In the coming weeks, The Fulcrum will unveil a refresh of its website and daily newsletter for subscribers, including a new look, additional features and introducing new regular contributors and columnists writing on a variety of topics relating to democracy.
Today, The Fulcrum shares the inaugural column, Beyond Right and Left, from new regular contributors Mark Gerzon and Chris Gates. Chris Gates and Mark Gerzon are co-directors of Philanthropy Bridging Divides, a transpartisan conversation among America's philanthropic leaders:
We are pleased to introduce our 'Beyond Right and Left' column that will be published for the first time in the newly redesigned and reimaged Fulcrum newsletter in August. The Fulcrum's co-publishers, David Nevins and Debilyn Molineax, are long time friends and colleagues and we are excited to be working with them on this new effort. The diverse field of those working to renew and reinvent democratic practice in our nation needs a forum to share new ideas, have civil debates and find creative ways to move our country forward. We believe that The New Fulcrum can provide that space.
Our column, which will be published monthly for now, will bring a passionately transpartisan perspective to the conversation. We use the word 'transpartisan' with full intentionality here. We hope to talk about issues in a way that explicitly transcends the old way our country thinks and talks about the issues of democracy and divides. We don't intend to balance perspectives on the left with perspectives on the right, which is an often used frame for a 'bi-partisan' conversation. Instead we hope to bring a fresh point of view that explicitly calls into question the old, and in our minds outdated, political spectrum of 'Left-Center-Right'. While traditionalists can tie themselves into knots as they debate where they and their opponents stand on that divisive, one-dimensional map, our experience tells us that more and more people are rejecting that type of simplistic labeling. As former Senator Bill Bradely famously said, almost no one wakes up in the morning thinking about where their lives and points of view sit on that spectrum. Our experience bears that out.
As a team, we bring decades of experience in thinking about and working to improve our democracy. Chris has led three different national organizations, the National Civic League, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement and the Sunlight Foundation. He has advised many non-profits and foundations in the field of democracy reform and regularly speaks about democractic theory and philanthropic practice at conferences and universities around the country. As president of the Mediators Foundation, Mark has helped launch dozens of bridge-building initiatives. He has also written numerous books that have tracked the growing polarization in America, ranging from A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul to The Reunited States: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide. We are also both in a post-partisan space, having previously been active in the world of politics but both having stepped away for reasons that we will explore in subsequent columns.
Currently we serve as co-directors of Philanthropy Bridging Divides, which provides confidential space for philanthropic leaders from a wide variety of perspectives to talk about how philanthropy works and how philanthropy can help our country bridge divides and find common ground. Now in its fourth year, these quiet, confidential conversations have led to new collaborations between very unlikely partners around issues like building civic empathy, strengthening economic opportunity and finding ways to reform and renew democratic practice in our country. We have also had a rich dialogue, at times a difficult one, about how the issue of bridging ideological divides relates to our current and urgent conversation about racial justice. Our goal is not to force agreement but to understand different perspectives and explore innovative ways to learn and work together.
This set of experiences, old and new, will be the grist for our mill as we write about the challenges facing our nation. We also hope this column will catalyze conversations within The Fulcrum community. We know there is much that we can learn from all of you and we hope that we can inspire you - and be inspired by you - to think about our work in a new light and from a fresh perspective.
Finding political commentary on the 'Left' or 'Right' is not hard these days. Everyone has a point of view, and increasingly those POVs are polarized. The more partisan they are, the more popular they often become.
This is why we are calling our column 'Beyond Right and Left'. We are not interested in adding to the acrimony or promoting more polarization. On the contrary, we intend to amplify multiple points of view, especially those that urge us to think outside the box of our current right/left frame. Our goal is not to preach, but to inquire; not to persuade, but to learn; not to divide, but to connect.
We will challenge ourselves, and our readers, to take democracy seriously, and take our national motto - e pluribus unum,"out of many, one" - to heart. We will share diverse perspectives, even some with which one or both of us disagree. We will quote people from across the traditional political spectrum. To fulfill our commitment to our readers and to our country, we will do our best to dig under the ideologies, brush aside the partisan hype and go beyond the hashtags.
Will you sometimes disagree with us? Absolutely. Will we occasionally make you angry? Probably. But will you leave each column feeling more deeply and thinking harder? We certainly hope so.
You can help us by reading what we write, and letting us know what you think. Even if voices in the public square are strident and the walls separating us are high, we are still fellow citizens. It is time for us to talk respectfully with each other and then listen to each other as if our lives depend on it. Ultimately, perhaps, they do.
Gerzon is president of Mediators Foundation, which incubates projects in the the democracy reform community that promote bridge-building and collaboration. His most recent book is "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide" (Berrett-Koehler, 2016)
At birth, my grandson Isaiah's cry pierced the air. Later, as I held him in my arms, I wept with joy. As I gently placed him on his mother's belly he started nursing; his father leaned over and cradled them both. It was an unforgettable sight: a light man's arm, holding a dark woman's arm, cradling a baby the color of ... beauty.
That's the moment it struck me: My grandson was not in the white club. This sweet innocent child, now a witty 12-year-old, would be called African-American — or "black." His actual skin color is Sicilian, or perhaps Armenian, both now legally considered "white." But because his mother's side is West African (with a trace of Cherokee), he won't be allowed in the club. He will have to check a different box — and so the lie continues.
If the democracy reform movement is to make a paradigm shift on race, we have work to do — not just on our society, but for those among us who are "white." Too many of us still have a racial mindset that is obsolete and, despite our best intentions, part of the problem.
Today we hear endlessly in progressive circles about white privilege, white nationalism and white supremacy. The debates always rage about the different nouns, not the common adjective. Having heard these terms most of my life, I thought I understood them. But only when I became a grandfather of "African-American" children did I fully realize the problem begins long before privilege, nationalism or supremacy. It actually begins with a lie called "white."
To deconstruct the lie I've been re-educating myself by reading books about race. Most recently, I've been drawn to books by Ta-Naheisi Coates, Theodore Allen, Nell Painter and Ibram X. Kendi. I now better understand what I was feeling when I first held Isaiah in my arms in the delivery room. And I learned that my old way of thinking about race — which still afflicts much the democracy reform movement — was part of the problem, not the solution.
All these terms I had so unconsciously used — "whites," "people of color," "blacks," "minorities" — require deconstruction. And there is no more fundamental place to start, particularly for a white man like me, than with that very concept: "white."
When the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no "white people" there. Only several generations later do colonial records show evidence that anyone called themselves "white." Back then they simply called themselves English because "white" had not yet been invented. That's right — invented.
"It sounds pretty outrageous to think about white people as an invention," wrote Jacqueline Battalora in "Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People." But it was invented for a purpose. By the early 1700s, because European scholars were eager to "prove" the superiority of their own skin color, the concept of the "white" race began circulating on both sides of the Atlantic.
Foremost among these scholars of race was Carl Linnaeus, the botanist often called the "Father of Taxonomy." In his "Systema Naturae," he categorized human beings into four races and summarized his views of their defining characteristics. Those racist stereotypes were so highly regarded at the time that the renowned French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he knew "no greater man on earth" than Linnaeaus.
Why didn't we rebel against his pseudo-scientific theory? For the very simple reason that it served a socio-economic purpose: to unite "white" people. Unlike the "English" category, "white" made sure those with lighter skin, even the bonded laborers who were the vast majority in many of the colonies, stuck together. "E pluribus unum" became our motto: "Out of many, one," But what made us unum was not our shared citizenship, but the convenient new category "white" that ensured the vast majority of the population would remain loyal to the landed gentry.
"White" was a social glue that served the wealthy landowners. Instead of identifying with their fellow slaves (who were "black"), or with the native peoples (who were "red"), whites who were poor, exploited and indebted were often put in charge. They could work for their emancipation; black people couldn't. Offspring of white bonded laborers could become free; children of black slaves were destined to slavery. As depicted so powerfully in the film "Twelve Years A Slave," even the most ignorant and incompetent "white" was by definition of higher status than the most educated and skillful "black." The permanent underclass of slaves made everyone else "privileged" by comparison.
So a first step the overwhelmingly "white" democracy reform movement should take is to free ourselves from our own racial boxes. Let's start with me: My father was a Jew, for most of history definitely not part of the "white club." Testing of my DNA reveals my ancestors come from Spain and Yemen. My skin is light brown. (Only some albinos actually are "white.")
So let's get real about race:
• Stop accepting public discourse that considers "white" a racial category.
• Don't call others "red," "yellow" or "black" unless it is their preference.
• Promote education that deconstructs this obsolete hierarchy.
• Question anyone who still endorses the "majority-minority" construction of reality.
• Politely but firmly inform those who talk of defending their "white nation" about its history.
I thank Isaiah and his siblings for teaching me that colors are not categories in which any of us are supposed to live.
Since checking the "white" box gives me privilege my grandson may not have, I intend to use it to take apart the boxes our ancestors invented. It is time to play our part in ending the tragedy of this cynical, oppressive, racial hierarchy. Together, as part of the democracy reform movement, let's build a technicolor future in which my grandson and I have the same rights and responsibilities, the same powers and possibilities. Let's work for a racial future where nothing, except our age, divides me from my grandson.