It’s no secret that there are deep divisions in our American community — divisions that we experience every day here in New Jersey. We are more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. For example, nearly four in 10 people would be upset if one of their children married someone from a different political party, according to a recent Economist/You.Gov poll.
These divisions stand in the way of squarely facing our challenges in our home state and nationally. Racial inequity, climate insecurity and for much of our state financial insecurity are just some of the pressing problems we must face. And we will not be able to face them successfully unless we take personal responsibility for reviving our core democratic values. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
There are positive examples of citizens in cities and towns throughout New Jersey, however, that point the way to how we can bridge the divisions and establish more common ground. In Newark, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Trenton and Plainfield, citizens from all walks of life and with differing political views have come together to form “civic trusts,” pledging to leave their community and country better than they found them and meeting in monthly “solutions sessions.” And these trusts are getting results. In Paterson and Trenton, they’ve worked with city officials to establish a Beat COVID Task Force, communicating best-health practices to local businesses and residents. In Perth Amboy, they are advancing a culture change/police reform initiative designed to inculcate de-escalation practices that has won the support of reformers and police alike.
These citizens succeeded through the use of a no-blame problem-solving method that people in cities and towns across New Jersey have employed to pass local laws to improve their communities and tackle varied problems such as climate change, school discipline and public-contracting reform, along with police reform and curbing COVID-19.
The first principle of no-blame problem-solving is to revive the core democratic value of mutual respect. If we are to come together in these challenging times, we need to meet on the common ground of mutual respect. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with one another. It simply means that we need to recognize that there are problems that we cannot solve alone.
We’ve found that a good way to put this principle into practice is to shift the conversation on public issues away from accusation-laden talking points to a focus on practical solutions. Ask the other person, “What is your solution to the problem?” and listen. See if you can find any part of the solution that you agree with, even a small part, and acknowledge it. You will find that this practice will lower the temperature dramatically.
Another technique that works is to agree to look for solutions that might be applied in your own community. In the age of the search engine, it’s easy to find solutions that are working in towns similar to your own. They’re just a Google search away.
Drawing on these examples of successes, accomplished through a proven problem-solving method, we know that each of us can take personal responsibility for restoring the spirit of our community. But to heal the divisions, we can’t wait for other people to respect us first. As my mother used to say, “If you want respect, you have to give respect.”
There is now a blueprint for how to do so. The values and problem-solving steps used by civic trusts and individual citizens are now available to all New Jerseyans through an online video course in “Leadership and No Blame Problem Solving” that can be found on the Citizens Campaign website.
Now is the time to step up. Each of us has the power to play a role in healing the public divide.