now re-use Ziploc® bags and bring cloth bags to grocery stores. This compliment meant more to me than compliments from lifelong environmentalists.
Pandemic and virtual work has taught us that there is nothing like in-person, honest, eye-to-eye conversation. People are considering that they can be part of the solution to many of the world’s problems by changing day-to-day interactions. United fronts are being questioned, and people are pausing for longer in their reactions. How hopeful!
In our small North Shore community, interest in restorative justice is sprouting up in many places at once, bringing me nearly full circle from where I was engaged more than two decades ago.
As I grow older, I find myself less driven by adrenaline, pride, or passion to change the world. I am more energized by the simple gatherings in my own community that move us one step forward. My work is decidedly more local.
Despite the information and social media age, we remain social, spiritual, emotional, and physical beings. As my vision narrows, it also focuses.
Ask Yourself: Are You Polarized?
I remember two primary questions from the Braver Angels self-test I took years ago:
“To what extent do you assume positive motives to your own side and negative motives to the other side?”
“To what extent do you consider the most extreme versions of the other side against the most moderate versions of your own side?”
Braver Angels offers a variety of workshops, including “Red/Blue,” to better understand other viewpoints by clarifying disagreements, reducing stereotyped thinking, and building trust. braverangels.org
Volunteers of America absorbed the Amicus re-entry services, voamnwi.org/community-reentry