Reweaving the Fabric of our Society

Political leaders and the media are failing us on so many levels. But there is hope. Quietly, and without fanfare, groups and individuals are reaching out to each other. I've been involved with one such effort, called "Living Room Conversations."
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Some people say that Richard Lugar lost his Senate seat because he worked with Democrats. No wonder Congressional approval is at an all time low. Winning for politicians too often means failing the citizens they are employed to serve. Think budget crisis. Think immigration reform. Even judicial nominations have been radically politicized. Most of us agree that D.C. dynamics have got to change for the U.S. to solve the real challenges we confront and to retain our leadership role in the world.

Political leaders and the media are failing us on so many levels. Although you'd never know it from viewing the daily partisan fight on cable TV, all Americans have a great deal in common. But our understanding of politics, economics, science and even basic facts is increasingly disparate. We cannot afford to continue on this path. A healthy democracy requires an educated electorate that shares basic truths and values -- or at least is willing to sit down and listen to one another with an open mind, with mutual respect and civility.

There is hope. Quietly, and without fanfare, groups and individuals are reaching out to each other. I've been involved with one such effort, called "Living Room Conversations." In the format of a Living Room Conversation, one self-identified "conservative" and one self-identified "progressive" co-host each invite two friends of similar political ideologies to join a structured conversation. They learn about each other and talk about an issue of their choice. Six people, friends and friends of friends, that's all it takes.

Having seen these conversations in action, I believe that people of good will with different viewpoints can build a foundation for changing our path. We can rediscover a shared vision of a future that is good for us all, remember that we can respect and like neighbors who hold different views, and even start identifying shared solutions to the enormous challenges we face.

Diverse groups are now preparing to encourage Living Room Conversations among their members about issues like healthy food, climate and energy, civility, and money in politics. It's hard to anticipate results, but trial conversations about energy found agreement across partisan lines on conserving energy and growing our renewable energy. Conversations about money in politics revealed consensus on the need for transparency. If the insights from hundreds and even thousands of conversations are shared, we could help give good leaders the "transpartisan" foundation they need to make good policy.

Obviously, initiatives like these are unabashedly optimistic and will even be called starry-eyed and naive. And yes, there are all sorts of barriers to success. Our communities have become so insulated that many people no longer have friends with different political affiliations. And people who do have friends with different views are reluctant to talk about potentially divisive issues. The good news is that pilot conversations have happened, were all successful, and led to new insights as well as interest in further conversations for most participants. In fact, people of different political stripes typically discover that they like each other, are relieved to be able to discuss topics that have become taboo, and often find common ground.

While the traditional media loves fights, the new and emerging social media loves connections. We can leverage the wisdom and creativity of crowds to find win-win solutions to our common problems. We can scale our efforts to tens of thousands of conversations, giving individuals the power to begin to reweave the social fabric of our communities.

Joan Blades is co-founder of and She recently co-authored The Custom-Fit Workplace:Choose When Where and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line winner of a Nautilus book award She also co-wrote The Motherhood Manifesto which won the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize in 2007. She is a co-creator of Living Room Conversations, software entrepreneur, nature lover, former attorney/mediator, artist, mother and true believer in the power of citizens and our need to rebuild respectful civil discourse while embracing our core shared values.

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