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Frances Moore Lappe Headshot

Arizona Peace Talks

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We're almost home when a big hand-drawn plywood sign on the side of the street catches our eye -- "Hooray Arizona." My partner Richard Rowe is puzzled, murmuring that he didn't know an Arizona team had played today.

"It's immigration the guy is angry about," I say. And we both moan.

I am to do a live radio interview in 15 minutes, so we just keep driving home. Afterward, I come down to the kitchen and learn, to my big surprise, that while I'd been upstairs talking about democracy, my partner had been doing it.

Here's what I mean:

Dick had driven back to the rough-hewn sign in a working class stretch of Belmont, Massachusetts. And when at first he didn't see the fellow who'd been there earlier, he waited. Soon the man appeared from his double-decker house. Dick walked up and introduced himself.

"It makes me feel bad," Dick told Joe. "This doesn't help. It just makes the problem worse."

"But all Arizona is doing is implementing the law," Joe responded, "because the federal government isn't enforcing the law. It's all about politics. They're coming in with drugs and killing Americans."

"Why are they coming here?" Dick asked and answered. "We're creating the market for the drugs. We're making it harder for Mexican farmers to survive. Our NAFTA treaty meant American taxpayers have been subsidizing big U.S. agribusiness to drive Mexican farmers under. I think we should go back to the McCain immigration bill that he's backed away from."

"That's amnesty," Joe retorted.

"It's not," Dick said. "They have to qualify. They have to work hard to get it. They have to earn their way."

"My father was an immigrant," said Dick.

"My grandfather was an immigrant," said Joe.

"So we both understand the advantage of coming to America.

(About then, a passing car beeped approval of Joe's sign.)

Dick and Joe, a contractor, talked for about 45 minutes. When Joe's wife began calling him to dinner, it was clear he didn't want to stop. He wanted to keep on going, to engage.

"When I saw that sign I really felt sad," Dick repeated.

"I've got to do something. What can I do?" Joe asked.

"First you get in touch with your congressmen and push them to pass the immigration bill."

"They are all corrupt," said Joe. "More and more people are upset and want to see change. Women, elderly, young people are fed up, fed up with government because they are corrupt."

"But this doesn't solve the problem. It just inflames the problem." said Dick.

"I have got to say something. Tell we what I should say."

"How about: Fix immigration?"

"Okay. I will. Come back tomorrow and you'll see. It will say that," Joe said.

"We shook hands," Dick told me, "and we left as friends with far more in common than we'd ever imagined."

Dick said he felt hesitant as he had approached the house, with no idea who they were or how the sign maker would react. "I imagined being yelled at or ridiculed," he said. "What is clear is that Joe didn't want to sit back any more. He couldn't just sit by and do nothing. He was engaged."

Listening to Dick's story I feel braver myself. I feel a bit more confident that I could do this, too -- more convinced than ever of the power of following our impulse to engage. A lot of media make it harder, though -- often portraying people with Joe's views as too angry to talk. But if we start with the premise that we all have reasons to be angry, and if we share our feelings as well as our information, who knows what can happen.

This story is also posted at Alternet.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet. Find more on living democracy at the Small Planet Institute.