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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.

The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect barriers between ourselves and yet this makes us a little crazy. 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.

We were introduced to Lucas Johnson by the great civil rights elder Vincent Harding. He said that this young man embodies the genius of nonviolence for our century — nonviolence not as a withholding of violence, but as a way of being present. And it was a great pleasure to bring him together with Rami Nashashibi, a rising visionary and kindred force in the Muslim world. Lucas is based in Amsterdam. Rami’s center of gravity is the South Side of Chicago. They have much to teach us all about the lived practicalities and tensions of the “strong, demanding love” to which Martin Luther King, Jr. called the world of his time — a call that is echoing again in ours.

Nothing is helping us more right now, as we watch human tragedies unfold on the U.S.-Mexican border and elsewhere, than a conversation Krista had last year with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge — on thinking and friendship in dark times. She applies the moral clarity of the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt to now — an invitation to dwell on the human essence of events we analyze as political and economic. Our dramas of exile and displacement are existential, she says — about who we will all be as people and political community. What Arendt called the “banality of evil” was at root an inability to hear another voice.

“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 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.

Maria Shriver’s life is often summarized in fairy tale terms. A child of the Kennedy clan in the Camelot aura of the early 1960s. Daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, and Sargent Shriver, who helped found the Peace Corps. An esteemed broadcast journalist. First lady of California. This hour, she opens up about having a personal history that is also public history — and how deceptive the appearance of glamour can be. We experience the legendary toughness of the women in Maria Shriver’s family — but also the hard-won tenderness and wisdom with which she has come to raise her own voice.

We’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships, with other people in their twenties, that changed him. After his ideology was outed at college, one of the only orthodox Jews on campus invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. What happened over the next two years is like a roadmap for transforming some of the hardest territory of our time.

“Race is a little bit like gravity,” john powell says: experienced by all, understood by few. He is a refreshing, redemptive thinker who counsels all kinds of people and projects on the front lines of our present racial longings. Race is relational, he reminds us. It’s as much about whiteness as about color. He takes new learnings from the science of the brain as forms of everyday power. “We don’t have to imagine doing things one at a time,” he says. “It’s not, ‘how do we get there?’ It’s, ‘how do we live?’”

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