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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.

Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.

One of the voices many have been turning to in recent years is Arlie Hochschild. She helped create the field of the sociology of emotion — our stories as “felt” rather than merely factual. When she published her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, in the fall of 2016, it felt like she had chronicled the human dynamics that have now come to upend American culture. It was based on five years of friendship and research in Tea Party country at that movement’s height, far from her home in Berkeley, California. Her understanding of emotion in society and politics feels even more important at this juncture. So does the reflective, self-critical sensibility this experience gave Arlie Hochschild on her own liberal instincts. Caring, she says, is not the same as capitulating.

“People believe things that are mutually contradictory; I think we all do. I know I do.” — Erick Erickson

Earlier this year, the University of Montana invited On Being to attempt an outside the box civil conversation between two political pundits on contrasting ends of the U.S. political spectrum. It became a sold-out, public event in the spirit of Montana’s Senator Mike Mansfield, who famously modeled integrity, courage, and humility across the partisan aisle in the tumult of 1960s and 70s. Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson are both controversial, lightning-rod figures, yet neither of them fits neatly into a partisan mold. The reaction of the youngest people in the room is what compelled us to put this on the air. They said they had not witnessed or imagined a political conversation like this possible: one marked at once by bedrock difference — and good will, humor, and a willingness to bring our questions as well as our arguments, our humanity as well as our positions, into the room, if only for an evening.

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.

“If there isn’t the crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue.”

The focus of our national fight over abortion may change, but this hasn’t changed for decades: we collapse this most intimate and complex of human dilemmas to two sides. We’ve been looking yet again for wisdom away from the turbulent news cycle and keep returning to this conversation Krista had with Frances Kissling. She is a “bridge person” in the abortion debate: a long-time pro-choice activist who has sought to come into relationship with her political opposites. Now she’s controversial on both sides, but speaks from a place that many of us would like to map out between the poles. She has experienced something more powerful, as she tells it, than defining common ground — and this has lessons for other issues in our common life and our struggles with people with whom we disagree the most.

“If you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something. I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

This conversation was inspired by Eula Biss’s stunning New York Times essay “White Debt,” which had this metaphor at its core: ”The state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.” She spoke with us in 2016 and we aired this last year, but we might just put this conversation out every year, as we’re all novices on this territory. Eula Biss had been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — and how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.

Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many. To bring them together at the On Being Gathering was a delight and a balm. Marilyn is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Pádraig is a poet and theologian and social healer at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland — “a soft place for hard conversations,” of hostility met in hospitality. They venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.

The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.

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