Julia Roig Talks about Weaving a Healthy Democracy in the United States

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Newsletter 90 — March 2, 2023


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Guy Burgess and I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Julia Roig on February 17, 2023 about her work as the founder and Chief Network Weaver at the Horizons Project. which aims to "weave together all our efforts for a just, inclusive, and peaceful democracy." We are sharing a few of Julia's ideas here in this newsletter, but we urge our readers to watch (or read the transcript) of our full discussion as well.-- Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


Julia Roig and the Horizons Project on Weaving a Health Democracy

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

February 25, 2023

Julia comes from a 30 year career in international peacebuilding, mostly in Latin America and the Balkans, and she, like many others, has been noting for quite some time that the conflict dynamics now occurring in the United States are very reminiscent of the dynamics she had seen abroad in formerly (or currently) war-torn societies.  What was most needed there—and is needed here as well, she noted—was a way for all the peacebuiilders and democracy workers to coordinate their efforts:

...from that perspective of working in other countries for as long as I have, with different types of people who are both within movements and peacebuilding organizations,... it was never about needing to spend more money on the problem. and of course, I worked with big donors and the US Government, World Bank, all those folks, so we didn't need more money, ... we needed better coordination between the good people doing good work in the countries where I was working.

So now, working in the United States, she is focusing on the coordination pieace—weaving a network, as she calls it—between peacebuilders; bridge-builders; folks focused on the "technocratic" aspects of democracy, such as voting rights, gerrymandering, and vote counting aparati and processes; and other folks focused on social justice issues.  

We take an ecosystem organizing approach to say, "it's not necessarily about the one answer or funding one silver bullet, but it’s how we're bringing different actors together to see themselves as a part of a movement. And that's really challenging in a country that is as complex and as big as the federal system that we have in the United States. But that's kind of the intention of the Horizons Project. So when I talk about the  "ecosystem of social change" that we're trying to affect, we really draw a very big circle around that system. There's a lot of people playing these connector roles right now, because I think we're all figuring out that this is one of the of gaps in the way that we work.

When we asked her how she went about doing that, she drew on John Paul Ledearch's writing about spiders' webs.

We make sure that we're in a lot of network meetings and we engage in those conversations and we listen to what people are saying. So, if you're like the spider, you're here, and then you go over here and you talk to this person and you talk to that person. You sit in on this meeting and you might leave a little insight or idea, but you're also hearing where people's energies are, and then the web kind of ends up following behind you,. It's a metaphor that I appreciate.  We don't necessarily need to be convening people, but we definitely want to make sure that we're participating actively in a lot of different spaces, and that we also are prioritizing that relational work. So, it's a lot of one-on-one time with different people.

Julia talked quite a bit about her conversations with the social justice community. 

I have learned so much from being in relationship with the civil resistance community ...It is not up to white people to tell people of color not to be angry and not to express that anger in their movements, because it will then make all of our job of as peacebuilders harder.  That is a truism that I truly believe. I think there is a place for righteous anger in this moment, and I think that how that anger and grief is channeled is important. . . .Anger that is channeled to disrupt the complacency is needed.  That's when we're talking about polarization right now, we're talking about disrupting complacency. And that is different from dehumanizing and toxic othering that then feeds into an authoritarian playbook of divide and rule, which is using race and gender issues to drive a wedge between us.

Julia also talked about current threats to democracy, which she thinks are being misdiagnosed and mishandled:

I think that because there's been such a focus on bringing red hats and blue hats together to empathize with each other, that that's actually not, in my opinion, what's most needed right now. Because there's an equivalency, there's both-sidism, the harm being done to our democracy, is from the extremes on both sides, and we just need moderation, and we need to come and we need to bring down the heat so that the centrist can actually start problem solving for us. I think this is a misdiagnosis of the problem.

 . . .

 The both sideism--their call out culture, and all of the things that's happening on the progressive left, and shutting down conversation on college campuses… Yes, we absolutely have to deal with this on the progressive movement. But the danger to our democracy is with an authoritarian infection within the Republican Party right now. And until we actually address that and have a movement mindset that to go on offense against this authoritarian faction, I actually think we're going to dialogue ourselves off an authoritarian cliff soon, actually, sooner rather than later!

The Horizons Project website says on the home page that "there is no one path to solving what ails our country, if we don't chart a common direction of where we want to go, the forces dividing us will continue to prevail.  We asked Julia how we "chart a common direction of where we want to go" and she answered that we have to "block and build at the same time":

If we're in this moment, we need to think about what comes next. It is so important.  ...   It can't just be one side fighting the other in the name of democracy.  I think that that's part of what's happening right now is we're having a hard time... We're not going to vote our way out of this problem.

We have to be organizing around a pluralism that we want to see that is ideological pluralism, so we're not fighting over policies, we're fighting over a system that is an equal playing field for all of us. ...  The networks of networks of networks have to include this kind of broader cross-ideological vision of pluralism, but a vision of pluralism that is going on offense against the forces that are actually trying to essentially destroy democracy. ... I think by having a more targeted analysis of where we need to go on offense, which is the blocking [of would-be authoritarians], at the same time thinking about what we're working towards, which has to be this concept of pluralism.

But, she had two warnings about that. First, she said,

so much effort is being put into developing a future vision, that we're not working on blocking and going on offense against the forces that are actively with agency trying to really erode democracy...I get a little frustrated, so while I'm totally down with the future vision, and I think that it's fun to do that part, and it's interesting and it's galvanizing, and it brings people together, but it doesn't motivate the kind of resistance to the forces that are actively eroding democracy in the way that we need.

But secondly, she said, "we can't wish the other side away. We have to recognize that we are building a country with our neighbors." To do this, she  suggested that we spend more time

supporting our conservative allies to do the organizing work that they need to do within their movement.  I wish more attention was being spent on that with regards to holding on to their conservative values, holding on to their conservative identity, not asking them to transform into progressives. But deciding where they feel that their movement is going, what are their red lines, what do they stand for? To actually be in solidarity with them.

She calls that "the inside work."  But there is also "outside work:"

But there's also an outside game of pressure, and it's boycotts and its  the actual resistance, tactics of strikes, of the mobilization against actors and actions. When there is public pressure, there will eventually become a calculation that it's no longer expedient to be in that camp [presumably, we think she meant the aspiring authoritarian camp]. And so I think that we need more of both, but we need the pressure.

We also talked about the need to think about the entire conflict system as we do our work:

I do a lot of work on leadership training on leadership skills and the rest of it. And we are not trained to think in systems. And our incentive structures, once we get out into the work world, don't incentivize us to be working systemically, with regard toward our log frames and objectives and measuring impact and all of the ways that we are funneled into our siloed ways of working and thinking. It doesn't allow us to kind of lift up our heads and say, “What am I doing and how does it impact what other people are doing? and oh, do I see where that... I'm just constantly sense-making about like, okay, I did this thing. What happened in the system? And who do I need to be in relationship with? And what system am I trying to impact? It's overwhelming actually, because of the uncertainty and the ambiguity and the volatility that working in systems implies. I think there's going to be kind of a renewed human consciousness that will evolve in this new modern era, and I hope that my kids can incorporate this, and I hope their kids can incorporate a different relationship with uncertainty and ambiguity that's needed for functioning in the modern world, in order to then be able to do the work that we're talking about now.

Systems work, she observed, takes patience.

We actually need to slow down and spend the time observing what's happening, and then thinking that part of the work is the relational work of sense making. It's not just doing all the time. So, I think that, when the whole sector, everyone, is so burned out, when they are exhausted by the meetings and all of it, everybody is just totally exhausted. And so now there's the nap ministry and there's everybody's trying to think about personal wellness and... I think that there's a way of working that also requires a little bit of slowing down for the sense making to take place and not constantly doing. We’re going to have to incorporate that slowing down, that patience, a little bit more.

For more on these topics, as well as a discussion about positive peace and negative peace, positive movements and negative movements, communication strategies and pitfalls, and how to make a difference...


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