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Strangers to neighbors: Three steps to an inclusive democracy

Peric is executive director of Welcoming America, a nonprofit that promotes pluralism in local communities. Maristany is an associate director of the Democracy Fund, a foundation that supports efforts at improving the democratic process.


Next week is Welcoming Week, an annual celebration of inclusive values lived out in practice across the United States.

A counterpoint to hate and division, the purpose is to show that in communities large and small, rural and urban, a growing movement is committed to a democracy in which all of us belong and thrive — including immigrants and refugees.

More than a feel-good moment, Welcoming Week is part of the year-round work of shaping policies, practices and norms of inclusion from the grassroots up. Welcoming work may begin with helping strangers become neighbors, and move on to technical solutions and policies, but ultimately is about addressing the question of who owns and benefits from those policies. In an era of migration and demographic change, this work is about shaping the "we" in "We, the people."

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This work — of "creating home together," our theme this year — is urgent. Covid-19 has magnified the unhealthiness of a society that treats some as expendable or less deserving. It has shown that trust between neighbors, and between institutions and people, has life or death consequences. It has revealed the ease with which too many Americans rushed to scapegoat fellow Americans of Asian descent, or blame immigrants. It has shown that factors like race, Zip code and home of origin play far too great a role in determining survival or death.

The murders of a long list of Black Americans, who have lost their lives to our collective inability to act as if their lives matter, are a reminder of how far we have to go to create an America in which each of us truly belong. But the diversity of voices contributing to an outraged response has also revealed our potential to build the collective will to get there.

Both governing institutions and civil society groups have a critical role to play. Incentivizing more positive norms of inclusion and belonging is a task all of us can participate in — in three ways.

First, we should incentivize more representative and inclusive institutions.

A belief in the benefits of innovative thinking and entrepreneurial action is a unique and powerful aspect of the American character. So why would we let a monopoly of perspectives, backgrounds and experiences dominate any institution? If we want to be globally competitive and for democracy to succeed, diverse leadership is a must. An atmosphere in which diverse leaders can compete and collaborate as equals is part of that. That starts by acknowledging that creating stronger pathways starts in our own houses, by starting to ask how you could be keeping others from coming to your table.

That looks like helping institutions make their boards, commissions, staff and decision-making processes more reflective of demographics — and creating opportunities for residents of diverse backgrounds to share leadership, so they build trust across lines of difference and then advance equitable policies benefiting all of us. It looks like creating new mechanisms to recruit and retain talent in government through a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging — and commitments to engage diverse voices in decision making.

Too often, the onus falls on newcomers to navigate a system with unequal rules. Consider the role you can play in creating welcoming spaces and policies that actively engage a more diverse group. Consider what a more representative democracy can do to advance policies that help all Americans. Traditionally white-led institutions that hope for more diverse people to come to their table can ask instead: Whose table can I visit and learn from?

Second, we should urgently dedicate time and resources to narratives that counter zero-sum thinking and promote a greater sense of "we."

Narrative is the fertile soil in which policy and structural change takes root. The idea of polarization is itself the result of a narrative – one that has too long implied that us-versus-them thinking is simply the result of a nation growing further apart in its views. The truth is we have been polarized — through political tactics like the Southern strategy, which pits Americans against one another through the scapegoating of minority populations; misinformation and foreign interference that seek to exploit identity fault lines; policies that have segregated communities and fueled racial inequity; and the pervasive use of fear to motivate consumer and political behavior.

If narratives that perpetuate othering or racial hierarchy are a virus that can spread, we can use our influence to inoculate the public and find a cure in constructive politics and a cohesive democracy. With authoritarianism knocking at our doorstep, we cannot wait.

We can each work to counter zero-sum narratives and the othering and scapegoating of our neighbors. As numerous researchers have underscored, it's never been more important for leaders to be vocal in speaking to shared values, while also recognizing how we are affected differently because of our race and other factors.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, narratives are only as strong as their ability to ring true.

That's why we can't just talk about unity and a wider circle of belonging. We have to demonstrate it in practice and policies.

In deeply segregated and polarized communities, this might need to begin with listening, reconciliation and trust-building across lines of difference. But in all places, it should pave the way for greater opportunity, agency and participation for all — particularly those who have been historically excluded because of race, religion, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender and ability.

When it comes to immigrant inclusion, every institution can benefit from its own checklist of actions that translate aspirational values into practice. Democracy focused organizations can also use data to assess and understand their role in perpetuating systemic racism.

Organizations from the YMCA to the American Alliance of Museums have used Welcoming Week to deepen their existing work around inclusion — and we invite you to, as well, by attending one of our events or hosting a Belonging Civic Dinner.

We also invite you to be part of the work to create a society in which each of us can belong and thrive. In our respective spheres of influence, we can embody and incentivize healthy behaviors. We can stand behind a more diverse chorus of Americans sharing and representing the values of inclusion in narrative and norms.

If we do so, we will have taken advantage of the opportunity we're being presented with now to become the truly inclusive American democracy that we have the promise to be.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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