In a divided nation, an infrastructure develops to build bridges

The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange members Tyler McDaniel and Susie Trejo Williams laugh together after dinner at Homeplace, an agritourism destination, on May 17 in Campbellsville, Ky.(Jon Cherry/The New York Times)

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. — Bernard Clay, a Black, middle-aged data analyst and poet from Louisville, Kentucky, was leery when he was thrown together with Shaelyn Bishop, a shy, white, young biologist who grew up on a family farm in rural Green County, Kentucky, 15 minutes from the closest town.

But over a structured brainstorming session in 2022, amid a weekend retreat with the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, something clicked. Clay, 47, had a side project chronicling Kentucky’s Black Civil War veterans. Bishop, 34, during quiet hours alone studying the ecology of the Clay Hill Memorial Forest in Taylor County, Kentucky, had pondered the old stones that almost certainly marked the burial grounds of the once-enslaved, a forgotten memorial to a hidden past. An effort was born — the Enslaved People of Clay Hill, or EPOCH, Legacy Project — to officially recognize the burial ground. And a connection was made across the gulfs of race, age and geography.

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The nation’s poisonous divisions, exacerbated by politicians, cable news and social media, and collectively known as the outrage industrial complex, have been much lamented. Less noticed is the counterweight, a constellation of nonprofits and other organizations like the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, or RUX, devoted to bridging divides — urban and rural, Black and white, LGBTQ+ and straight, left and right. Call it the kumbaya industrial complex.

The problem: The starkest divide — Trump-branded conservatism versus the rising political left — may be the one where no one is interested in reconciliation.

“We have to be focused on what we call the exhausted majority — that’s 65% of Americans,” said Stephen B. Heintz, the president and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a major financial backer of the proliferating groups trying to promote common ground. “It’s just not an efficient use of time to convince true ideologues to compromise.”

Today, with the backing of Rockefeller Brothers, the MacArthur Foundation, the Emerson Collective and others, a new group, Trust for Civic Life, will award its first $8 million to 20 civic groups judged the most promising in their efforts to rebuild community and reinforce democratic values. Another $2 million will come later in the year to meet the trust’s pledge of $10 million a year for community-level democracy efforts. In this case, “democracy” is with a small “d” — emphasizing efforts to shore up the values needed to promote democratic pluralism, without explicit mentions of Republicans or Democrats.

The first trust grants, selected from more than 60 organizations, will be announced in Boulder, Colorado, at a Democracy Funders Strategy Summit on combating authoritarianism, more evidence that bridge-building has become the hot new concept in a country looking for hope.

In Minnesota, a fledgling Rural-Urban Exchange modeled on Kentucky’s is taking root. Braver Angels, a national organization, explicitly seeks to foster dialogue and respect across the political divide. The Lyceum Movement, hearkening back to early 19th-century efforts to forge communities in a new nation, is convening meetings and lectures in towns large and small in Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, trying to stand in for local institutions like churches, newspapers and service societies that have atrophied, replaced by a national tribalism.

NewGround is expanding from its Los Angeles base to train facilitators who foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews at one of the most fraught moments in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And at colleges and universities cleaved by sharp-edged partisanship, BridgeUSA has established 65 chapters, hoping to make those who embrace dialogue the real campus radicals, not those who fall in line with the left or right, said Manu Meel, the organization’s CEO.

“If you’re a student, you need to feel that the way you earn credibility is to be a bridge builder, not a conflict entrepreneur,” Meel said.

Scaling up such efforts to make a noticeable difference, particularly in the political discourse, might feel like a pipe dream, when forces as big as Fox News, MSNBC, TikTok and YouTube — not to mention the tone of the nation’s leadership — push in the opposite direction. Organizers have struggled whenever one dominant political power is uninterested in meeting in the middle.

For BridgeUSA’s chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, that dominant power is the left. The organization began at Berkeley in 2017, after an attempted visit by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had incited violent confrontations. Now, said Lucy Cox, a 20-year-old rising junior at Berkeley and the president of the school’s chapter, the hole in the group’s outreach comes from the left. BridgeBerkeley’s debates, discussions and social mixers attract conservative student groups.

“But we’ve had no luck in getting Cal Dems or the Young Democratic Socialists of America” — the largest political groups at Berkeley — “to any of these events,” she admitted.

Those groups see even listening to Trump-aligned conservatives as “platforming” evil, Cox added.

“I wish there were more people willing to hear everybody out,” she said. “I think it’s possible, but there are groups on campus that are unreachable right now.”

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