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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Let’s talk....why not?

Betty Firth
Posted 1/24/24

From an early age, I recognized that my family was better off than some others and was aware of inequality between groups of people, as well. I questioned why that was and why we weren’t doing …

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Let’s talk....why not?


From an early age, I recognized that my family was better off than some others and was aware of inequality between groups of people, as well. I questioned why that was and why we weren’t doing something about it. That awareness came not from politics, but from church. I remember hearing that children in other parts of the world didn’t have enough food, so they were hungry, malnourished, and often sick. When I went home, I asked my parents if that were true.
When they confirmed it, I asked, “Then why aren’t we sending them food?” which morphed into my volunteering with hunger issues in later years: Coordinating Loaves and Fishes dinners for 500 people in Minneapolis with Quakers from various meetings, waitressing for a free breakfast program near my inner city home sponsored by a suburban protestant church, helping out with free meals one Christmas in downtown Minneapolis, and, eventually, the helping out and then managing the Ely Area Food Shelf. I love an interesting variety of good food and have never known food scarcity, except when intentionally depriving myself for diets. I was empathetic about how hard it would be to have insufficient, poor quality food, knowing the detrimental effects on physical and mental health, as well as on the human spirit.
I offer that background, because it seems that I was a Democrat before I had any idea what that meant. It just made sense that we need to care for the good of everyone and look out especially for those who are least able to take care of themselves. My parents were Eisenhower Republicans. Although there were very few overt political discussions in our house, knowing my parents’ values and their chosen activities, I know they would be Democrats if they were alive today, so the origins of my own leanings are less mysterious. The current national Democratic party platform states, “Healing the soul of America means facing up to the deepest inequities in our society, from structural racism to misogyny to discrimination against people with disabilities, and enacting ambitious measures to fix them.” I’m all in with that.
In my late 30’s, I was introduced to Quakerism, and felt like I had found a spiritual home after many years of alternately “trying on” churches and giving up the search. I was definitely joining the concerned choir of voices speaking up for equality, social justice, peace, and non-violence. My values were affirmed, and my education expanded regarding political activism. Given their small numbers in the U.S. and the world, Quakers have been inordinately involved in and providing leadership for movements concerning human rights, so I was exposed to outstanding individual and organizational role models.
As the political divide has widened, polarization increased, and reasonable limits on rhetoric and untruthfulness have disappeared, the need for reasoned, thoughtful, respectful discussion has accelerated. How do we do that if the parties involved are not willing to come to the table? How do we move forward if there is only a one-sided discussion about possible change? The decades-long standoff between Israel and Palestine is a prime example, which has escalated into even more dreadful results recently.
Human dissension has hardly been newly-created in this political era. We humans have been arguing since we invented a language to do so, and no doubt argued nonverbally before that, using rude gestures and leaving angry pictographs on caves. We have fought others to protect our lives, families, and property. With our beliefs in individual rights, freedoms, and independence, we certainly are bound to argue or fight, even to the death, for that which we believe in. How can we manage to come together in civility, bringing our better selves to work together to build and maintain our country and our communities?
A friend made the point that we do manage to do that in Ely when there is a need. When individuals or organizations need the community to step up their support during tough times, we are there. We are not asking who someone voted for or if they cheer for the same sports team when they are buried under medical bills. We have about 50 nonprofits in Ely, and we manage somehow to keep them all going with a commendable level of volunteerism and leadership. We know how to pull together, so what gets in our way when it comes to discussing differences in perspectives concerning issues dear to our hearts and minds? What are the obstacles preventing our listening to and learning from each other? What is going on in our town and our country that we feel we have to dig in our heels, determined to shout louder than those who dissent from our beliefs with our metaphorical fingers in our ears?
A newly-formed group in town, the Ely Alliance with Braver Angels, is seeking some answers to those questions. There are other trainings about improving communication, such as the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and Compassionate Communication, but the national organization of Braver Angels (originally named Better Angels) has a specific mission to “bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” Their literature explains that the aim is to try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. By engaging those we disagree with, we look for common ground and ways to work together rather than demonizing, dismissing, or stereotyping them. Activities can include workshops, skills training, debates, in-depth discussions about public policies, and socializing through potlucks, book clubs, etc.
So far in Ely, two gatherings have happened to explain the purpose and procedures of Braver Angels. The second meeting, held January 18th, was a workshop introducing specific skills for effective, open-minded listening. Effective communication requires good listening skills, as well as patience, and those skills can be practiced and learned. Genuine curiosity is another attribute that makes the whole process more interesting and fruitful: “Tell me more about your thinking on that!” It doesn’t hurt to hone up these skills to use in our personal relationships!
Participants have identified themselves as more red-leaning or blue-leaning (or some shade of purple), and the the hope is to have a good balance of people representing different sides of issues. At the Ely gatherings, there have been considerably more blue-leaning participants, and the invitation is wide open for red-leaning people (and everyone else) to join in with their views and their hopes for our community and our democracy.
Abraham Lincoln said during the heartbreak of the Civil War, when even members of some families were pitted against each other, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”