By Brinley Hineman // Nashville Tennessean
At a time when the country is more divided than ever, a new project based in Nashville hopes to help the nation overcome its differences to build a better and stronger America.
The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy will include community conversations, white papers, podcasts and briefings with leading experts while elevating the importance of evidence-based reasoning.
But how do you unite a polarized country when some facts can’t be agreed upon, truths can be misinterpreted and differing viewpoints can be dismissed as fake?
One of the first steps is listening, project co-chair Samar Ali told The Tennessean.
“When you begin to listen to the other person, you humanize them,” Ali said. “When you humanize them, you start to empathize with their story. You start to see their perspective. You start to check your bias. When you begin to then empathize with them, you start exploring common ground.”
Ali, founder and CEO of Millions of Conversations, a nonprofit working to end stigma and marginalization, has a background in conflict resolution and working across political aisles for the common good.
She is spearheading the project along with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham and former Gov. Bill Haslam. During Haslam’s tenure as governor, Ali managed global relations for the state.
“Healthy debate between us is important,” Ali said. “Healthy debate between Republicans and Democrats is important, but it needs to be rooted in truth and facts and evidence. And I think that’s what we’re hoping to reintroduce into the national conversation.”
What does it mean to be an American?
One of the project’s goals is to create a virtual public square. The plan is to form a platform where people can discuss what it means to belong in America today and find their commonly shared values.
Questions project organizers hopes to explore: What does it mean to be an American, especially in the 21st century? What does it mean to respect the U.S. Constitution as the foundation of the country? Finding answers to these questions is a step toward unity, Ali said.
“The common purpose that represents all of us and that we believe in and that we can put our heart, soul and minds behind,” she said.
The Pew Research Center found in its surveys, America is one of the most divided nations.
It’s not only up to political leaders to determine what unity is, Ali said. Everyone has a stake in it. The project hopes to create a virtual space in which everyone “at the grassroots level and at the grass tops level” alike can explore unity and the shared American purpose.
The Vanderbilt project comes at one of the most fraught times in American history — just weeks after a failed insurrection in Washington, D.C. and as the nation grapples with social injustice and a global pandemic.
It debuted last week with an event featuring Meacham, former Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Seeing Gore, a Democrat, and Rice, a Republican, featured in the same conversation with Meacham was “refreshing for many people,” Ali said.
“I think the world is watching us now,” Ali said. “What an incredible story if we demonstrate to the world that American democracy is stronger than ever before, and that we’ve learned from our past mistakes. That we’re secure enough to admit where we went wrong and we’re committed to correcting course, because that’s what being an American means.”
Reach Brinley Hineman at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @brinleyhineman.