While our country is bracing for possible conflict at the RNC convention in Cleveland next week, we at Purple America are planning for civility. Welcome to the Purple Tent, the civility destination at the RNC convention, where national thought leaders will lead conversation about our shared values and how we actually can get along.
Rodney King, the black Los Angeles taxi driver who, in 1991, became the national poster child for police brutality, challenged all of us with a question that still prevails today: "People, I just want to say, can we all get along, can we all get along?"
Unfortunately, this question still rings true for race relations and current-day politics.
This last week has been a devastating one in America. The two shootings of innocent black men by police in Baton Rouge and St. Paul reinforce continuing feelings of distrust, disrespect and disregard between the African American community and police. The massacre of five innocent police officers in Dallas by a black man whose anger bubbled over shows us how anger and resentment can be accelerants that can turn things destructive and ugly.
In the wake of these recent incidents, there have been the usual condemnations, observations and platitudes that we have heard over and over again since Ferguson, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and, now, Dallas.
Dallas' mayor Mike Rawlings called for us to "... Come together at this time and to love one another deeply." Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called for empathy. Senator Cory Booker said that, "... We need people who bind our wounds." These statements may be appropriate, but they don't tell us how. How do we, how can we love one another?
If you listen to the pundits, many say that America is terribly divided. But these pundits give us few solutions about how we can actually do better or be better. Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press, said last Sunday that, "America is becoming more tribal, divided by income, religion, politics, and race." Former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, now the head of the President's Task Force on Community Policing, said that, "We are sitting on a powder keg. You've got too many people dealing in extend rhetoric. We need to come together." Nice observation, but how can we get along?
Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus recently observed that, "In an era of partisan polarization, the problem isn't merely a deficit of great leaders capable of binding the nation together. It's also a shortage of citizens willing to listen."
Between platitudes from leaders and doomsday scenarios proffered by media, many ordinary Americans choose to check-out, to become tone-deaf, shaking their heads and drowning out the noise, while concluding that division and conflict represent a new normal that cannot be changed. To these people -- those who are not directly affected or in the line of fire -- the default solution may be to isolate oneself from the daily din, effectively climbing into a isolationist hole where no one will bother them.
Other Americans react by preparing to protest. Still others, loners like Dallas shooter Micah Johnson -- and I believe there are many of them -- are building up anger within themselves that someday will explode. All of these scenarios are facts of life in current-day America. None of them will improve division, hate, anger, resentment or isolation.
Another scenario will -- conversation. It sounds simple, but it works. Why? Because conversation is the medium of human interaction. It allows us to forge bonds, understand one another, empathize, and then seek common solutions.
We are lacking in conversation in America. For whatever reason, aside maybe for retirees congregating at Panera over coffee and bagels, groups don't routinely assemble to discuss issues. Maybe because we've been spoiled by talk radio and television; maybe by the ease of just observing conversation in action on TV or chatting on the Internet; maybe by the constant droll of talk show hosts that give up their daily dose of expert opinions and tirades; maybe by the false illusion that, by sending emails or text messages, we are having a conversation.
Some of that does involve conversation. But much of that involves venting. We have become a nation of venters. Venting is not conversation. Yes, you get stuff off your chest, but without conversation, venting goes nowhere.
Conversation requires two or more people sitting down and having a civil discussion. Not ranting; not yelling; not texting or emailing; not finger-pointing, not point-counterpointing. Just talking.
What do you talk about? Issues and values.
I have learned through 22 years of involvement in Project Love workshops, involving 83,000 teenagers, that even the most distressed and dysfunctional school can be turned around through conversation. That when teenagers talk about their issues in a calm, civil, authentic way, they invariably also talk about their values: right and wrong, fairness and what kind of school community they want to have. This is true for suburban, urban or rural teenagers. It's true for all socioeconomic, racial and religious blends of teens.
Last year, when Cleveland experienced multiple police-community incidents and shootings, Project Love, Purple America and other groups -- nonprofits, churches and synagogues, and government, as well -- brought diverse people together for community conversations. We talked, listened and, together, defined core values. Police, prosecutors, council members, victims, and ordinary citizens attended. Anger occasionally vented and then was dealt with respectfully within the conversation. Cleveland, unlike Baltimore and Ferguson, did not burn!
Cleveland is still a work in progress. Government is implementing a Department of Justice consent decree to deal with excessive force issues within the Cleveland Division of Police. The community is working on community policing and equality issues. And, most significantly, we all are continuing the dialogue.
That is why we at Purple America believe that it's appropriate that, during the RNC Convention, Cleveland set an example by having a destination that will model civility and conversation, The Purple Tent will provide an example for our country, community and politics of something that we can do: talk to one another.
Within the Purple Tent, as opposed to venting, national thought leaders, community citizens, out of town gawkers, and RNC delegates will be discussing how to get to civility and common ground, how to influence media to be positive and promote solutions, how to engage Millennials, and how to take a lead in standing for civility.
Many have concluded that America is dividing and disintegrating. I believe that Americans are really looking for solutions that make us the nation of our shared values, the America whose vision, actions and outcomes we can embrace and be proud of.
Until that vision is shaped and buttressed through authentic conversation and thoughtful leadership, anger will occasionally bubble over intrude on our lives.
But, while venting and anger will not solve our national issues, I believe that conversation will. Conversation will also forge bonds, empathy, mutual understanding and solutions.
Whether you choose to watch our live streaming at www.purpletent.us or participate by visiting the Purple Tent in Cleveland (July 18-20) during the RNC Convention, I hope that you will be a part of the national conversation to restore civility to our country. The stakes are high. The moment is now. And you can be part of the solution. Tweet your thoughts @purpleamericaus, hashtag #purple4civility. To see the entire Purple Tent schedule, go to www.purpletent.us.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org. To see a schedule of events in the Purple Tent, go to www.purpletent.us