The idea of civil dialogue can seem a naive fantasy these days, with public disagreements over whether elections can be trusted and dinner-table discussions derailed when people can’t agree on essential facts.
But a healthy democracy needs citizens who can live and work together across differences even — perhaps especially — when the chasms that divide us seem so vast.
Community organizations in Washington and around the country have stepped up with programs intended to bridge ideological differences. Now U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, has a compelling proposal to give them tools and resources to help us stay connected when we don’t see eye-to-eye.
Kilmer has modeled those principles as chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, where he’s worked to shift congressional culture toward problem-solving and collaboration.
The bipartisan Building Civic Bridges Act, introduced last Friday, shifts the focus to communities. It would establish competitive grants for nonprofits, public institutions, and educational or religious groups working to heal toxic polarization and improve civic culture. It would establish a federal Office of Civic Bridgebuilding within the federal AmeriCorps program to activate public conversation around the importance of civic engagement, advance research into best practice and support community bridge-building efforts around the country. It deserves Congressional support.
The bill was inspired by local initiatives like the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties’ Bridge of Hope — virtual discussions centered on important and divisive pubic health precautions like coronavirus vaccinations and masks.
“We are a community organization, but members are concerned that the community is being pulled apart,” CEO Charlie Davis said of the program’s origins. He said it made sense for a neutral, community-based place like the Y to host difficult conversations, but the staff need training and resources — as could be provided through the Building Civic Bridges Act — to be truly effective.
Convergence Center for Policy Resolution CEO David Eisner says there has been an explosion of similar bridging initiatives around the country over the past decade as communities grapple with deep ideological divisions. He said the point of bridge-building is not to force compromise, but to stick with difficult discussions and avoid demonizing people with different views.
“Congressman Kilmer has brought an entirely new way for Congress to be looking at bipartisanship and collaboration,” said Eisner. “This bill is a high point, from my perspective, with that work.”
This country has seen enough of the damage that can be wrought when civil disagreement is abandoned. Rebuilding our capacity for tough conversations is a noble and worthy goal.