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Bridging is uncomfortable, but deep curiosity can help us build a future of belonging.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a concert hall full of strategists, academics, organizers, advocates and communicators for social change at the Othering & Belonging Conference in Oakland, California. We had just spent two days learning and talking about the concept of belonging without othering. I was eager to hear one of the last panels at the conference, which focused on long-bridging for democracy

DeAngelo Bester, Myriam Méndez Montalvo, Pastor Bob Roberts and Omar Salha each took their turn introducing themselves and sharing an overview of their work as “bridgers.” I was not familiar with any of the panelists beforehand, and when I saw a pastor was on the panel, I was confused but open. When Pastor Bob Roberts introduced himself as an evangelical pastor from Texas, my stomach sank. I grew up in Tennessee and spent many years, starting at age two, in Baptist daycare and summer camp. My past negative experiences with the church, particularly with Southern evangelicals, put me on high alert. I was bracing myself for the words that followed, but as he continued talking, I started to let my guard down. 

Pastor Bob is a co-founder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, an organization that works to build bridges among faith leaders from varying religious backgrounds. His work stemmed from his desire to deepen relationships with Muslim leaders in Dallas to help dismantle preconceived notions about Muslim people within the Christian church. You could hear the room receiving his words as he spoke, a sound I can only equate to a congregation listening to a Sunday sermon. I could not believe that I was connecting with a man who I had just unconsciously deemed an enemy before he had even opened his mouth. 

Down the row from Pastor Bob was Omar Salha, the founder of the Ramadan Tent Project, an organization based in the U.K. that holds Iftar dinners — evening fast-breaking meals throughout the month of Ramadan —  in public spaces across England. He talked about the power of building belonging and turning “strangers into friends” through these meals. Omar addressed Pastor Bob at one point during the discussion and personally extended an invitation to one of the Ramadan Tent Project’s next events. They discussed the shared importance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, among both their faiths. 

The concept of bridging — engaging with people outside of our own group, including those who hold opposing political views —  was new to me. As I spoke with a handful of people at the conference many of them, for valid reasons, shared their discomfort with the idea of bridging. How can we be expected to engage with people we don’t agree with when so many don’t see our humanity or support our liberation from systems of oppression? 

Kicking off the second day of the conference, Scott Shigeoka spoke about deep curiosity as a way to bridge belonging with those who have “othered” us — and those we have “othered.” He talked about the connections we make when we approach people across political, social and perceived moral divides with curiosity, and how this creates space for meaningful dialogue that ultimately changes hearts and minds. 

There are some people we will never be able to convince. We do not have to engage with those who downright reject our humanity and right to exist in the world as our full selves — nor should we be expected to. As Scott shared, “deep curiosity is earned, not deserved.”   

I think back to all the conversations I had with my Aunt Connie at her kitchen table before she passed. She was a staunch conservative who valued tradition and patriotism. We would sit and talk about our political differences for hours, but at the end of the day, our values were the same. It was through those conversations that I realized despite her conservative views and the way she voted, she rejected racism, homophobia, classism and other forms of “othering.” Once I understood this, I felt she had earned my curiosity and I had earned her’s and it allowed us to go deeper. 

Spitfire’s President Jen Carnig, said it well, “Some of the best allies are the ones who never envisioned being in a room together. The things we’re fighting for — justice and accountability, dignified work, fulfilling lives, access to opportunity, freedom from oppression — are the principles that the vast majority of people in this country support.”

We are all more than the narrow ideological, political boxes we’ve assigned ourselves and each other. Many of us agree on the critical societal issues, but election cycles and political division prevents us from seeing our shared struggles and desire for change. Bridging can help us overcome barriers to connection and understanding. I won’t pretend it isn’t hard, and before this panel I wasn’t sure if it was possible to effectively build bridges with those we don’t agree with on the surface. 

DeAngelo, Myriam, Pastor Bob and Omar all inspired me with their words and the tangible ways each of them are building bridges for belonging. You can watch the panel here. I hope it inspires social change leaders and communicators to consider how we can all practice bridging as a strategy, and through our messages, create a future where we all see and value each other’s humanity. 

This entry was posted on Monday, May 6, 2024 at 12:00 pm and is filed under Coalition, connection and network building. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.