What Ever Happened to Common Ground?

Guest blog by Liz Moore, Executive Director, Montana Nonprofit Association, based on an excerpt of her "State of the Nonprofit Sector" address during the recent MNA Conference.

Nonprofits have tough jobs. Every day we work on behalf of the interests of our communities through our endeavors in the arts, conservation, healthcare, housing, food, economic development, mental health, and other aspects of Montana’s well being. More often than not, our jobs are made more challenging because of uncertainties related to the political environment, fluctuations in funding, economic ups and downs and other factors out of our control. On top of that, nonprofits today are confronted with the additional difficulty of trying to do good work in an increasingly polarized and gridlocked political climate. Here’s where it gets tricky: as a sector we decry the divisiveness and extremism that leads to gridlock. At the same time, it’s all too easy for us to become part of the problem. And it’s not out of ill intent; in fact, quite the opposite.

Nonprofit leaders have always been activists. It’s part of our DNA to be generators of social change. But with that comes tension and conflict, which is not inherently bad. In fact, it is probably necessary for transformation. But only if we let disagreement occupy its right place in our conversations and problem-solving processes. We need a variety of different perspectives to come up with full-body solutions. However, in spite of our best intentions, giving real space to diversity of thought is an uphill climb. Especially at a time when we find ourselves increasingly connected socially and politically with people who see the world like we do, and decreasingly associated with people whom we disagree. It’s like we’ve forgotten the art and skill of finding common ground - not as organizations, but as people. Common ground cannot be cultivated in an environment where categorical, either/or thinking and behavior is the driver.

What do I mean by either/or behavior? I’d venture to say we most often find it easier to notice in someone other than ourselves, but here are some examples I can relate to:

  • Reading opinion pieces and deciding whether the author is “for” or “against” what we already believe in. We’re not really seeking new information as much as we are looking for confirmation of what we already think.

  • ·A news story comes out about someone from the “other party” (doesn’t matter which one) doing something admirable. We mention it to people in our circle along with a skeptical comment about the hidden motive that surely must be present.

  • We use social media to talk about people in ways we would never dream of saying to their face.

  • We categorize and write off whole groups off because of the way they vote, their beliefs, the causes they take up.

The list could go on and on. And here’s the problem. The more we individually participate in either/or thinking and behavior, the worse societal divisiveness becomes. When we begin to see events or people as all one way or the other, we unwittingly increase what divides us rather than cultivating the shared space, or what we have in common. As the divide grows, we are pushed further toward the edges where we are surrounded by people who are more like us than different. And in this way the middle space, or what we might think of as the common ground where differences coexist, shrinks.

I believe nonprofit leaders are in an ideal position to intervene in this cycle. In fact, as primary forces for good in civil society, I believe we owe it to our communities to lead the way in reclaiming common ground that is being overcome by extremism.

How do we do that?