This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog
by Heidi Burgess
August 1, 2021
Guy and I recently talked with Professor Jayne Docherty, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We've known Jane for a long time and have been very impressed with her work. In December, we heard her give a talk entitled "When the Militia Are Your Neighbors and Your Community is a Microcosm of the Country." It was a fascinating story of the sociology and politics of her home town, Harrisonburg, juxtaposed with her home county, Rockingham County. Putting the two together, she pointed out, one gets a "microcosm of the United States." She explained more about what she meant by that, and then went on to explain what she was doing to try to cross the proverbial Red-Blue divide that so separated most of her neighbors.
Her story was compelling, and had many lessons for peacebuilders working on similar problems in other parts of the U.S., and indeed, around the world. So we asked her to give her talk again, so we could record it and post it on BI. Happily, she agreed, and we talked to her on June 1, 2021. Her talk, and the full transcript is posted in its entirety here. But I thought I'd summarize (and perhaps comment on) some of her key points in a blog post, to try to lure people to her full talk, because I think her story is so compelling.
On the surface, Jayne explained, her city and her county are polar opposites. The city is progressive. It is home to two universities--James Madison University ("the big one," as she calls it) and Eastern Mennonite University ("the tiny one"). Harrisonburg is highly multicultural, being both a "college town," and a "refugee resettlement community." Sixty-some languages are spoken in the public schools, she explained, and the city schools are national models for English-language learning. "The city flipped fully blue (Democratic) in 2008 and hasn't gone back."
But Rockingham County is firmly red (Republican). The county has "lots of open space with little towns dotted around and lots of poultry farming and beef and some dairy. The county is predominantly White and has lots of 'from heres'; as opposed to all the 'come heres' who live in the city." Some of the families who live in the county have been there since the 16 and 1700s! For that and other reasons, the people in the city and the county primarily keep to themselves, and often think disparagingly about the other.
|What is different [about the political divide] in Rockingham County, is that it is possible to "get your arms around" the divide and do something about it.|
This story, as Jayne says, is typical of many other places in the United States, and indeed, on a larger scale, it is typical of the relationships between the coastal blue states and internal red states in the U.S. as a whole. But what is different, in Rockingham County, is that it is possible to "get your arms around" the divide and do something about it.
So I think a community like ours is kind of like the front line of the so-called civil war. We actually have all of these dynamics, and we're small enough, you can get your arms around it. We can talk to each other. So my thing is, we start building from the ground up. We start with what are some shared problems that we share across city and county. It could be broadband. It could be flooding. Both locations have some flat areas that are prone to flooding. We identify the structural drivers and begin addressing those together and set aside trying to have the left/right political conversation. And then also hold political leaders on both sides to account for driving this division on purpose.
I think that last point is particularly important, but I'll get to that a bit later.
First, Jayne explained that there are many similarities between the city and the county: both strengths, and problems. The city and county are blessed with a beautiful setting (the Shenandoah Valley), a good climate, and rich soil. The combination of the last two have allowed the area to become a very prosperous farming region, specializing in poultry. However, there is still a lot of poverty and inequality, with 61% of the people in the city (excluding students!) and 36% in the city meeting the United Way's "ALICE" designation: "asset-limited, income-constrained, employed." These are the people, Jayne explained, who "are one bad tire on their car away from catastrophe." There are housing problems in both the city and the county, drugs are a problem in both, broadband access is a problem in both, which turned into a significant education problem during COVID, which also struck both the city and the county hard.
|Shared problems are also shared opportunities.|
BUT, Jayne points out, these shared problems are also shared opportunities, if people would be willing to work together to address them. And that, she points out, is beginning to happen. For example, Jayne is working with an organization called Faith in Action, which is
a coalition of faith communities that crosses the city-county line that is trying to ramp up. They've done a lot of work on criminal justice reform. Every year they pick a topic and they push for some kind of change. They've recently signed on with the Industrial Areas Foundation to do a "Power-up drive" — really trying to build local people power to address local issues and these kinds of problems. So I've been spending some time with them. I think they have the right idea.
|The political divide could be reduced if people learned more about the local history. Very few people realize the Shenandoah Valley was burned to the ground during the Civil War.|
Jayne also suggests that the political divide could be reduced if people learned more about the local history.
Very few people realize the Shenandoah Valley was burned to the ground during the Civil War. It was also the site of a lot of war resistance because the Mennonites and Brethren would not participate in the war. But the Northern army came through here and burnt this place to the ground [anyway,] because it was the bread basket feeding the South. And there's a huge scar on the psyche that has come down the generations for ways that people approach conflict and how they feel about that [history.]
Certainly knowing that helps to explain why many in the South call the war in 1861-65 "the War of Northern Aggression," instead of the Civil War, as we call it in the North. It also helps explain why many Southerners resent the toppling of statues of Southern war heroes who tried to protect the South from such a fate. Honoring war heroes in the South is not just defending slavery and white supremacy as many northern liberals think. Rather, it is honoring the people who tried to save their (sometimes innocent) ancestors' homes, farms, and livelihoods from an indiscriminate brutal army.
|The head of the Rockingham County militia said "I wish people would just talk to us. Ask us. Call us." Jayne did.|
One of the most intriguing parts of Jayne's story is what happened after she read an article about the local (county) militia in the local online newspaper.
One of the last lines in the last article I read was the head of the Rockingham County militia saying "I wish people would just talk to us. Ask us. Call us."
So I took that seriously. I know the reporter and I backtracked and I said "can you get a message to this person?" and they said "yes." So I ended up having a meeting with them.
Her meeting with them was eye-opening, not only for her, but for me, and likely for many of our liberal and progressive readers who would be very reluctant to meet with (let alone sympathize with or find commonality with) militia members who live near them. But Jayne found these folk quite friendly, quite open and willing to talk. And what they said was not the hateful, aggressive rhetoric the Left-leading media would lead Progressives to expect. The meeting went so well, she did it again, and is open to future meetings, possibly even collaborating with them on one or more local projects. I won't be a spoiler for this part of her talk--I encourage you to listen to it (or read the transcript) and learn what she learned about her local militia and what they taught her about the commonalities and differences between her city and county.
Another interesting point Jayne made was about dialogue, which tends to be peacebuilders' "go-to" strategy for bringing disparate people and groups together. But, she argues, it isn't the strategy of choice for the Red-Blue conflict in the United States, at least not at the beginning:
Everywhere I turn in the peacebuilding community, people who have been working overseas are now looking at the U.S. and saying do we do?" We have all the skill sets for violent places. And the first thing people talk about is dialogue, but and I'm like, WHAT? Dialogue is how liberals get what they want. That's how conservatives in this country feel about dialogue. It is true in the churches. What a lot of urban liberal folks, maybe, don't recognize is that many of the people who are on the more conservative side here have had experiences with dialogue in their churches. In the last decade or so, churches have held dialogues around same-sex marriage, around ordaining women, and other controversial topics. Typically, somebody comes in and tries to do dialogue and that's how liberals get what they want in the church. So, because so many of the people in our work maybe don't go to church or they are in UU, or other very liberal churches, they don't recognize that this whole idea of dialogue is already tainted by other life experiences that their neighbors have had or have felt. So, to just come in and say "let's do dialogue" in the absence of a worldview detente is just "dialogue of the death." How are we going to talk about something if we don't even agree about the reality of it? Something else needs to happen.
|We need to hold political leaders on both sides to account for driving this division on purpose."|
What is that "something else?" Jayne argues that it is "substantive, structural peacebuilding," that seeks structural solutions to shared problems—in her community those might be poverty, housing, broadband access, education—problems that impact everyone in the community, people of color, whites, oldtimers, newcomers alike. And the structural change needs to be developed collaboratively, with everyone involved in shaping the future.
I am again brought back to the December 2020 talk by Ebrahim Rasool, who so wisely pointed out that "South Africa belongs to all who live there." He was suggesting that America, too, belongs to all who live here. He added that in order to reach reconciliation in South Africa, they had to "start at the end," by developing an image of what they wanted the country to be. We, in America, he argued, need to develop such an image too, and Jayne's story makes it clear that it is both possible and essential that our images include "everyone who lives here."
This brings me back to that one line of her talk which I skipped over before: "And then also hold political leaders on both sides to account for driving this division on purpose." After listening to her talk, it is impossible not to be impressed with the degree of commonality between the Left and the Right in the Rockingham County/Harrisonburg City area. I know the same is true in the City of Boulder and Boulder County, although Boulder County is not as Republican as Rockingham County. But if one looks at Colorado as a whole, the story here is the same. Boulder and Denver are liberal, much of the western and southern parts of the state are very conservative. But we all live in a geographically spectacular area, an area rich in shared history, and we have shared successes and common problems. Similar scenarios are repeated all over the United States.
What we need to do here, and people need to do all over America, is to start rejecting the allure of "bad faith actors" (as Guy calls them) who are actively trying to drive us apart. Rather, we need to work on our own to find our commonalities, and ways we can work together to solve our mutual problems. Once we do that, we are likely to see each other as thoughtful, caring, helpful neighbors. Once that happens, then our artificial political differences will begin to become much less important.
Guy worked for years with the eminent economist and peace scholar, Kenneth Boulding. Kenneth liked to make up memorable one-liners: some he referred to as his "laws." One that has become widely known as "Boulding's First Law" is "if it exists, it must be possible." (This was invented to observe that it is possible to have recession and inflation at the same time, because it was happening, even though economic theory at the time asserted such was impossible.) The law also applies to Jayne and the militia, and more broadly to Rockingham County. It was possible for Jayne, a liberal, Democratic university professor to find common ground with conservative militia members who (she didn't say, but I'm guessing) never went to college and probably thought of Jayne (before they met her) (I'm guessing again) as "snooty." If they can find common ground, so can we with our neighbors, most likely And if It is possible for people like these militia members and Harrisonburg's liberal city dwellers to collaborate to solve local problems, as they are doing in Faith in Action, then it is likely it is possible in many, maybe most, counties around the country. There are lots of opportunities for people to come together, and to reject the toxic polarization that is being fed us. As Jayne's story so wonderfully illustrates, we just need to develop the guts and decide to do it!
I encourage you to watch/listen/read Jayne's full talk!