What Can Bridge the Divide?

Gary Calicott

This spring, I attended four Saturday morning sessions of Bridging Oregon, a monthly conversation series, at Crook County Library in Prineville.

Bridging Oregon was convened by Oregon Humanities, in partnership with local organizations, to address the question of divides in our state. I enjoyed and learned so much from this unique experience. We engaged in conversations and activities exploring various complex social issues that cause divisions in today’s society.

I’m originally from Japan—and thus a person of color who lives in Central Oregon. The topic of racism and racial diversity is naturally something close to my heart. In Bridging Oregon, I was able to experience a deeper and wider meaning of diversity beyond my own experiences.

The participants crossed racial, sexual, political, socio-economic, geographic, generational, and physical capability boundaries. However, there was one exception that stood out to me. There were no African Americans in the group throughout the process. I noticed this as we watched—and had conversations about—”An Oregon Canyon,” a short video about the challenging history of racist place names in the state.

I found it interesting to discuss Black and white racial issues in Oregon without a single Black person present. At the same time, I realize that’s due to the racial disparities in this region. Since I moved to Central Oregon, I’ve been paying more attention to racial matters. It is interesting that I’m now used to being the only Asian person in the room. While I haven’t had any significant negative or scary experiences due to my race or ethnicity, I definitely acknowledge that I feel more vulnerable and self-conscious living in this racially homogenous community—especially in today’s social and political climate.    

The three facilitators collaborated well with each other to provide a safe space for participants. I appreciated their openness, active empathy, and willingness to learn and be flexible. Thanks to the hard work of the facilitating team, we were able to have genuine struggles over our differing beliefs, cultures, opinions, etc. We also created a space together where feelings such as sadness, anger, grief, guilt, and confusion could be aired.

For example, as a Native American person expressed anger and grief, the group also held a space for the feelings of confusion, horror, and guilt from the others. Or, with regard to sexuality, both majority and minority groups, across the generations, were able to explore their vulnerable feelings with curiosity and openness. The power of reflective conversation is not in what we talk about, it is in how we talk with each other and in how we better understand and connect with each other. I believe that having a reflective group conversation like this is what we need today to bridge and connect us despite our differences.

My experiences at Bridging Oregon inspired me greatly. I’ll integrate them into my own work contributing to my communities. One idea I’m considering is to start a “healthy communication group” at my local faith community. In the group, I’ll introduce a simple facilitation to enhance the discussion. My intention would be to help people learn while allowing them to take those communication and facilitation skills to their own meetings.

Fear creates the divide. When we get to know each other in the way Bridging Oregon allowed us to, much of what we see as “divides” seems to dissolve away. It’s clear to me that one antidote to today’s divides is having more of these reflective conversations in our communities. I hope to continue connecting with this wonderful cohort and look forward to growing together and seeing where we all take this experience.

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