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On Being episodes in The Civil Conversations Project.

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angel Kyodo williams is one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing. She is an esteemed Zen priest and the second black woman recognized as a teacher in the Japanese Zen lineage. For those of us who are not monastics, she says, the world is our field of practice. To sink into conversation with her is to imagine and nourish the transformative potential of this moment toward human wholeness.

“Our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure,” America Ferrera says, “it’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations.” She is a culture-shifting actor and artist. John Paul Lederach is one of our greatest living architects of social transformation. From the inaugural On Being Gathering, a revelatory, joyous exploration of the ingredients of social courage and how change really happens in generational time.

Lennon Flowers and Rev. Jennifer Bailey embody a particular wisdom of millennials around grief, loss, and faith. Together they created The People’s Supper, which uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives. Since 2017, they have hosted more than 1,500 meals. In the words they use, the practices they cultivate, and the way they think, Flowers and Bailey issue an invitation not to safe space, but to brave space.

We’d heard Derek Black, the former white-power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past, but never about the college friendships that changed him. After Derek’s ideology was outed at the New College of Florida, Matthew Stevenson (one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus) invited him to Shabbat dinner. What happened next is a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says we must love our country the way we love our friends — and not spare the hard truths. “Can you get to a place where citizens are encouraged to see themselves critically, where they’re encouraged to see their history critically?” he asks. Coates is a poetic journalist and a defining voice of our times. He’s with us in a conversation that is joyful, hard, kind, soaring, and down-to-earth all at once. He spoke with Krista as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival.

Darnell Moore says honest, uncomfortable conversations are a sign of love — and that self-reflection goes hand-in-hand with culture shift and social evolution. A writer and activist, he’s grown wise through his work on successful and less successful civic initiatives, including Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to remake the schools of Newark, New Jersey, and he is a key figure in the ongoing, under-publicized, creative story of The Movement for Black Lives. This conversation was recorded at the 2019 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England.

Applied philosopher Jonathan Rowson insists on holding a deeper appreciation for how our inner worlds influence our outer worlds. His research organization, Perspectiva, examines how social change happens across “systems, souls, and society.” “If we can get better and more nimble and more generous about how we move between those worlds, then the chance of creating a hope that makes sense for all of us is all the greater,” he says. We engage his broad spiritual lens on the great dynamics of our time, from social life to the economy to the climate.

We must shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed and painter Titus Kaphar lead us in an exploration of that as a public adventure in this conversation at the Citizen University annual conference. Gordon-Reed is the historian who introduced the world to Sally Hemings and the children she had with President Thomas Jefferson, and so realigned a primary chapter of the American story with the deeper, more complicated truth. Kaphar collapses historical timelines on canvas and created iconic images after the protests in Ferguson. Both are reckoning with history in order to repair the present.

Community organizers Rami Nashashibi and Lucas Johnson have much to teach us about using love — the most reliable muscle of human transformation — as a practical public good. Nashashibi is the founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a force for social healing on Chicago’s South Side. Johnson is the newly-named executive director of The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project. In a world of division, they say despair is not an option — and that the work of social healing requires us to get “proximate to pain.”

A civil rights elder and speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Vincent Harding brought the wisdom of the movement to young people in hurting places. He offers the image of a “live human signpost” as a guiding light toward the kind of support and mentorship we can offer one another in the path toward a beloved community. “When it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation,” he says. “But my own deep, deep conviction is that the knowledge, like all knowledge, is available to us if we seek it.”

Rami Nashashibi is a champion for how art can make humans visible to each other. He brings a new energy to Islam’s core commitment to beauty and humanity — and to the power of stories to heal and electrify us across geography and generation, culture and faith. He founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on Chicago’s South Side, where he also lives with his family. “The arts have become the real factor for us in both humanizing each other’s stories, connecting our stories, and revealing to one another the possibilities of what a better world can look like,” he says.

A rabbi and parent, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wants us to think about how we might teach our children’s souls, not just their minds. She says nurturing the spiritual lives of our children is the work of understanding for ourselves “what really matters in life, what’s precious, what’s more important than earning a living and going through our daily routine.”

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah offers hope for quiet, sustained culture shift through the “endless shared conversation” of friendship. The writer of the New York Times “Ethicist” column studies how deep social change happens across time and cultures. “If you have that background of relationship between individuals and communities that is conversational, then when you have to talk about the things that do divide you, you have a better platform.”

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ó Tuama and Corrymeela extend a quiet, generative, and joyful force far beyond their northern coast to people around the world. Over cups of tea and the experience of bringing people together, he says it becomes possible to talk with each other and be in the same room with the people we talk about.

“Imagine yourself alone on this planet. Would anything be the same?” Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, and historian who wants to change the way we talk to ourselves and each other about suicide and staying alive — starting with her insistence that we believe each other into being. “Sometimes when you can’t see what’s important about you, other people can.”

Editor’s note: Given the focus of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s work, this episode briefly touches on the topic of suicide.

The poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine says every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. But she says all of us — and especially white people — need to find a way to talk about it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Her bestselling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, catalogued the painful daily experiences of lived racism for people of color. Claudia models how it’s possible to bring that reality into the open — not to fight, but to draw closer. And she shows how we can do this with everyone, from our intimate friends to strangers on airplanes.

What we are naming with the impetus of #MeToo is, at best, an opening to a long-term cultural reckoning to grow up humanity; to make our society more whole. We explore this with psychotherapist Avi Klein, who works with men and couples, and feminist journalist Rebecca Traister. In a room full of journalists, at the invitation of the Solutions Journalism Network, we explored how to build the spaces, the imaginative muscle, and the pragmatic forms to support healing for women and men, now and in time.

We Americans revere the creation of wealth. Anand Giridharadas wants us to examine this and how it shapes our life together. This is a challenging conversation but a generative one: about the implicit moral equations behind a notion like “win-win” — and the moral compromises in a cultural consensus we’ve reached, without reflecting on it, about what and who can save us.

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