Bridge Building as a Basic Operating Principle

Back to Spring 2023: Volume 112, Number 1

By Maia Ferdman and Graham Bodie

In October 2022, Los Angeles awoke to a leaked audio tape featuring four prominent city leaders making explicitly racist remarks about their colleagues and fellow community members. The four leaders – three City Council Members, one of whom was sitting president of the council, and a prominent labor leader – were discussing their dissatisfaction with the redistricting process and how to secure Latino political power. In the course of the conversation, each made remarks that were blatantly anti-Black, anti-Oaxacan, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-Armenian, and more.

As shocking as the leaked audio was to the entire region, in some ways the tapes simply serve as another painful chapter in Los Angeles’ unfortunately long history of racial animus, intergroup conflict, and political dysfunction. Indeed, we see similar themes and dynamics in this leaked audio that we saw during the Zoot Suit Riots and internment of Japanese Americans of the 1940s, the Civil Unrest of the 1990s, and the ongoing legacies of redlining and housing discrimination. Further, the city’s dispersed system of governance, and the longstanding antagonism between city and county governments, make addressing these dynamics (and many of the region’s enduring challenges) incredibly difficult.

Despite these bleak trends, many Angelenos remain hopeful, harnessing the more global sentiment that Americans, when given opportunities and resources, can solve most, if not all, of our most seemingly intractable problems. As a case in point, and one to which we return toward the end of this essay, the members of the Los Angeles Bridge Builders Collective (LABBC) have seen an altogether different picture of Los Angeles.

In this article, we will explore bridge building as one among many strategies needed to solve conflicts over issues of national importance and local significance. Our solution additionally rests on the foundation of collective impact, an approach to collaboration that “[involves] a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” This approach has been used to organize and mobilize the hundreds of organizations across the country doing real work in real communities like Los Angeles, and we see additional potential in applying this approach to local bridge-building efforts. As we will show, while our solution begins within the larger political and cultural narratives surrounding what it means to be “American,” it quickly acknowledges the need for bridge building to occur within local communities.

The Promise and Practice of Bridge Building 

According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, bridge builders are “individuals and organizations…working to foster more constructive dialogue and understanding across group lines, bringing us together at a time when so many forces are pulling us apart.” Practitioners who specialize in developing bridge-building programming work to build individual and collective capacities to resolve conflict, work across differences, and lead empathically and effectively.

The capacity to “build bridges” is central to building and maintaining a truly inclusive, dynamic, and civil society. It is, according to a report co-authored by The Constructive Dialogue Institute and The Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, “rooted in highlighting shared humanity, helping people find common ground, creating spaces for people to listen to those with differing views, and encouraging people to reflect on the roots of their own worldviews.” The term, however, often gets a bad rap. By that self-same report, several “concerns, questions, and criticisms of bridge-building point to the tension—perceived or real—between efforts to repair intergroup relationships and efforts to correct inequitable structures.”

To be sure, we acknowledge the power dynamics underlying calls for increased listening that are similar in many ways to calls for “civility” or “civil discourse” used to oppress rather than uplift, and we remain committed to using bridge-building practices to help create more equitable and inclusive communities. These are not superficial, banal, or superfluous processes. Nor is bridge building merely a desire to “just get along.” Rather, like physical bridges, bridge building is a tool that can be used toward many different local civic goals – and it is fundamental to a healthy civic infrastructure. Indeed, effective bridge building has been shown to improve problem-solving, to increase creativity and productivity, and to elevate a sense of “belonging,” all of which are key to functioning communities and societies.

This practice we call bridge building goes by several other names, of course. There are those who, for instance, prefer “dialogue” to “deliberation” and still others who have preferences for particular models of each (e.g., mediation, restorative practices, multi-stakeholder engagement). Although the methods and missions of the 500+ organizations in the collaborative #ListenFirst Coalition differ in many ways, they all share a fundamental belief in the power of bringing people of diverse worldviews into conversations that prioritize listening first to understand.

While some of these groups focus on politics (e.g., Braver Angels, Resetting the Table), others focus on divisions that manifest outside of party affiliation such as the urban-rural divide (e.g., Urban Rural Action) or intergenerational engagement (e.g., For All Ages). Still others tackle related issues such as the loneliness epidemic (e.g., Sidewalk Talk) or rising suicide rates (e.g., One Pedal at a Time). Regardless of focus, most partners employ some form of what Martin Carcasson with Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation calls deliberative engagement, which “begins with the recognition of the underlying values inherent to public problems, and focuses on developing mutual understanding and genuine interaction across perspectives, which then provides a base to support the constant adjustment, negotiation, and creativity required to tackle wicked problems.”

Since 2017, the collective impact network we call the #ListenFirst Coalition has worked to make bridge building and collaboration norms more accessible and user-friendly for the American public to tackle the wicked problems they care about most. Much of our efforts have been focused on co-designing and managing national campaigns and strategies for social cohesion, the most notable and long-lasting of which is National Week of Conversation.

The 6th Annual National Week of Conversation

A group of leaders doing conversation work across the country met in Chicago in October 2017 to explore the idea of a national conversation event. Out of that meeting, seven organizations1 worked together to build the first National Week of Conversation (NWoC) which debuted in April 2018. During that week, more than 100 schools, libraries, faith communities, activist groups, and nonprofits hosted conversations coast to coast in 32 states. The organizations that created the National Week of Conversation were (in alphabetical order) AllSides, Big Tent Nation, Bridge Alliance, Listen First Project, Living Room Conversations, National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, and National Institute for Civic Discourse. These organizations asked participants to ground conversations in a commitment to “listen first to understand,” while the common #ListenFirst hashtag reached 2 million people through thousands of posts to various social media accounts (led by Twitter and Facebook).

Survey data collected by member organizations showed that most NWoC participants walked away feeling more tolerant, understanding, appreciative, and curious toward people with different perspectives. Two-thirds rated the value of their conversation as a 9 or 10 out of 10, and more than three-quarters reported feeling better equipped and more likely to listen first to understand, as well as more likely to participate in future conversations across divides. In all, the first National Week of Conversation provided the initial evidence that a coordinated national strategy was not only possible but desirable.

Of course, we remained mindful that participants in NWoC 2018 events were likely a self-selected group of people already motivated to engage others with whom they disagree. Our message likely failed to resonate with what More in Common’s Hidden Tribes report labeled “the wings” – approximately one-third of the population who have particularly negative opinions about out-group members. Although in the minority, they “often dominate our national conversation.”

Similarly, media coverage can skew public opinion toward thinking about differences and divisions rather than opportunities for connection despite difference. Nevertheless, we felt empowered by the fact that two-thirds of the country can be classified as part of “the exhausted majority” who believe that “differences between Americans are not so big that we cannot come together.” Moreover, our experience during NWoC 2018 was similar to what the Civility in America survey has been reporting since 2010: 75 percent of American adults—nearly 200 million people—are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36 percent—nearly 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to turn the tide of rising of rancor and deepening division. National Week of Conversation is that campaign.

Rather than commission a new organization, Listen First Project shifted focus to providing backbone support for the collective impact network driving NWoC and other campaigns and initiatives. We have built collective capacity to collaborate, co-create, innovate, and share ownership. We have engaged over the past two years on multiple projects to better coordinate measurement of outcomes and processes important to bridge-building work. This idea of collective impact has intentionally invited organizations to a structured way of collaboration to achieve social change beyond what any of them could achieve alone.

Our focus has largely been on the relationships between organizations and the progress toward shared objectives. Partners learn together, align, and integrate their actions to tackle complex challenges. We design and develop collaborative programming (e.g., America Talks) and shared ways to measure their impact. The power of collective impact comes from enabling collective seeing, learning, and doing. Cascading levels of collaboration create multiple ways for people to participate, communicate lessons, and coordinate their effort. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives like the #ListenFirst Coalition (and the yearly campaign it produces called National Week of Conversation) involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process.

While the 6th annual National Week of Conversation is now behind us (April 17-23, find more information here), in some ways that means our work is just beginning. One of our goals for this campaign has always been to amplify the voices of people building bridges in their own communities. And so, we now turn our attention to one of the more compelling stories from this past year, efforts to organize a collective impact network of “bridgers” doing work in Los Angeles, California.

Applying Collective Impact to Local Bridging Initiatives: The Case of Los Angeles 

There is particular transformational potential in applying the collective impact approach to bridge building (exemplified by the #ListenFirst Coalition) at the local grassroots level. First, we see the same toxic and polarized dynamics at the national level playing out at the local level. In one national survey, 70 percent of local government officials said that polarization is negatively impacting their communities, such as by causing a decrease in resident trust in government and by increasing resident animosity or hostility toward government officials. In Los Angeles, this takes the form of the kind of identity-based divisions we saw in the leaked audio tapes last October, as well as in conversations about major issues like homelessness, development, education policy, and policing.

Second, unlike the “imagined enemies” we often create and demonize at the national level, political and other disagreements are much more “real” at the local level. Indeed, there is not only particular urgency in addressing political dysfunction in our backyards, there is a particular opportunity as well.

Despite the toxic trends named above, there is also evidence that local politics are actually less polarized than at the national level – that neighbors who disagree on national issues agree on many local policies. In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein made the case that focusing on local politics – where people tend to live near others who are more similar to them, and where the issues at hand “are more often tangible and less symbolic,” and where elected officials are much easier to reach and influence – as one important way to battle the scourge of toxic polarization. Further, Eric Klinenberg, in Palaces for the People, demonstrated how “social infrastructure” at the grassroots (convening spaces such as libraries and community centers) can create crucial opportunities for interaction and relationship-building that, in turn, can increase communal resilience and political efficacy at the local level. Since its first iteration in 2018, NWoC has included these sorts of key community resources and spaces in its outreach efforts. Libraries, schools, places of worship, museums, and other public spaces are fertile ground for bridging work.

The Los Angeles Bridge Builders Collective was also formed with this particular assumption – that we are all deeply committed to our city, and that together we represent a vital infrastructure for peace building at the local level. And, we have seen this potential for local transformation play out in our own work. For example, some bridge building organizations in LA host and facilitate dialogue and encounters between different groups – these connections, in turn, become essential networks to mobilize in times of crisis. For instance, NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change builds resilient relationships between Muslims and Jews in the region. Not only have they created new personal connections between these two large local communities and built skills for navigating differences, but they have mobilized Jews and Muslims to work together on issues of shared interest, such as fighting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The California Conference for Equality and Justice hosts different programs, trainings, and convenings for people from different backgrounds to learn about each other’s lived experience, to explore and understand racism and inequity, and to fight for justice.

Other organizations prepare emerging and current leaders to approach conflict bravely and skillfully, and thus cultivate a pipeline of bridge builders for the future. For example, the Western Justice Center trains young people to use restorative practices and conflict resolution skills to heal the harm to their school communities after acts of violence and following racial conflict, and to proactively prevent harm before it happens. The Center for International Experiential Learning takes university students in Los Angeles and across the country to conflict-affected regions around the world in order to inspire critical thinking and dialogue skills that can be employed at home. Los Angeles County is also home to world-renowned dispute resolution programs, such as the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University.

Bridge building can also address specific civic challenges or concerns. For example,  Bridges Intergroup Relations Consulting conducted a discovery process for the City of Los Angeles detailing how bridge-building skills and practices can help address the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. The City of Culver City in LA County contracted with the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD) to lead large community conversations about one neighborhood’s master plan. A few years ago, Los Angeles was selected as one of fourteen regions to implement the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort, which included numerous community conversations about racism and its lasting impacts. Los Angeles’s own local government is also already home to focused bridge-building initiatives, including the recently launched Peace and Healing Centers, the LAforAll Campaign, the LA vs. Hate campaign, and the LA City Attorney’s Office Community Justice Initiatives, including the Dispute Resolution Program and its Community Police Unification program.

These examples may at first seem like disparate or unrelated efforts. Each organization has different goals, different target audiences, and operates in different spaces. And yet, like the national examples named above, each of these efforts builds a bridge, and each addresses and transcends differences between people, cultivates more empathic leadership, or breaks through polarization and derision. Further, each of these efforts is deeply local: their audiences are students and educators, faith communities, families, and neighbors, and they are deeply committed to making Los Angeles an even better place to live.

When examined collectively, these bridge-building efforts form a strong foundation for social cohesion in Los Angeles and, in turn, its civic health – and an opportunity to fulfill the local promise described by authors such as Klein and Klinenberg.

Elevating the Field of Bridge Building in Los Angeles

What would it look like to make bridge building of this nature the norm in Los Angeles? What would it look like to adopt facilitated dialogue, transformational mediation, and other forms of conflict resolution and bridge building as a core operating principle of the way Los Angeles does its business? And, if it works in LA, how can we scale such efforts across the country?

For example, what would it look like, in the aftermath of a leaked audio tape of Los Angeles leaders spewing hateful vitriol, to come together as a city rather than be torn apart? What would it look like if City Council members sat down with each other in a facilitated and intimate dialogue about the identity-based divisions and toxic dynamics those tapes revealed within LA’s city government? What would it look like to have expertly designed community meetings as part of the State of California’s investigation into LA’s redistricting process? What would it look like to invest in regular, placed-based opportunities for Angelenos of different backgrounds to meet and discuss their concerns about representation and racism? By imagining these possibilities, we can begin to appreciate the potential of bridge-building mindsets, approaches, skill sets, and practitioners to improve the civic health of an entire city.

But before tapping into its full potential, we must understand bridge building as an important field of practice, and we must intentionally invest in and mobilize this field at the grassroots level. Legislation such as the Building Civic Bridges Act is one way to do so, though those currently doing work must keep doing so without direct congressional allocation until such a bill can be passed into law. Since the summer of 2020, a small group of Los Angeles-based bridge builders have been convening to think about ways our collective work can catalyze and multiply our individual impact. In the spirit of collective impact, we started the Los Angeles Bridge Builders Collective to help make this work more visible, more accessible, and more supported than any of us could achieve on our own. We want Los Angeles leaders – elected officials, funders, educators, and others – to understand that this field of practice exists, and that bridge-building skills are not only helpful in addressing some of our most pressing challenges, but essential.

As a first step in our journey toward collective impact, we have set out to map the bridging landscape in the region. In order to do the above, we first need to know who else is building bridges at the grassroots. We received support from Humanity in Action and the Alfred Landecker Foundation (two international bridge building organizations) to begin this process. The LABBC Bridge Builders Map is a usable, filterable map of the practitioners and organizations in LA who offer this expertise. It begins to paint a picture – for elected officials, for funders, and for other leaders and bridge builders – of the resources at our disposal, as well as the gaps requiring further investment. Such projects are easily replicable in other communities, if properly resourced.

We aim to keep populating this map, and to use it as a launching pad for future on-the-ground convenings and activities. This might look like the development of audience- or goal-specific working groups, programmatic collaborations, advising local leaders, regular resource sharing, advocating for more resources for bridge builders, or amplifying bridging success stories with a broader public. In essence, we aim to bring the spirit, inspiration, and variety of the National Week of Conversation to the grassroots level.

Yet our sights are not only set at the local level. In 2028, Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world, will host the Olympics, one of the most significant bridge-building efforts in the world. As a port city, as the global entertainment capital, and as home to almost 200 spoken languages, Los Angeles is a bellwether – and a setter – of global trends. It is thus well positioned to use the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase its transformational, comprehensive, and effective bridge building. If tapped, the network of bridge builders in Los Angeles can help prepare us to host the 2028 Olympics as a City that has faced its past and committed to a better future.

Building Grassroots Bridges across the United States 

Los Angeles is not alone in its efforts to build bridges at the grassroots. In fact, numerous communities across the country have launched efforts to solve problems together with the spirit of listening to understand the needs of a diverse set of stakeholders. In partnership with the Gallup organization, for instance, Center for the Future of Arizona created The Arizona We Want to develop “a shared vision of success” with the goal of “[ensuring] that the public values we share are realized for all Arizonans.” Similarly, in Oregon, The Citizen Project is a collaborative effort “to inspire and support people to work across differences to solve public problems.” Inspired by these sorts of projects, several #ListenFirst Coalition organizations have recently formed a new working group to explore how to support new “Bridging Hubs,” or networks of bridge builders working at the grassroots, across the country.

There is a natural symbiosis between local and national collective impact work. Indeed, while many organizations in the #ListenFirst Coalition continue to trace their roots and situate their current work in local communities, they often have a national footprint. For example, as a way to kick off this year’s National Week of Conversation, Essential Partners (EP) invited communities across the country to screen The Abortion Talks, the documentary that tells the story of three pro-life and three pro-choice leaders who met in secret for five years after two shootings in 1996 at women’s health clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts. That film illustrates that when the toxic rhetoric surrounding issues of national importance go uninterrupted, it is local communities who pay the highest price.

And yet, as we have noted through our collective impact work both in Los Angeles and across the country, it is precisely those local communities that have the most to gain from interrupting toxic patterns and building bridges instead. Programming such as EP’s Dialogue Across Difference that offer the opportunity to “engage in constructive conversations despite deeply-held differences of value, belief, opinion, or identity,” or like the many other efforts we name throughout this essay, not only transform the people who participate in them, but the communities they inhabit, and the broader social fabric they compose.

Maia Ferdman is the founder of Bridges Intergroup Relations Consulting. 

Graham Bodie is Chief Listening Officer at the Listen First Project.

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