john a. powell on how bridging creates conditions to solve problems

Interview

Thursday, November 2, 2017

In this short new video, our director john powell talks about the concept of bridging—engaging with people outside of our own familiar group, including with those who hold opposing political views.

powell believes that when people who don't share exactly the same political persuasions engage with each other, the tendency is to focus only on policy before looking more deeply to see if they actually share the same end goals.

This often creates the perception that they want different things, when that is not always the case.

The interview focuses on powell's recent experience reaching across the aisle with Arthur Brooks, the head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to co-author an article featured in CityLab, in which they emphasize the limitations of addressing poverty in America.

powell and Brooks are both members of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, and both are sincere in their desire to end poverty. "We disagree on how to do that," powell says, "but I think both of us are interested in facts and science, so we can be convinced. It's not just an ideological position."

When you bridge you can create fertile ground to begin addressing the problems you want to solve, powell says. 

Read the piece on poverty he co-authored with Arthur Brooks here.

 

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT

john a. powell: I'm part of a group called U.S. Mobility Studies. And Arthur's a part of that group. There's about 24 people from various disciplines and persuasions, and so, liberals and conservatives. And we're looking at issues around poverty, and how we can address the lack of mobility of people moving out of poverty. So, that's how I got to meet Arthur. And although, we don't agree on a lot of things, although we do agree on fair amount as well, the, his ideas were interesting even when I didn't agree with them. I didn't feel like they were based on just on not caring. He does care. I certainly care about these issues. And, so we have an agreement on end goals of trying to do something about poverty. Producing, making more, people have more mobility. 
 
We disagree on how to do that. But I think both of us are interested in facts and science so, we can be convinced. It's not just an ideological position. I think it surprised a lot of people that we're working closely together. We're the only two people on the committee that did something like this.
 
The main focus of the piece is about ‘othering’ in that, in terms of poverty, there are a lot of groups that other but, and othering basically means not treating people or accepting people as full human beings, both as an emotional, psychological level, but also as a policy structural level. And you don't see people as full people, there's something wrong with them, maybe they're lazy, maybe they're not motivated, then you don't feel like investing in them. And so, the idea, and that's in part called othering. When you don't see people as full people. And you can take it to more extreme when you say these are not real people and we have to kill them or get them out of our land or build a wall. So, the poor are othered as well, and it's compounded if it's poor blacks, poor Latinos, so, to bring more identities into play that are somewhat marginal in how society views them, you're likely to get even stronger othering. And that is that when you have strong othering, as you do with the poor, it's hard to develop good policy. And it's not because of the policy is not sound. It's because people don't care.
 
Or, worse than people don't care. People are hostile. So, it was basically trying to address that issue and saying that we have to accept all people, including poor people, as who we are, us. Not them. Us. And in the ‘circle of human concern’, is what I call it.
 
When change happens fast, in some salient way, people experience anxiety. That's normal. It's not good or bad, it's just anxiety. The shape that that anxiety takes depends on a number of things but also depends on the narratives or stories we're told, which usually come from opinion leaders or leaders generally. So, when the leaders basically say, okay, we're experiencing all this change, and we're experiencing a lot of demographic change in the country and around the world, and it's like there's a lot of people here who are not a part of the dominant group. And the response, the stories that normally are shaped around that take two different registers.
 
One is those people, whoever they are, are somehow dangerous. And it could be they're stealing our jobs, they're stealing our women, and it can be an existentialist threat, will Western Civilization exist, or whatever. And that's called breaking. And to the extreme breaking encourages violence, encourages genocide. Refuses to acknowledge another person's humanity. 
 
Bridging is the other major register. And bridging is yes, the world is changing. We are changing as a culture, as a people, but it's good. We've always been changing. People always change. We're learning. Developing. And, I wanna hear your story. I wanna hear why you're here. And I wanna, more importantly, I wanna hear your suffering. So bridging requires a human connection and what's called empathetic listening, engagement. 
 
So, the idea was in part, to bridge with Arthur. So, as you can think about bridging, not just in terms of people who think differently than you, but people who are from different institutions. And so, it doesn't mean you have to abandon your position. But it means you listen to the other person. You engage them. You give them the benefit of the doubt. And you acknowledge their humanity.
 
A lot of times when people come together and there are differences, they start with the issues, you know. You think we shouldn't move low income people to the suburbs. I think we should. And, those are important questions but in the sense those are end questions. First thing is what are we trying to do, and even more importantly, who are we? Are we, what do we think of ourselves? Do you think of us as good people, caring people? Do we think of ourselves as isolated people? Do we, so, when you sit down with someone and talk to them, and spend time with them, you get a chance to move below the issues. And people would say move from issues to interests.
 
And I think that's a good move but I think a deeper move is to move from interests to values and values to being. And people do that normally, naturally. You don't have to say okay let's talk about values now. When you sit down and talk to someone in a real way, within a short period of time, they'll tell you about their kids, they'll tell you about their hard times, they'll tell you about maybe when they didn’t get their job, when their dog died or when their mother died. But they tell you about their life. And their life is punctuated with suffering.
 
And then they tell you about where they're trying to get to. I’m hoping, you know, that I’ll move and have enough money. I think usually when we have someone as an opponent, we actually don't get to certainly being. We actually don't even get to values or issues. We just get to policy. So the policy you want and the policy I want are different. It may be though that our goals are the same. And we are interpreting the data differently. So, I think moving to the suburbs would actually help not only low income people, ... but it would help all of us. You might think no, to move low income people to the suburbs would isolate them and make them worse off. And make the suburbs-
 
So anyway, those assumptions often times are what we're arguing, and we don't, we never state them. And then we don't trust each other. And so I certainly have a lot more confidence in Arthur, and the opportunity to do that again with Arthur and others would be something I would be very interested in. And I sort of thought about it in terms of the political climate. But, from a human perspective, it's quite profound. To just, you know, so much so, if I hear Arthur say something about someone that I’m bridging with, it's really, I really wanna know what they meant. Did I get it right. So, it calls for a deeper inquiry. Not just into them, but also into myself. Then finally, I'm very clear about my goals, and they are non-negotiable in terms of treating people well with human dignity. The process, and the history, is much more contingent. I don't know the best way to do that. I don't know when necessarily it works. I have ideas, but I like to hear your ideas as well. 
 
There are people you can't talk to. There are people who don't share end goals. So, if, someone says all people should die and I just believe that, just like okay. That's kind of a limited conversation because the end goals are so radically different. But often times, we don't know if we have differing end goals or not. And even if we do, again, the thing is if we're willing to be persuaded by facts, science, reason, and even feelings I would say, then we can have a productive conversation I think.
 
In terms of bridging, it doesn't mean that you like the person necessarily. It doesn't mean you're gonna agree on policy. It doesn't mean you're not gonna oppose the person. But it does mean you recognize the person's humanity. And it's like well, I see this person really is trying to raise their kids well. And I think raising their kids well means locking them in a closet, or having them skip meals. So people have different ideas. Often times when we fight each other we forget that we're fighting with people who also have concerns, and fears, and hopes. They just become the enemy. They just become the other team. They just become them. They become caricatures of themselves. And it's easy to dismiss them.
 
To understand people, even if you ultimately disagree with them, is very valuable. And I suggest if you really understand people, and even love them, then some of, many of those disagreements go away. Or, it creates a container to hold those disagreements. You don't go to the extremes like because I disagree with you, you have to die. You know, it’s like, can I disagree with you and still love you? But it's really valuable, not just as, it's not even just an efficiency thing, like we'll make better decisions. We'll be better people. 
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