Art, history and philanthropy can bridge America’s divide
A “Black Lives Matter” flag billows from my neighbor’s porch. At a home across the street, a “Trump 2020” flag flies atop a pole. My house sits between the two, with a small yard sign promoting the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, an advocacy statement that represents a kind of idea — helping vulnerable youth — that draws Americans of all political persuasions together, no matter which flag they fly.
It’s the kind of thing we need to talk about much more often.
Even as partisan disagreements have intensified, compassionate and beautiful cornerstones of American life remain. Americans’ historical, faith-based and civic foundations are strong enough to weather the storms of tribalism.
It starts — and endures — with individuals choosing to be part of the solution by participating in local life for the betterment of our neighbors and, in turn, our society.
By elevating public discourse and mutual respect through art, culture, philanthropy, faith traditions and values that have always been alive in our nation, we can begin to heal the divisions.
Many aspects of American civic life have never been divisive. In 1904, a New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter noticed how many young boys were getting into legal trouble. He recognized how caring adults could help guide these young men and set out to find volunteers.
Now, 116 years later, that legacy endures in Big Brothers Big Sisters. And statistics prove the importance of mentoring programs for vulnerable youth, something few would argue against.
Community service brings us together
Volunteer paperwork doesn’t include a check box for political preference, and it likely never will. It is in these areas we can come together. When you work with others to lay bricks for Habitat for Humanity or deliver groceries to disabled senior citizens, the content of one’s character, not their preferred political candidate, becomes evident.
Researcher and author Brene Brown nails the reason why these ventures bind us together, noting the “spiritual belief of inextricable connection,” which asks “How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?”
So many aspects of American life remain free of political division — if only we pay attention to them. Nonpartisan volunteer and artisan-focused ventures aid in human flourishing and empowering neighbors in ways we can all appreciate.
No matter how much criticism we have of someone of an opposing political persuasion, these parts of our humanity rise above our baser instincts to demonize others. Conversely, we also bond over the rights and freedoms that allow us to express our differences.
And yet, political dissent also exemplifies these freedoms. It is a vital aspect of our status as Americans, something we can all be thankful for, as we see Iranian journalists imprisoned and Russian political dissidents killed for speaking out.
From the ability to march fearlessly in protest mere steps from the White House lawn to brazenly criticizing contentious policies and campaigning to fairly elect preferred political leaders, we are exceptionally bound together by our freedoms.
How art can unite us
Through books, protest, art work and activism, Americans have always spoken out and continue to do so today — elevating the causes they care about, including things America’s Founders were wrong about, which is the beauty of our Republic.
In Indianapolis, the Harrison Center, a community-based non-profit arts center, features "Some Books Make Us Free," an exhibit dedicated to reminding people of this vital aspect of American citizenship. It features art work such as an original printing of Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America," Jean Jacques Rousseau’s "Social Contract" and an early printing of the Magna Carta. Visitors can pause to appreciate the flawed, shared and incredible history that led us to this moment in time.
“We must bring our intellectual inheritance to bare as we begin conversations on incredibly important, but incredibly sensitive, topics such as overcoming racial injustice today,” said Alexandra Hudson, the curator of the Harrison Center exhibit who is writing a book on civil discourse. “We have moral distance from our past, which allows us to celebrate and emulate the good while condemning the depraved. We need to look to our history to inspire us today.”
On the precipice of a highly divisive presidential election, now more than ever, we must recover a sense of shared American identity. In a recent USA TODAY poll, 60% of Americans said they still believe the United States is “the greatest” or “one of the greatest” countries on earth. That belief binds us as we acknowledge our nation's failures — and as we strive to make it better.
“The first casualty in a culture, political or generational war is the willingness to see the full humanity of the other,” wrote columnist David Brooks.
It’s a choice we make. Now is the time to elevate the timeless, historical vessels of art, tradition and generosity. It is through these lenses, we can clearly view the humanity of another.
Ericka Andersen is author of “Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness.” Follow her on Twitter: @ErickaAndersen