Gridlocked over social issues relating to the economy, gender, race, immigration and the environment, many people feel that Americans have become more polarized than ever in their lifetimes. These societal splinters are seemingly more entrenched as organized groups both thrive and capitalize on these divisions. From courtroom to classroom and from the halls of Congress to the hallways of our own homes, tension, fear and competition now underpin many aspects of our lives.
Fortunately these divisive story lines are not the only forces afoot. While some are determined to stir the pot of civil discontent, others are committed to actively interrupting this doom loop and organizing to help repair and rebuild their communities.
In Prescott these restorative initiatives aren’t coming from people in established positions of power or influence, rather this hope and vision is bubbling up from the roots, powered by some of the youngest members of the community, Prescott’s teens.
In many ways this youth-driven leadership makes sense. Young people have the most at stake, as they stand with long lifetimes ahead, holding a lens that peers far into the future. What’s inspiring, though, is how these teens have developed the wisdom and skills needed to build a community that is better than the one being modeled for them. They have witnessed many societal shortcomings, yet they nourish the belief that we can do better.
They recognize that cooperation and collective care are more efficient fuels than the forces fracturing their community, and they understand that people don’t all need to be the same to work toward the same goals.
One such teen-led initiative is the Better Together Campaign, organized by teen leaders at The Launch Pad in Prescott. Says Riley Doren, a teen advisory-council member, the goal of Better Together is to provide people with opportunities for civil discourse. While division within our community is palpable and obvious, she points out that teens are seeking change and they have a goal to “help people learn to talk civilly” with one another.
These teens specifically want to help us all learn how to communicate in “kind and respectful ways across differences.” To accomplish this goal, a team of about 20 teen leaders and researchers are working to achieve an ambitious range of tangible, measurable outcomes. Since the spring the teen researchers have been administering a survey to people throughout Yavapai County to get a pulse-reading on the community by learning about our overall experiences living here and to discover what residents feel are important issues to address and discuss. They have made an effort to collect a broad spectrum of voices by seeking a wide swath of demographic representation. Survey collection will continue till the end of November. Everyone is strongly encouraged to participate. (If you or someone you know has not taken the survey, this QR code will take you there.)
Teen advisory-council member Tessa Martinez explains that during Phase 2 the teens will analyze the anonymous surveys and use that information to help them create a communication guidebook. This will be designed first to provide needed tools for healthy, productive conversations. Part of the book will focus on basic communication skills. For example, it will help with establishing ground rules or shared agreements for conversations. It will assist in understanding things like the power of body language, and how to recognize when we or others are potentially shutting down in a discussion. Readers will discover healthy ways to ask for a break, and how to re-enter a powerful conversation. Ultimately the skills presented in the guidebook will help us learn how to have conversations in which we begin to understand one another more deeply.
During Phase 3, families and self-selected groups will be invited to practice their communication skills through a series of small dinner-table discussions. Better Together organizers are looking for people who will commit to having at least four dinner discussions over the course of a year.
The guidebook will serve as a road map for these intentional conversations. At first, groups will ease in by discussing benign, non-polarizing topics. They will get the chance to establish group norms and practice their speaking and listening skills in conversations that are not likely to spark a strong emotional charge. Gradually participants will build up to discussing more challenging topics and explore some of the issues that came up as common themes in the community survey. A core goal of Phase 3 is for people to practice creating intentional and inclusive space for conversation about issues that are sometimes difficult to discuss.
Teens will gather both qualitative and quantitative data and make adjustments to the program as they learn from others and document the impact of this work. As a culmination for Phase 3, the Launch Pad will host a large community meal during which Better Together participants will gather to share about their experiences, reflect on their learning, and engage in conversation beyond their small family groups.
While Better Together youth organizers do receive support from The Launch Pad staff and a volunteer-based adult advisory committee, the teens are doing the bulk of the organizing, outreach, research and program-building. Currently the teens are completing the survey-collection phase and planning for a retreat in which they’ll work with experts to create the communication guidebook.
Meanwhile, these eager teens are wasting no time. Gianna Franz and Toby Chang recently organized a series of discussion groups that will take place at The Launch Pad, open to the public.
They will follow the structure of a socratic seminar in which a facilitator will help guide group discussion. Through these seminars participants will have opportunities to practice in-depth conversations that encourage listening to multiple perspectives.
These teens hope that through face-to-face conversations people will lay the groundwork for building a community that is more safe, inclusive, cooperative and strong. As Courtney Osterfelt, the longtime visionary and director of The Launch Pad, points out, solutions to our world’s problems are best accomplished when people with diverse opinions, backgrounds and perspectives come together to find shared solutions.
These discussion groups will take place every other Friday beginning in October. Anyone over 13 years of age can participate, but must register in advance by contacting Natalie Armadio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One hope for the discussions is that participants will simply build curiosity about the perspectives of others and to imagine what it would be like if another person’s experience or opinion was their own. Sometimes this starts with understanding what life experiences led people to feel the way they do about particular topics or issues. We may not always agree, but maybe we can learn to understand how we come to generate our points of view through powerful or even traumatic lived experiences. Ultimately, different people may never share the same opinion, but we may be able to build more compassion and space for multiple points of view.
The youth ambassadors with Better Together understand the importance of not being afraid to work with people who have different ways of thinking or generating ideas. They recognize their role is to lead the way by modeling this type of understanding and by showing respect for different types of people and perspectives.
For anyone feeling dismay or uncertainty about the future, the best antidote is taking time to talk with the teen leaders from the Better Together campaign. Every person in this community can rally around their efforts, find ways to get involved, and do their part to create a better way forward, together.