Too often on the news and in our communities these days, we witness stories that show us how divided we are as a country. Those incidents include: murders in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and the Twin Cities; explosions in Turkey, France, Syria, and Belgium. These events breed fear, and they tend to aggravate the very distrust and divisiveness they were born out of. It’s never easy to overcome fear and hatred. History is full of stories of massacre, discrimination, and violence that seem to echo into the present day. However, it is within our power to heal our communities and breach divides, even if it’s only by one small step at a time. Particularly for local leaders, it is not only a possibility but a responsibility to build connections rather than divisions.
In many communities, the more people suffer from economic disadvantage, violence, and other setbacks, the more they tend to distrust and fear people in other situations. Recent months serve as a textbook example. After the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, tensions between police officers and black communities were high. Just days later, one man murdered five police offers. The circle of violence and mistrust grew. At the same time, however, there were inspiring moments of activists and police officers coming together to express a shared commitment towards moving forward.
So how can we create more of those moments of unity, and fewer moments of discord? This is where the power of the local leaders can be best felt., Local leaders are in the best position to make positive change. Whether you are an elected representative, municipal official, small business owner, or other involved community member, you can use your voice and connections to help heal divisions within your community.
The first step is to be inclusive. Make sure that you are informed about the members who make up your community. Then, take a look around; are all of the groups that form your community at the (literal or metaphorical) table? You need to do your best to ensure that all of your community’s socioeconomic and ethnic groups are represented. This level of inclusion tends to lead to sustained change. Also, it is the community leaders who know and understand the issues the best. They are the eyes and the ears that make a difference.
The next and very important step is to actively listen. Remember that as a leader, you are not a leader of just one cross-section of your community, but of all of it. That means listening to the concerns and needs of everyone. Often, the people who are least represented are also the least likely to speak up, so you may need to be proactive about finding out others’ concerns, while respecting individuals’ privacy. Other people, even without your community, may have very different perspectives from yours. Do your best to listen and empathize, even if you do not agree. The best leadership is informed by diverse experiences and voices.
Throughout this process, remember to stay authentic. When you are involved in a truly diverse community, there are likely to be experiences and ideas you don’t fully understand. This is a sign of a great leader. You don’t need to pretend that you understand everything immediately, but take the initiative to educate yourself. When you’re your authentic self and you also listen sincerely, people will respect your leadership, and you’ll be in a position to build connections across strained divides.