• Gina Baleria

Bridging Political Divides in a Contentious Election Season

Updated: May 22, 2019

“There are so many people that just want to be heard. They want to have a voice. They love their communities.”

Vivek Patil, director of outreach for the Arlington County Democratic Committee in Virginia, keeps this simple truth in mind. His Civity-based approach to community building has helped him bridge divides with people to find connection and commonality.

Patil tells “This is Civity Radio Show” that he knows his approach is different from the traditional view of party outreach – knocking on doors and quick informational conversations to convince people to cast their vote a certain way.

“It’s really a developing of trust through these conversations and these relationships,” he said. “The emphasis is on relationship, as opposed to a very short, transactional interaction.”

One way Patil builds connections is by showing up to community events early to help set up.

“Outside of that transactional conversation that we have – ‘are you registered to vote,’ or people ask questions about this election – we ask them questions about themselves, their lives, their community, and just listen,” Patil said. “Sometimes, these conversations can be 20 minutes. Sometimes, we’ll have a follow-up coffee conversation for an hour. What we’re trying to do is really go out and get to know these communities and speak to people about what they like about living here, why they care about politics, and why it matters to them.”

It’s not always easy. Political affiliation does matter to people, especially during such a contentious election, but Patil says the goal is not to vilify. Rather it’s to listen, learn, and connect.

“Of course, there are political divides and people of different backgrounds, and races, and cultures,” Patil said. “If you just look at this political race, there is so much divisiveness and divisive rhetoric…. But, I think Civity and this sort of community building should be blind to that. It should be about the human element – the community, the people, their stories. Everybody has a story.”

Beyond political difference, many people are frustrated by the political system and don’t know what to do. People are reacting to the fact that they don’t feel heard or represented.

“Politics is about people, and a lot of people in the community feel (it is) inaccessible,” said Patil. “They don’t see the value in political participation. They’re turned off by what’s happening in the news media, the divisiveness, the rhetoric.”

But Patil says conversation can help alleviate those frustrations. He even had great interactions with Trump supporters at a recent festival in Arlington.

“We had a very engaging conversation,” he said. “Of course, we had our differences…, (but) our conversation was very civil. It was respectful…. The agreement was that we both cared deeply about our community, about our state, about Virginia and where we’re going. We may have different views, but I think there’s more in common.”

Patil says it is incumbent upon all of us to continue to turn the tide from divisiveness toward connection. Once we start empathizing and seeking connection, we realize we’re not as divided as we thought. “A lot of us have the same dreams – our hopes, what we want for our families. There’s much in common that we have between us.”

This type of connection is often seen during national crises, such as the recent flooding in Louisiana. “The whole country responded,” said Patil. “It didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or Republican. You were working together to help each other.”

Patil himself used to hold what he describes as “very conservative views,” including the belief that gay marriage was not ok. Conversations with gay people in his community helped him rethink his views. “I started to empathize,” he said. “That transformation for me came through conversation, through experience.”

Now that he has a name for this – Civity – he uses it as a playbook to bridge divides, including over immigrants and the U.S. Muslim community. “The difference that we perceive right now with this community – there are no differences. They are very loyal Americans…. Who am I to deprive another human being their right to prosper and to fulfill their ultimate potential?”

It can be scary to reach out to someone who is different, which is why Patil appreciates the framework Civity provides.

“Just listen…. Sit down and engage those who are different from you…. Why do you think the way you do? Why do you feel the way you do? Maybe I want to understand,” Patil said. “It can be as simple as going to someone and saying, ‘Hello, my name is Vivek. I want to know about you. Tell me why you love… living in this community,’ and hearing their story…. Only then, will we as a nation move forward. That helps build these bridges between communities.”


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