I think I can speak for many Americans in asking "what next?" As I watched the events of Ferguson unfold on my T.V. screen and across the social media landscape, I felt helpless, small and frustrated.
The road to here...my deep yearning for a new approach to how we engage around race, religion, gender and economics…was first fueled by my interest in politics.
Politics has been an interest of mine since I was a little girl. I grew up in the south in the 70’s. Charlotte, NC to be exact. My home was a hotbed of heated debate on integration, the feminist movement, church pulpit politics and economics. My father, Henry Wilmer, ran for mayor in 1976 and served on both city council and the board of county commissioners. A shirtsleeves-rolled-up kind of guy, he was a gentleman, a conservative, a fixer, a get-things-done doer. He was a statesman.
My mother, on the other hand, was a poet. My passion for people comes from her. Mary Wilmer was active in Charlotte’s addiction recovery community. Her uncanny ability to connect heart and head was something, to this day, people remember. She was liberal, authentic, kind, tender and a heart-filled giver.
And so it was no surprise that two years ago, I joyfully accepted a position to serve on the Commission for Political Reform, co-chaired by Olympia Snowe and Dan Glickman. The goal of the Commission, assembled by the Bipartisan Policy Center, was to examine the current governmental inefficiencies created by the hyper-polarized state of American Politics and provide recommendations to correct the situation.
And while I was certainly intrigued by the recommendations brought forth by the commission to correct the issue, I was far more interested in why the polarization was going on in the first place. What’s going on underneath the “us versus them” dialogue? Why are we so angry, so vitriolic and so judgmental?
I decided to hit the issue head on by asking hundreds of Americans what’s really happening beneath all our polarized dialogue and perspective. On August 1, I set off on a cross country road trip. I rented a Mustang convertible and donned a pair of Red Cowboy Boots.
Why Red Boots? Put on a pair. Red Boots are an immediate conversation starter, and while I’m not a shy person, I figured I was going to need all the help I could get. Why the heck would anyone want to engage in dialogue around politics, much less engage with a stranger?
I was completely surprised. Americans DO want to talk about it and we know a lot more than you might think we do.
I met Americans across the spectrum: Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Jewish, Black, White, Asian, Latina, rich, poor, straight, gay, corporate, gun-owner, pro-life, pro-choice, welfare recipient, entrepreneur, young, old, Mexican, Russian, Iranian, African, urban, rural, country, city. I was blown away by how willing folks were to open their hearts and add their passionate perspective to the mix.
And after all that connecting, I walked away with two so simple-it-will-kinda-make-you-laugh-out-loud conclusions:
1. What started with each individual I encountered, as a conversation about politics, inevitably ended with discussions about race, religion, economic disparities and gender! Politics is simply ONE manifestation of our culture’s deeply rooted and painfully wounding “us-versus-them” perspective – a perspective that when unexamined and untethered lends itself to fear, anger and violence.
2. When we couple this fear of “the other” with the increase in technology, social media and 24/7 news stations, we have people within communities who do not know each other. We talk of those within a certain demographic or group based on what we think we know about the group. We do not know the real person.
Words that fuel this dialogue are everywhere – “them,” “they,” “the other.” These words have become such a part of our daily coming and going that we don’t even see them anymore. We are all waiting for THEM to change ... to correct the issue ... whether that’s members of Congress, the police, those community members, those people, the “media,” the other political party, somebody other than us. We’ve become disempowered by this dysfunctional “us versus them” perspective.
My takeaway? Reform of our political, educational and economic systems is necessary, but I do not believe reforms are possible or effective without engaging each other in dialogue, outside these systems. If we can’t talk with willing hearts and open minds within our own lives – with our neighbors, our friends, those of a different skin color, political party, sexual orientation, tax bracket or religion – then how and why do we expect the systems to do it for us. Might this hyper-polarized state of our nation provide all of us with an eye-opening and wondrous soul-searching opportunity to explore how we engage with those in our own lives? Do we choose to truly see, listen and seek first to understand the “other” or resort to the easy, the quick and the safer us versus them lens?
In September of 2014 I founded The Red Boot Coalition to provide a safe place for “we the people” to break free of the polarizing boxes so prevalent in our nation today and engage with each other instead, from our hearts, experiences and shared humanity.
The Red Boot Coalition is a group of courageous, joyful and heart-driven people who yearn for a better and more compassionate approach in how we engage as a nation. We are action takers. We gather together once a week in a variety of locations to discuss and practice our Eleven Red Boot Steps. We then carry the positivity and skillsets we've obtained as a result of practicing these steps with each other, into all aspects of our lives; and by doing so create communities where people and leaders engage with respect, joy and compassion.
Starting a meeting is as simple as…well…starting one. We provide the materials, the script, the how-to’s and the what-for’s and you just begin. (The program is free.) Learn more at www.theredbootcoalition.org.
As Gandhi once said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” At last, that little part of us that says “I matter” and the part of the world that is crying out for our help have combined forces to bring us here to shake things up.