Building Communities of Purpose

By E. Kinney Zalesne for The Christian Science Monitor

Truly meaningful human engagement is rarely ever head-to-head. It’s shoulder to shoulder. People don’t move from wariness to trust, from enemies to allies, from transactional engagements to covenantal encounters by working on each other, but by working with each other. Transformative connection takes turning 90 degrees — from squaring off to collaborating side by side.

My own experiences with such 90-degree pivots have run deep. In the summer of 1999, I volunteered as a writing coach at a workshop run by College Summit, now called PeerForward, at the University of Chicago. For four days, 25 adults came together to help 40 low-income 11th graders complete their entire college application process.

Most of us wouldn’t have crossed paths in the normal course of business. Along with the eight writing coaches, who came from various fields outside education, there were five (skeptical) public school teachers, three (overworked) independent college counselors, two (deeply wise) rap directors, four (intensely passionate) College Summit staff members, and three (grateful) student alums. The community was as racially and economically diverse as any I’ve known, then or since.

In those intense four days, we never talked about race, class, education, or opportunity. We were singularly focused on the students’ applications. From a college list to financial aid forms to the Common App to a personal essay — the students started with none of it and ended with all of it. On the last morning, as we stood together in the closing circle to reflect on what we’d accomplished, everybody cried.

The experience was so moving that I left my job as counsel to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to help scale the organization.

Nearly everyone who has ever participated in a PeerForward workshop — including Janet Reno herself, two summers later — has said it was one of the most profound experiences of their life. Working shoulder to shoulder with each other and the students, we adults were as transformed as the kids.

E. Kinney Zalesne experienced the benefits of working side by side with others when she volunteered in 1999 as a writing coach at a summer workshop for low-income students applying to college. “Working shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and the students, we adults were as transformed as the kids,” she writes.

A new shoulder-to-shoulder effort

I thought about that closing circle this past summer, some 22 years later, as I stood on the roof deck of a friend’s Washington, D.C., apartment with a group of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians. The gathering was the launch of Heart of a Nation, an organization “bringing together progressive Americans, progressive Israelis and progressive Palestinians to make all three societies better,” as the website explains.

Has head-to-head engagement been tried in the Middle East? Incessantly, didactically, painfully.

Can devoted progressives from all three societies work side by side — not on our mutual grievances, but on our shared passions, including human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate — and in the process, maybe nurture some trust that will help us move forward together? I don’t know, but we’re going to try our best.

Too often these days, even the most enlightened efforts to avoid talking past each other are just another form of head-to-head engagement. We’re told to be “active listeners” — to let the other person’s words seep into our brain. We’re told to have a “growth mindset” — to be more open to the possibility that our biases and assumptions are wrong, and the other person’s, right. Or we’re told to find “common ground,” as if I occupy some block of mental terrain and you occupy another, and if we can just find some overlapping real estate, we can build from this “place” of agreement.

None of those strategies would have gotten a single college essay written or application filled out. For that, we had to pivot — from head-to-head to shoulder to shoulder, working side by side on a common project. That’s our stance heading into Heart of a Nation, too.

Communities of purpose

There’s a footnote to the college workshop story, with yet another community of purpose spawned from it. The director of that workshop, a young Yale graduate and first-generation college-goer himself, was Jaime Harrison. Today, you may know him as the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and the 2020 U.S. Senate candidate who nearly toppled Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Jaime and I are now working on a women’s executive network, dedicated to drawing out under-engaged corporate women — many of whom compete fiercely with one another by day — to work together on the weekends with top women in government on leadership challenges, public-private solutions, and priority-setting for the future.

Can intentional communities — built across race, class, generation, nationality, and professional identity — advance trust and the common good if they stop talking at, past, and about one another, and instead work together on causes they’re equally devoted to? It seems like our best hope.

In the age of COVID, human conversation has, for many of us, been literally reduced to head-to-head engagement — square boxes of virtual heads bobbing at one another with a seemingly endless supply of words. As we try to emerge, and to forge and deepen the relationships the world desperately needs to move forward, maybe we can get off our obsession with knocking heads and find new ways to stand shoulder to shoulder. Such a pivot could change everything.

E. Kinney Zalesne is the former president of College Summit, a member of the Executive Committee of Heart of a Nation, and the founding chair of the DNC’s Women’s Executive Network.

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