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Civil Conversations & Social Healing

On Being episodes in The Civil Conversations Project.

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The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” He is singularly wise about the deep meaning and the problem of borders. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The possibility of our time, as he lives and witnesses with his writing, is to evolve the old melting pot to the 21st-century richness of “us” — with all the mess and necessary humor required.

Through the ruptures of the past year and more, we’ve been given so much to learn, and callings to live differently. But how to do that, and where to begin? Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, and his original insights into racialized trauma in all kinds of bodies, have offered new ways forward for us all. So we said yes when Resmaa proposed that he join On Being together with Robin DiAngelo. She has been a foremost white voice in our civilizational grappling with whiteness. This conversation is not comfortable, but it is electric and it opens possibility.

“I’m entering into this next phase… with a great deal of curiosity and perhaps tenderness, wanting to hold each other tight, because I think that there are ramifications of last year that have yet to be felt.” Rev. Jen Bailey is a wise young pastor and social innovator, and a “friend of a different generation” of Krista. This conversation is a loving adventure in cross-generational mapmaking and care. Jen is a leader in a widening movement that is “healing the healers” — sustaining individuals, organizers, and communities for the long, life-giving transformations ahead.

This conversation came about in partnership with Encore.org.

Jason Reynolds is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature of the Library of Congress — and a magnificent source of wisdom for human society as a whole. He’s driven by compassion and the clear-eyed honesty that the young both possess and demand of the rest of us. Ibram X. Kendi chose him to write the YA companion to Stamped from the Beginning. In his person, Jason Reynolds both embodies and inspires innate human powers of fortitude and imagination. Hear him on “breathlaughter”; the libraries in all of our heads; and a stunning working definition of anti-racism: “simply the muscle that says humans are human… I love you, because you remind me more of myself than not.”

The pandemic memoirs began almost immediately, and now comes another kind of offering — a searching look at the meaning of the racial catharsis to which the pandemic in some sense gave birth and voice and life. Tracy K. Smith co-edited the stunning book, There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis, a collection of 40 pieces that span an array of BIPOC voices from Edwidge Danticat to Reginald Dwayne Betts, from Layli Long Soldier to Ross Gay to Julia Alvarez. Tracy and Michael Kleber-Diggs, who also contributed an essay, join Krista for a conversation that is quiet and fierce and wise. They reflect inward and outward, backwards and forwards, from inside the Black experience of this pivotal time to be alive.

The classic economic theory embedded in western democracies holds an assumption that human beings will almost always behave rationally in the end and make logical choices that will keep our society balanced on the whole. Daniel Kahneman is the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that this is simply not true. There’s something sobering — but also helpfully grounding — in speaking with this brilliant and humane scholar who explains why none of us is an equation that computes. As surely as we breathe, we will contradict ourselves and confound each other.

Hanif Abdurraqib’s writing is filled with lyricism, rhythm, people and precision. In his essays and poetry, he introduces readers to a soundscape of Black performance and Black joy: we hear hip-hop and jazz, we hear Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. Music and performance of every kind are the source of his fascination, focus and wisdom: what makes people cry, or feel safe, or brave; held in struggle, joy, or love. Hanif is interviewed by our colleague, Pádraig Ó Tuama, a poet himself and the host of On Being Studios’ Poetry Unbound podcast, now in its third season.

Layli Long Soldier is a writer, a mother, a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. She has a way of opening up this part of her life, and of American life, to inspire self-searching and tenderness. Her award-winning first book of poetry, WHEREAS, is a response to the U.S. government’s official apology to Native peoples in 2009, which was done so quietly, with no ceremony, that it was practically a secret. Layli Long Soldier offers entry points for us all — to events that are not merely about the past, and to the freedom real apologies might bring.

Across the past year, and now as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds with Minneapolis in fresh pain and turmoil, we return again to the grounding insights of Resmaa Menakem. He is a Minneapolis-based therapist and trauma specialist who activates the wisdom of elders, and very new science, about how all of us carry in our bodies the history and traumas behind everything we collapse into the word “race.” We offer up his intelligence on changing ourselves at a cellular level — practices towards the transformed reality most of us long to inhabit.

“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.

The glory that coexists in human life right alongside our weird propensity to choose what is not good for us; the difference between a place of sheer loss and a sacred space for mourning; grace as something muscular amidst the muck and mess of reality. These are some of the places of musing, sweeping perspective, and raw wisdom a conversation with Serene Jones takes us. And after hearing this, you’ll never think in the same way again about Woody Guthrie, or John Calvin, or what a Christian upbringing in Oklahoma might be.

Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vuong on March 8, 2020 in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But no one guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. Most stunning is how presciently, exquisitely Ocean speaks to the world we have come to inhabit— its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.

“I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”

Our colleague Lucas Johnson catches up with one of his mentors, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons. Now a member of the National Council of Elders, she was a teenager when she joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer. She shares what she has learned about exhaustion and self-care, spiritual practice and community, while engaging in civil rights organizing and deep social healing. Dr. Simmons was raised Christian and later converted to the Sufi tradition of Islam.

We’re in a tender spiritual moment, widely feeling our need for re-grounding both alone and together. By way of the Almighty force of Zoom, Krista engages a forward-looking conversation with two religious thinkers and spiritual leaders from very different places on the U.S. Christian and cultural spectrum: Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Through their friendship as much as their words, they model what they preach. The Washington National Cathedral and the National Institute for Civil Discourse brought us all together.

How to embrace what’s right and corrective, redemptive and restorative — and an insistence that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done — these are gifts Bryan Stevenson offers with his life. He’s brought the language of mercy and redemption into American culture in recent years, growing out of his work as a lawyer to people unfairly on death row, people who are mentally ill and incarcerated, and children tried as adults. Krista draws out his spirit and his moral imagination.

The Cuban American civil engineer turned writer, Richard Blanco, straddles the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to make home and belonging — personal and communal. The most recent — and very resonant — question he’s asked by way of poetry is: how to love a country? At Chautauqua, Krista invited him to speak and read from his books. Blanco’s wit, thoughtfulness, and elegance captivated the crowd.

Rabbi Sacks was one of the world’s deepest thinkers on religion and the challenges of modern life. He died last week after a short battle with cancer. When Krista spoke with him in 2010, he modeled a life-giving, imagination-opening faithfulness to what some might see as contradictory callings: How to be true to one’s own convictions while also honoring the sacred and civilizational calling to shared life — indeed, to love the stranger?

We are called to consider who we want to be as a people and what kind of world we will build with and for our children. Karen Murphy has been gathering wisdom for this juncture, as she’s worked around the world with teachers and educators in societies moving toward repair after histories of violence. We learn from her about how to prepare ourselves in the U.S. for the civic healing that we are called to ahead.

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