Putting The United Back Into The United States
This article was published on Medium by Authority Magazine on December 12, 2021. It was written by Tyler Gallagher.
Putting The United Back Into The United States: Nisha Anand of Dream Corps On The 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nisha Anand.
Nisha Anand is the CEO of Dream Corps, a nonprofit organization that brings people together across racial, social and partisan lines to solve our nation’s toughest problems. She is the Political Director of Rebuild The Dream, an organization fighting for an economy that works for everyone. With her team of storytellers, organizers, and policy experts, Nisha works at the intersection of criminal justice reform, green economics, and tech equity to create a better future for all.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Atlanta in the eighties, when it was much more racially segregated. As a first-generation Indian-American, I was neither Black nor white. Being a brown girl raised in the South often meant feeling out of place. A lot of my childhood was figuring out where to fit in, how to fit in, and what I needed to do to keep all my different worlds together. I was a punk rock, debate nerd, living with my immigrant father in the South. I guess you could say I grew up a misfit. Misfits have to find their own way in the world and I am happy to say that I did. I learned to become a bridge between cultures, between my family’s old country and the new one I was born into.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Our big project is figuring out if we can deliver solutions to people who have been on the outside edges of the economy over the last 50 years, and do it in a unifying way. Black and Brown neighborhoods, low-income white neighborhoods are the people who make up the bases of both political parties but don’t get much out of it. We want to see if we can build a clean-energy, high-tech economy with these folks benefiting from it instead of dreading it.
In the near term, that looks like projects to close prisons and train up the next generation of tech leaders, or like the Common Ground on Climate Platform. The platform is an action plan to create jobs, save money, increase energy independence, make us all healthier, and begin tackling climate change. What makes it completely unique is that it emerged from listening sessions with people from all sides of our political divides. So, instead of a handful of people in D.C. getting in a room and saying, “here’s what the country needs” and presenting it to the public, you have a group of people getting together in a bunch of rooms and saying, “no, here’s what we need and can all get behind, now go do it.”
The conventional wisdom is that it’s impossible to find common ground on climate and that any action to stop the climate crisis won’t do much for people who are already struggling. We want to challenge that notion on both counts.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
As a freshman in high school, I joined the debate team because a cute senior was the recruiting ambassador — a good strategy, for sure. But I’m glad I did, because I met Mr. Grodd, the debate coach. He had high expectations of each of us and believed in my ability to excel. He expected us not only to show the intellectual rigor necessary to be a good debater and argue every side of an issue, but to be civil in all our interactions. Other students would have fun ridiculing bad arguments during cross-examination, but Mr. Grodd admonished us if we showed anything other than respect. Debate is very competitive and we all wanted to win — but Mr. Grodd taught me that a cheap win at the expense of others was not a real victory.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
At one point, I found myself in the center ring of the Ringley Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus, with a bike lock around my neck and locked to five other activists. Both funny and interesting, I believe.
It is a funny image, but what I remember most was how it made me more thoughtful. I believed then, as I do now, that the animal suffering and abuse at the circus was wrong and I wanted it to stop. But as I was laying on my back in the center ring and watching audience members find their seats, I panicked. There were kids coming out who had been waiting weeks for this evening, and I had just ruined their night. Up until that point I was just down to do anything for causes I cared about. After that I began to become a serious student of nonviolent action, and thought more strategically about what I would do and when.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The victim of the first hate crime after the 9/11 attacks was a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a close family friend of my friend Valarie Kaur — her “uncle,” as we say in our culture. His murder changed Valarie’s life. In her wonderful book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, she speaks from experience. When she advises us to see no enemies, to tend to both our wounds and to those of others, it is because she has lived it. Over the years to come, Valarie found the courage and grace to reach out and begin a dialogue with the man who murdered her uncle. It’s that kind of vision that we need now more than ever.
When others see America descending into darkness, Valarie asks us to imagine it not as the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb. She urges us to follow the midwife’s advice, to breathe and push, to give birth to an America that is better than it was before. America could slowly slip fully into the division and racist anger that has been bubbling up for the past decade. But looking at people like Valarie, I have great hope. I believe we can walk through this darkness together, and emerge better than before.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Hope it’s your fault (and it usually is).” Things will go wrong. That is inevitable. We normally try to avoid it or find ourselves tempted to blame others. But when something goes wrong, it is better to hope it is your fault. If it is your fault, you can fix it. What I learned, sometimes the hard way, is that there is always some part of the problem that is mine to own. Even if I am only at fault for 1% of the problem, I can own that one part 100%. From there you grow. This is also great advice for healing what divides us. When I am able to see what part of the pain I’ve caused AND I’m able to openly acknowledge it, I’ve taken at least one step towards bridging the gap.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To lead means to go first. It’s about moving people away from a broken status quo. Going first means taking risks and getting uncomfortable, not just repeating a timeworn pattern so that you can get lots of acclaim and popularity. And it requires convincing people to go with you. Not just commanding them, but listening to them, conversing with them, calling them to be the best version of themselves. If you have no one with you, you’re not going first, you’re going alone.
A friend of mine studied great moral leaders, and he found that most of them were deeply unpopular in their own time, and a lot of them ended up paying dearly for their stances. The best ones did it anyway. The best ones took the time to build movements rooted in love and respect across difference, because they knew that was the only way to succeed.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It comes back to our inability to love. I am not talking about love as mere sentimentality, but recognizing other people as human beings and offering them respect and compassion. So much of the hate and oppression we see is rooted in our tendency to “other” people who are different from us — to fixate on and fear our differences, instead of deliberately seeking commonalities. But if we choose to love those whom we do not know or do not yet understand, hate and oppression are not possible. Systemic ills can not take root in a society ruled by love.
The thornier problem is that you cannot reach that kind of society through divisions and insults. You actually need to reclaim and recast love as a potent force for social change. It’s not enough to aim for love, we need to lead and communicate with love. When we lead with love, the solutions we offer will bring people together. When we communicate with love, we can heal the wounds the divisiveness has created. This sounds high-level, but there is nothing more tangible or difficult than learning to love each other again. Valarie Kaur’s book is a practical and compelling guide to doing just that.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
Let me flip the question around a bit. After the Indian Independence movement, factions emerged of people who wanted to keep the country all together, and others wanted to create other independent nations. As the British left India, they drew an arbitrary line partitioning Pakistan from India …and we have been fighting about it ever since.
At the time of the partition, my father was the youngest child in a Hindu family living on the “wrong” side of the new border. That is, he lived in the predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Like many families on both sides of the border, mine went into hiding. To give you a sense of how dangerous the situation was, at one point my dad was crying while armed men were searching the neighborhood for families in hiding. My grandfather was faced with an impossible decision, because if crying got them caught it meant certain death for the whole family. My grandfather was ready to literally sacrifice my father’s life, his own son, in order to save the rest of the family. Miraculously, as my grandmother shook him through her own silent tears, my father stopped crying. I am here today because he stopped crying.
But there is another part of this story. It was a Muslim family who chose to hide mine. On one of the days when their house was being searched, they were asked if they were hiding any Hindus. This devoutly Muslim family swore on the Quran that they were not. This family, at a time when all sides were getting trained to hate each other, even told it was OK to kill one another, chose a path of love and acceptance. They risked their lives and swore on their holy book to protect my family.
People sometimes act as if it is weak to seek common ground, as if the sign of strength is hating the other side more. But tell me, who was stronger, the gangs in the streets during the partition, or that Muslim family?
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
Back to your last question, my father proudly voted for Trump twice and I am very much a progressive. So I am no stranger to heated conversations with family. The number one thing I try to keep in mind is that, with family, the goal really cannot be to win. Don’t enter a conversation trying to prove you’re right or convince someone they are wrong. Not only does this make for awful family dinners, trying to win is a surefire way to lose — to make people so angry they shut down. Most people don’t feel super inspired to listen — and certainly are not persuaded to change their minds — when called names, shamed for their viewpoints, or patronized.
Simply changing our approach to disagreement can go a long way. Approach the conversation as a way to understand why the different viewpoint exists. Two questions I always ask myself when chatting with my Trump-supporting father:
What part of his experience can I validate? What makes sense in why he thinks the way he thinks? Find it and name it as a place of understanding
What part of my argument is weak? Where am I unsure and can say aloud that I don’t know the answer? Find it, say it, and let him know that there are places where I am looking for answers, too.
When I make sure to do these two things, the conversation has a shot at being productive. And to be honest, these two things are always present and not too hard to find if you look for them.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
We need to move away from a shame / blame dynamic and toward a growth / talent framework. It goes deeper than partisanship. I am lucky to work in an organization where we share a common purpose and mission, so the most heated partisan divisions are not as present. But there are still disagreements over perspectives and core values. As long as it stays rooted in who should be blamed and who should feel ashamed, no conversation — whether its about equity or just a handful of team deadline — is going to be productive. Instead, we can be asking ourselves about how we can grow and improve by hearing new perspectives, being challenged by opposing viewpoints, or shifting how we work. How can the collective grow stronger? And how can we fill that collective with the most talent and ensure that none of it goes to waste because we’re at each other’s throats, dismissing each other, or refusing to listen. As with most workplace conflict and most conflict in general, we must push ourselves to have courageous conversations and get uncomfortable.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
We all hold a bundle of identities. As complex individuals, we are all of those identities at the same time. So even if two people have two identities that are ready to go thermonuclear, I’m a big believer that somewhere else in their bundles is a shared identity. You just have to look for it.We are much more open to listening across partisan lines when we share a commonality and can find a place of unity.
The risk is that you then fall into a kind of cheap unity based on some surface-level unity that ignores differences, instead of commonality being a bridge. We see this sometimes in the kind of bipartisanship that got us endless prisons and endless wars.
I advocate for what I call fierce unity, which does not ignore difference. It is not uniformity or elite bipartisanship. It is everyday people risking being uncomfortable by finding common ground with people who disagree with you on everything. It means starting with the people who are hurting the most, even if they are not on “our” side politically, because we all know what it feels like to hurt. Fierce unity does not search for political opponents but for places where common pain can turn into common purpose.
Fierce unity starts with our common humanity, celebrates diversity, confronts common problems, and dares to dream of an America on the other side of systemic racism, the climate crisis, mass incarceration and economic inequality.
None of this is easy, but it gets me up every day excited to go to work at Dream Corps. I truly believe that in our work finding common ground on climate, closing prison doors, and diversifying the high-tech economy, we are showing what fierce unity can do.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
This is a huge problem with no quick or immediate fix. But we can focus on what is in our control. Quite specifically, you can control the content that you, yourself, puts out into the world. For me, I used a lesson they taught us in kindergarten: THINK before you speak (or in this case, post). Ask yourself the THINK question: IIs it Thoughtful? Helpful? Important/Inspiring? Necessary? Kind? If it doesn’t pass the think test, don’t post it.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
Turn off the TV.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
We are facing two existential crises. The first is the erosion of our democracy, which is growing in the wake of the lies about the 2020 election, but goes deeper than that. People don’t feel represented thanks to gerrymandering, the electoral college, money in elections, and the rhetoric fuels this. If you truly believe the other side winning is a disaster, you won’t respect the results of elections. It creates an awful feedback loop. The second crisis that flows from this is the climate crisis.
The good news is that people on “both sides” often think our partisan opponents are far more extreme than they actually are. So our rhetoric-makes it easy for our base to jump on board and our opposition to refuse to engage. For instance, on climate,a large majority of people want clean air and water for their families. The people being hurt first and worst — from communities of color to white rural low-income families — don’t fit neatly into one political box. We actually did a bunch of listening sessions with people from diverse backgrounds outside of D.C., and what we found was an impressive amount of agreement that is encapsulated in our Common Ground on Climate Platform.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Listen Better. When we listen waiting for our turn to speak, or when we listen for the ammunition we need to help win our own argument, we get nowhere. Fast. But when we listen with empathy, curiosity and a willingness to be surprised, we may actually find common ground. Being able to connect across difference is the first step in healing our country.
Refuse Division. Divide and conquer is an old strategy. Someone out there is benefitting from all of us being at each other’s’ throats, but it is not the folks locked up behind bars, or breathing polluted air living next to a highway, or watching their family farm go up in smoke. What divides us is usually created, not innate. Giving in to the calls of division often means participating in a strategy much more damaging than what appears. The trouble is that it is just so easy, so comfortable, to fall into these old divisive habits because it’s what we know. It requires a conscious decision and concerted effort to refuse to give into easy division, but seek common ground instead.
Start at home. Right now the national fracturing is trickling down into families and workplaces and friend groups. But trickle down economics isn’t good for us and neither is trickle down anger. We need to get the flow going in the opposite direction, rebuilding trust at a micro-level that can then overflow into our macro-conversations. We don’t have to buy into a false choice between national politics and household division, because the two inform each other.
Work for solutions that unite. The current operating logic in politics is that we’re in a war of attrition, and each side needs to win as much as possible before the inevitable backlash, and slowly chip away at the other side. The idea is that you lose political capital as soon as you do something. But that’s carbon-economy thinking. You burn up your political capital for a short-term boost that leaves the whole political environment polluted. Solutions that unite people are a renewable energy source, and they exist. When we focus on them, we confront big problems in a way that creates more energy to tackle more big problems.
Form a more perfect union. Some days I feel stuck between people who believe that America has never had any flaws, even when millions were enslaved and women couldn’t vote, and people who think America is so flawed we can never do anything great. That’s never been what this country is about. It’s about recognizing that where we end up tomorrow should be better than where we were yesterday. Our goal is not perfect uniformity or to make peace with imperfection, but to labor, grindingly, to give birth to a more perfect union.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Being kind is underrated. Be kind.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I was 15 at the time of the Rodney King verdict. My son was 15 when Derek Chauvin was held accountable for the murder of George Floyd. Before the verdict came in, he said to me, “If he can’t be convicted, no cop can.” I told him I thought the same thing back then. I can clearly remember 20 years ago — I was on the streets of NY when the officers who killed Amadou Diallo were acquitted of all charges. I could feel heartbreak and anger washing over all of us in the crowd. I felt that same creeping anxiety during the Chauvin trial. That same sense of impending heartbreak. Instead, this time it was different.
One decision doesn’t fix policing in this country. Black, Brown, and other targeted communities will still suffer violence and pain. But I know the tides are turning because my son saw a verdict I did not. And he also saw all those people marching last year, many of whom looked nothing like George Floyd.
So I am an optimist, but a clear-eyed, determined one. The beautiful future I see is not inevitable. It depends on us.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
You will have an impact on society whether you like it or not. The real question is, what will you make of your opportunity?
Every generation is called not to idolize America’s founding generations, but to do the hard work of re-founding the country for themselves. America has always been two things. On one hand, you have America’s ugly founding reality. There was slavery and the genocide of indigenous people and the exclusion of women. Then there was America’s beautiful founding dream — the idea of a multiracial, multicultural, democratic republic where everyone can thrive.
So the next generation should be asking, “what are we going to do with the opportunity to re-found America? Will we leave it a little bit further from our ugly founding reality, and closer to our beautiful founding dream?”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Riz Ahmed. He is my celebrity crush. Does anyone not pick their celebrity crush?
How can our readers follow you online?
@nishamanand on twitter and instagram www.nishaanand.org online
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!