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By Peter Adler, Director, The Accord Network 3.0, Former President, The Keystone Center, Mediator, Author and Teacher
Originally posted on the Can We Keep It Facebook page.


“We’re making good time but we’re hopelessly lost.” – Yogi Berra

I have been thinking a lot about civility and the Great American Tribal Divides we face. Civility and tribalism discussions connect to other subjects. Politics. Cooperation. Hope. Fear. The drivers of change. We talk about these things frequently at The ACCORD3.0 Network (www.accord3.com).

Most of us in our network try to preach, practice, and teach a particular approach to conflict and we seem to have a latent hunger to influence bigger political tides. We are not naive but our way of engaging conflict is different from political neocons, predatory business competitors, religious moralists, pure technocrats, and conflict avoiders.

It has something to do with that bigger bundle of stuff we lump together as “leadership” but at the more collaborative end of the “Compete/Cooperate” paradox all leaders face when time and circumstance combust.

Too often I see us gut-reacting to the events that have brought a bunch of Trumpty Dumptys to prominence in DC and the jarring national and international trends: income disparities, a shrinking middle class, the loss of hope for financial security, a serious decline in upward mobility, a vortex of administrative proceduralisms that is more and more strangling, a rise of nationalist populism and authoritarian impulses, and so on and so on.

But there is another perspective, not fully “counter” to that discussion, but a different trail to follow. Three points (or dots) I’m connecting.

First, I’m struck again by the many different things people in my network actually do on tough issues like water security, endangered species, and pollution. Some of my colleagues do experimental projects on citizen participation. Others are working on regional alliance building, or teamwork in corporations. Improving county planning efforts on climate adaptation. Internal alignment work in state agencies.

Look at the array! Strategic planning, settling unproductive litigations, running fact finding efforts on snarky issues, helping communities have difficult conversations, or breaking deadlocks. We really do a lot of diverse and interesting and somehow related stuff, most of it under the public radar screen and often not long lived or long remembered.

What we seem to have in common are some shared values, some useful strategies and choreographies, and a fine repertoire of tools and techniques. My crosscutting observation is that 99% of the work we all do is local, granular, and particular and about incubating the collective leadership of others on specific problems.

Most of the time we kindred spirits apply ourselves locally or on very specific locale-based challenges and problems. The national political mood may cast a shadow over us personally, but does it really infiltrate our actual work? Does it really matter to the complexities of local people dealing with local problems?

Second, most of us are well read and reflective. We are attuned to the tidal oscillations of social and economic matters, and sensitive to the toxic atmospheres personified in the political frothing in our national and state capitols.

Like the real fires in California, the social and economic landscape is ablaze with partisan politics, school shootings, red-meat (and sometimes blue-meat) dog whistling and gas lighting, fact-free assertions, and a sense of rising prejudice against Hispanics, homosexuals, blacks, Jews, Muslims and anyone who is not white.

But how does all that land when we are leading our different efforts in our communities on the future of a new transportation system or locale emergency preparedness or the positioning of a new building at a culturally sensitive site? My sense? Not very much.

Third, most of us actually don’t work on those bigger national “froth” issues in direct ways. Our projects and cases are more specific, the kinds of problems and issues discussed in Fallows’ outstanding book OUR TOWNS: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America (2018). If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

Over several years, journalist James Fallows and his wife Deborah flew a small plane around the country and dropped in on dozens of smaller cities and towns that don’t get a lot of national attention. Places like Rapid City SD, Duluth MN, Holland MI, Demopolis AL, and Eastport ME. They talked to different sorts of people, many of them local business, government, and community leaders trying to solve local problems. And they found something very different than the gloomy national narrative we keep bemoaning.

Turns out little towns aren’t perfect, but they seem to be more resilient, creative, and perhaps more immune to the toxicities of the national environment than we think. Maybe size really does matter!

What are they preoccupied with or working on? Traffic snarls and bike paths. The pluses and minuses of new industries. Homelessness. Waterfronts. Housing. Challenges at local universities and community colleges. Budgets and taxes. Downtown revitalizations and beautifications. Social services. Local parks. The plants and animals in their places. And just about everywhere the Fallows’ went: schools.

At the end of 400 pages of very readable reporting, they summarized their journey with 10 crosscutting signs of civic success:

  1. People work together on practical local possibilities rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.
  2. You can pick out the local leaders. They are visible and known and they move and shake in different ways.
  3. The phrase “public-private partnership” is something real.
  4. People know their own story. They know what’s going on and will tell you.
  5. They have downtowns, real main streets that people use.
  6. They are near a research university.
  7. They have, and care about, their community college.
  8. They have distinctive and innovative schools.
  9. They make themselves open. They seek to attract good people, including immigrants.
  10. They all have big plans.

So the question in my mind is this. Other than a certain impulse I feel to retreat to a cabin in the woods or have myself cryogenically frozen until we have changes in DC, how do those issues covered relentlessly on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and all the social media outlets actually affect what we are working on?

Moreover, what’s the actual evidence that the corrosive larger politics and the sour national atmosphere of the day is infiltrating positive work on the ground? How does it really affect work on water with irrigators, Indians, and water regulators, or work on false killer whales, and efforts with Native Hawaiians?

We kindred spirits work on discrete issues, specific problems, and particular challenges, not big ideological religious wars. That’s our sweet spot. Even though the national malaise bothers me and seems to preoccupy and hang over us, it’s not clear to me how it all impinges on the problems we actually work on. I try to stay buoyant but at the end of the day, I take refuge and a bit of consolation in the starfish throwing blog I did a while back.

You can find it at https://accord3blog.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/starfish-throw/.

If you got this far, thanks for bearing with me. If not, it’s quite OK. Either way, please enjoy family and community, go for a walk, take a nap, plant gardens, or watch some sports. And for those so moved, keep moving on…