In a September 2020 interview with the Minnesota Reformer, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz remarked, “If we don’t address … race and inequities now, I don’t think you get another chance at it. It just becomes an irreconcilable split or division (that) just starts to spiral down. How do we continue to be a state of choice where people want to live?”
I wholeheartedly agree with Governor Walz. We must reduce the state’s profound inequities around educational achievement, wages, home ownership and healthcare, with most of the inequities being based on skin color, socioeconomic status, and country of birth.
Even more, I concur that time is of the essence. With how fracture lines have formed between those who identify as liberal/progressive versus conservative, as well as urban versus rural, we appear to be headed in opposite directions. At some point, the worn societal fabric that’s been barely holding us together will split apart.
We may be only one more police-involved shooting or Proud Boys stand-your-ground incident away from real disaster. I shudder to think of what things will look like then.
Underlying Governor Walz’s messaging is this core reality: we are all afraid. Whites fear Black and Brown people; Black and Brown folks fear whites. The rich fear the poor — they are just sucking off the system. Religious liberals fear conservative religious nationalists. Straight and cisgender people fear LGBTQ+ folks. As a transgender person, I fear those who seek to erase my community — it is happening across America.
The list of fears is endless.
Because we are afraid, we retreat to our respective camps, with wagons circled. Throw in media machines that churn fear as a profit center, and we are headed down a road from which there will be no return, no second chances.
How do we fix things? Is there a magical solution? Can we ever get past the fear?
My answer: we have to continue to bravely work for it.
As we have seen with legislative efforts in various (mainly southern) states, many do not want to be made to feel “uncomfortable” by learning about America’s true past or by considering what is needed for true, lasting change.
First, we need to modify the language we use around change. Rather than “educating” people on historical and present-day marginalization, we should focus on “perspective changing.” If we inspire humans to see the world in a way they had never before considered, real change will happen. And it will stick far better than if we mandate training and re-learning.
The best way to change perspective is to talk with someone who is “Other,” or different, from you. I recently wrote about the Human Library, where it is possible to “check out” a human “book” — someone in a wheelchair, perhaps, or a person who identifies as Muslim or LGBTQ+ — and hear what it means to be that person. The result invites a sharing of experiences and a change in attitudes. Stereotypes and prejudices fall away. “I now understand that, despite difference experiences and backgrounds, we are ultimately more alike than different.”
Second, we must recognize that most people — blue or red, urban or rural, religious or not — want to be known for human compassion.
You may scoff at that statement, but in my work as a speaker/trainer on human inclusivity, I have found this to be consistently true. In big cities and small towns across the country I have offered this prompt: “The identity I want to be known for is…”
Respondents have all kinds of choices, many of which we might think people would jump at — “skin color,” “socioeconomic status,” “religious/spiritual affiliation,” and “LGBTQ+ status.” Rarely, however, do folks choose any of those options.
Instead, over and over, audience members tend to pick one identity they value above others: “compassion.” Most people have empathetic hearts and care about other humans. It is only because of fear or ignorance that we don’t show inherent empathy or compassion — instead, we run away or ignore.
Can you imagine a world where “compassion” is a daily value, where thought leaders model and speak of the need to have empathy and compassion for others? That kind of modeling works because we do, indeed, act on what our leaders tell us (just consider the leadership cues around mask-wearing and vaccines — or not).
Lastly, there will be no fixing of things without a different kind of political and social leadership. That leadership necessitates grand, bold imagination and thinking differently than we have ever done before. It requires pushing people. With due respect to Governor Walz (whom I admire), it takes way more than simply announcing, “we have one last chance.”
What have our leaders done to bridge the gap between urban and rural? Where are the thousands of listening sessions aimed at getting “us” and “them” talking to each other? Can we build hundreds of Human Libraries across the state? Can leaders message daily about healing our profound division? Who is talking about how to fix polarization?
I realize there are some initiatives aimed at helping us talk to each other, such as programs by the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Blandin Foundation. While incredibly important, these are simply not enough. We need a massive effort that literally reshapes how Minnesotans view each other.
As for me, I am a “hopeless idealist” trying to change the world. I know there are more of us in this state who want to be part of this work. Let us find each other.