On a visit to London some years ago, I stood in the American Memorial Chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I found myself overwhelmed by pride and sadness. In the 1950s, when the English rebuilt parts of this historic church damaged in the Blitz, the chapel was dedicated to thousands of Americans who died in World War II.
This is just one of many places around the world where Americans are memorialized for paying the highest price possible to (as the chapel’s honor roll says) “defend human liberty and rights.” The chapel is also one of many places where we are reminded of our country’s long history of attempting to resolve conflict abroad.
Closer to home
When I think about what it means to be an American—something I don’t do as often as I should—the image of that chapel is always in my mind. Surely, part of what it means to be an American is a willingness to defend freedom and restore peace wherever we find the need.
Lately, that need has arisen much closer to home, and we need conflict resolution expertise within our own communities. Former ambassador Reuben Brigety recently applied the U.S. Agency for International Development’s “conflict assessment framework” to our own country and he found we fail our own test.
Instead of applying conflict resolutions tools to other countries, we have an urgent need to attend to our own division.
What it means to belong
Our podcast guest this week, Samar Ali, knows something about conflict resolution, both at home and abroad. After growing up in Waverly, Tennessee and getting a law degree at Vanderbilt University, Samar worked around the world in places torn by conflict, like South Africa and the Middle East. She has also served as a White House Fellow and worked in counterterrorism and diplomatic negotiations.
Eventually, she returned home to Tennessee and was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to help the state with its international affairs. But Samar’s appointment soon met resistance from protestors and politicians who believed, because she is Muslim, that she intended to impose Sharia law in the state.
If, after having served in the White House to ensure your fellow citizens’ safety from terrorism, you became (as Samar did) the object of death threats from your neighbors because of your religion, how would you respond?
Samar responded by starting a nonprofit called Millions of Conversations where she works to bring people who disagree with one another into discussion. Her extensive professional experience in conflict resolution helped with that, but so did her personal experience of reaching out directly, one-on-one, to people who believed she was a terrorist.
Today, in addition to her nonprofit work, Samar (along with former governor Haslam and presidential historian Jon Meacham) co-chairs the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy. She and her co-chairs recently wrote that, “Unity is a little like exercise: A great idea, a noble idea, but hard, and all too easy to forego.”
This week, in addition to listening to what Samar has to say in our latest podcast, I hope our five links will help you think about what kind of unity “exercise plan” you’re willing to commit to.
5 links worth your time
- The Fractured Power: How to Overcome Tribalism, Foreign Affairs – A former U.S. Ambassador to the African Union applies the conflict assessment tools our government uses on other countries to the United States. The results are discouraging, and Reuben Brigety encourages us all to think about the importance of “bridging tribal divisions.” He notes the efforts of our latest podcast guest, Samar Ali, and her nonprofit organization, Millions of Conversations.
- Want Unity For Real? Then America Needs to Get Back to Facts, Time – The three co-chairs of Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy (our podcast guest Samar Ali, former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, and presidential historian Jon Meacham) discuss the challenge of achieving “unity.” They describe their new project’s efforts to overcome “The flight from evidence and reason toward ideological certitude and reflexive partisanship.”
- Bridging Americans Together is Not a Fantasy, It’s a Work In Progress, RealClear Policy – The CEO of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, David Eisner, asks, “What will it take for Americans to reconnect with each other and begin rebuilding trust across post-election rifts?” He acknowledges that, despite calls for unity, there are many skeptics about the prospects for achieving it.
- The U.S. Needs Tolerance More Than Unity, Scientific American – Looking from the outside in, three scholars from around the globe argue that aspiring to “tolerance” instead of unity will be more productive for Americans in terms of fighting polarization. Tolerance, they write, “is what makes real diversity possible.”
- What Does It Mean To Belong In America Today? TED – In this video of her 2018 TEDx talk, our current podcast guest, Samar Ali, combines her personal story, professional experience, and academic research to demonstrate that one of the most urgent questions we face in this country is, “What does it mean to belong?” She recounts her experience working abroad in conflict resolution and what she has seen in countries that can’t agree to an answer to that question.
Photo by Syda Productions on Adobe Stock