• Gina Baleria

This is Civity Radio: Kim Roth Howe Searches for Purple in a Red/Blue Time

Updated: May 22, 2019

“You may not find reciprocity as you attempt to have conversations” across difference, said Kim Roth Howe, founding principal of Co-Creative Labs and TED Talk speaker of Searching for Purple in a Red and Blue Time. “Even if you do everything exactly right, and you come with the most open heart and most gracious perspective…, you still may not find any kind of mutuality. And, it's still worth it.”

Howe lives in Nebraska, and like many others across the country, she found herself concerned about deep political divides after the 2016 election. She told This Is Civity Radio that one interaction in particular shook her to the core.

“Somebody that I thought that I had a pretty good relationship with, we had an explosive interaction (on Facebook),” Howe said. “I shared some of my feelings about things, and her response was really unexpected. She posted a bunch of things accusing me of believing and saying and being things that just weren't true, and jumping in in some really destructive ways to other relationships and conversations I was having.”

Howe’s response was visceral.

“When I saw what she posted,” said Howe, “I physically stood up from my computer, ran out the front door of my house, and stood in the middle of the street. It felt the same way as if someone had thrown a rock through my window, and I expected to see her running down the street. So I found myself just standing like an idiot in the middle of the street going, ‘what the freak is happening right now?’”

Howe then ran to the house of another friend who had a different political perspective.

“I wanted to find somebody on the other side who I felt like I could still connect with as a human person,” she said. “Unfortunately, he wasn't home, but I thought that was an interesting gut response. All of this felt like just animal instinct—I need to talk to another person who believes the same things that this woman does and almost have them say, ‘It's okay. We're still in this together.’ So I came home and immediately concocted this idea that we have to do this differently.”

Howe’s idea was to invite a total of 1,200 neighbors over (not all at once!) for dinner in small groups to discuss their political perspectives, share stories, and hopefully find common ground.

Her online interaction with her neighbor “made me realize, this whole thing we have is predicated on this idea of ‘don't ask, don't tell.’ There are certain things we don't want to know about each other, and one of those things is where our political alignment is,” Howe said. “I felt that was a really fake way to build community, if we just pretended that these important elements of ourselves didn't exist…. I felt, if we're going to actually make this community happen, we better know each other for real.”

About 40 “brave souls” took Howe up on her offer to attend a dinner of about six to eight people at a time. Howe, who had participated in Civity training through the Omaha New Leaders Council, said that storytelling is key to helping people engage across divides, because stories can help us connect values and see common experiences.

For example, she asks people to “tell the story of a time when you realized (an issue) was important to you or a person that's connected to this story for you. And, what are some of the real life experiences that have built your feelings about this over time. One of the questions I really like to ask is, ‘When you cast your vote, what were you hoping that your vote could help create in the world that you don't see now? What's the world that you want to bring to reality that you're not seeing at the moment?’ Then, you dig from there.”

Howe said there have been some profound moments at these dinners.

“We had this one fellow who was a retired steelworker, very conservative. He was a really strong Trump supporter, and he had started the conversation with talking about some of the concerns he had about some of our neighbors who are immigrants,” Howe said. “When I asked that question—it took me asking like four or five times in different ways before he answered it—but when he did finally answer it, what he said was, ‘You know, I just want a community where everybody takes care of each other, and where together we can fix the broken places where families are falling apart.’ And every single person at that table was like, ‘Yeah, we all want that.’ Then, we have some really different ideas about how to do that, but we recognize—it's just such an amazing moment of seeing the other person and being like, ‘Oh, your heart is my heart. We've got the same longings, really.’”

At another dinner, Howe said one of the guests initially dismissed her husband when he shared his experiences as a physician at a federally qualified health center that serves mostly uninsured Spanish speakers.

“My husband was talking about how much the issue of immigration and the issue of the outsider experience was important to him, and talking about some of the people he knows at work. He was getting really emotional and tearing up, and one of the guys at the table was super dismissive about what he had said,” Howe explained. “The other guy was like, ‘Well, what you have to understand is…’ and jumped in with that approach, and I saw my husband totally shut down.”

Howe decided to address the man. “‘Before you offer an alternate perspective, can you maybe just reflect back what you heard him say? Just repeat back what you heard him say.’ He tried a couple times and was not doing a very great job of it. ‘We're going try again. See if you can really connect. What can you hear matters to him in what he's saying?’ Howe said her efforts did not work initially. But at the end of the meeting, he looked down for a minute, and he took a big breath, and he said, ‘I just want to say how much I appreciate you sharing what you felt about that. It made me think about things in a different way, and I'm really grateful for that.’ This was the guy who had just dismissed it before. That was another moment of just feeling like, oh, wow.”

Howe has found that these dinners help break through our automatic responses.

“We are so practiced at our life talking points that we just toss these things back and forth at each other, and the conversation is happening in the two inches above your eyebrows and nowhere else. It's thin, and it's boring, because we've all heard people on television say these same things, and so nobody's really talking,” Howe said. “That's the habit we have to break or the crust we have to get through first, and talking about those real deep longings—that's what enables you to get deep under the surface, and then from there, you can talk about other things.”

Howe did a lot of research and implemented Civity and other practices to create a safe space to engage.

“I was really thoughtful about how do we create a sense of connection and space even before we start the conversation,” she said. “So, they were potlucks, and you were supposed to come with a dish that was important to you or your family or had some kind of family history. That was the first thing, just talk about this food that you brought. It gave everybody a little bit of storytelling that was totally unloaded first.”

Though the work can be hard, Howe said it’s worth it.

“We have to create the kind of culture that we want to live in,” she said. “You have to keep creating that environment, even if not everyone will step into it. It's almost setting expectations—we live in a community; this is what community looks like. I'm going to keep being that community for other people, whether or not they step into it with me, because otherwise we just give up hope, and then we lose.”

As for anyone reading this or listening to the podcast, Howe says, “Go try it! I want to tell people to give it a shot…. I guarantee it will be painful and difficult, and it will fail and explode, and then good things happen.”

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