Innovative Ideas to Unite a Community

Visitor Question: Our community has become really divided. We had a political scandal involving very bad behavior by our mayor. He was forced to resign, but his friends and allies keep making trouble for the new mayor and for the rest of us.
As a result just about everybody has taken sides, and I feel quite concerned that these events are tearing us apart. People are having arguments on the street, right outside the church auditorium, and at Little League games.

The new mayor is trying to get us back on track, but she doesn't seem to know what to do. Do you have some innovative ideas about how to unite us and help us move past the nightmare of the last couple of years?

Editors Reply: Without getting into too much detail about human behavior, we will just call your attention to the fact that almost all of it has a payoff. This means the people participating are getting something out of it.

So you and your new mayor need to identify what each side is getting out of continuing this behavior and giving this scandal perhaps more weight than it deserves. What else is behind the fact that people are so worked up about this? Do the facts activate deeply held beliefs about money, religion, politics at a state or national level, race or ethnicity, sexual behavior, abuse of power, or just what?

An honest consideration of these questions, and then a discussion among your city council, is in order. Take advantage of other community venues as well to discuss why you collectively think this person's behavior has become such a huge issue. "Other community venues" might mean a school support group, one or more congregations, service clubs, and any existing civic organizations.

It will take determination to end this craziness. So the people involved will have to decide that it isn't worth the fight. They will need to adopt a "first do no harm" rule of behavior. This probably starts with the community leadership, although if they are unwilling to do this because they are so caught up in the controversy, it may take a campaign organized by ordinary citizens.

Consider some sort of symbolic end to the madness. Can people take a pledge not to aggravate the discussion by attacking the opposition personally or even with regard to the issues, if they are trivial? If so, maybe you can have a name for this pledge and a sticker or temporary lapel pin made from a safety pin that will identify that they are not going to engage in name-calling and unproductive arguments.

At a more dramatic end, maybe your city government devises a little ceremony to mark the end of this. We have ribbon cuttings when we finish the bridge, trail, or sidewalk, or when businesses open. So maybe you could have a Bury the Hatchet ceremony in which you literally bury a hatchet in the lawn of your city hall. Or maybe there is a candlelight vigil to collectively mourn for what has been lost by unproductive arguments--because we guarantee some community progress has been lost.

Even more productive probably would be a new campaign to address something important to both sides of the controversy. In the Campaign for New Beginnings, you could appeal to the ego of some of the more outspoken but rational members of both sides and enlist them to serve on a steering committee. This is a form of changing the subject that can be quite helpful in finding the path forward.

On the other hand, perhaps your community needs to not change the subject. Perhaps what happened was only a logical consequence of dysfunctional ways you have been acting. If there is a long history of political malpractice or bribery, you may have to stay with the facts of the scandal and forge ahead with a reform movement. We hate to disappoint you, but if this is the case, peace may not arrive for a while. The secret to community unity in that type of situation is finding a point of common agreement around town about what sorts of behavior will no longer be tolerated. You don't have to further vilify the previous mayor in this process; it's more like correcting a child who didn't know something was wrong. Just say to the child (and the community behaving childishly!) that going forward, we are not going to do this or that. Just as you probably would with a child, you don't have to refer overly often to the previous behavior; you just have to be consistent that now we don't do this thing.

So now we have given you two or three possible approaches and ways to think about this problem. There is no magic solution. We can't just give you the three or five steps to reconciliation. Key people involved in each side have to decide on their own that they are not going to keep this up. They might do this on their own, if the matter can be discussed in a civil way among themselves, but if the leaders won't lead, you citizens may have to force the issue by forming a grassroots campaign to unite your community.

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