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The Divided Table: Sitting Down with Family this Holiday Season; A Conversation with Community Organizer Brian Johns

November 16, 2017

       At first glance, Brian Johns might strike you as a typical southern white dude.  That’s what I thought when we met decades ago as college staffers, leaning into rocking chairs on the Jonesville porch of the Appalachia Service Project, overlooking green mountain ridges.   Recalling his break-out Britney Spears dance on that same porch at the staff talent show, however, I can assure you he’s no average Joe.  Not only does he have moves that defy his understated appearance and humble demeanor, Brian is comfortable pulling up a chair to just about any family’s kitchen table in all of southwest Virginia, where he got his start as an intern for Virginia Organizing in 2000.  He now serves as the Organizing Director based out of Charlottesville.  Brian is fluent in football, racial justice, and Obamacare; he can talk coal ash ponds, kids, or the weather.  In the course of any conversation, Brian is likely to crack a joke, scratch the family dog’s back, compliment the host, and dive into heated topics that often provoke some push back.  Underneath it all, Brian cares deeply about people and their stories--especially those living on the margins.  As I pondered Thanksgiving with my own extended family (pushing the edges of political and religious spectrums) in a time of stiff-necked polarization, Brian was just the person I wanted to talk with about sitting down at divided tables across America.  

       This year, the Thanksgiving table is no joke, particularly for white families.   Beyond Donald Trump’s individual identity, his public persona taps into something more raw and basic--that is, he reflects back to us the deep fissures in how we tell our nation’s history, the preoccupations of a declining white majority, and the seismic shifts undermining trust in the most basic institutions on which we rely.  To some, he's a rogue reformer and irreverent hero tossing staid systems upside down.  To others--and this is a majority, according to opinion polls--he leads our nation by its nose down a dangerous path.  To many, he represents a gut-wrenching shift in the state of our nation: an admitted sexual predator holding court in the world’s largest bully pulpit; a dog-whistler to emboldened white supremacists, xenophobes, and fundamentalists; a compromised leader delivered to victory by the invisible hand of Russian bots, whose presidency is now embattled by investigations into collusion with an enemy state.  

       Despite such intractable, opposing perspectives which call into question what it really means to be an American, our divided Thanksgiving tables represent something even more personal--breaking bread with those whose allegiances threaten a deeply held identity (whether it’s the hyphenated identity of Muslim-Americans or Mexican-Americans, the so-called “forgotten” identity of white working class, or the perceived endangerment of the southern, white heritage tied up in the confederacy).  If not the enemy, we’re sitting down to dinner with those whose vote or voice unveiled the deepening cracks in the edifice of the American dream.  Follow them down, and those cracks lead a winding trail back to a foundation erected upon manifest destiny, the enslavement and dehumanization of black and brown bodies, and a toxic masculinity enforced by violence.  

       Feminists say the personal is political, but today the political landscape is also deeply personal.  I know, because as a Christian pastor in North Carolina during Donald Trump’s meteoric rise, I ministered to re-traumatized survivors of assault, to LGBTQ+ spouses clinging to their newly afforded civil rights, to trans folks seeking safe bathrooms, to families living on the economic margins, to those working to uphold the dignity of special needs and foster children, to people of color who feared being brutalized by cops.  I worked in community with immigrant organizers, people who’ve lived on the streets, and clergy of many faiths fighting for inclusion against the rising tide of white supremacy.  We live amid the ruins of a trauma-triggered America, rife with anxiety, despair, violent outbreaks, and the deepest of divisions. 

       Perhaps the most radical act we embody this year is not one more protest march (sure, do that too) but breaking bread with kin at divided tables.  Racial justice activist Destiny Aman calls family "the final frontier of social justice.  I know some activists," she confesses, "who would rather fight Nazis than talk police brutality with their relatives."  Because, let's face it, sometimes we prefer the absence of tension at our tables over the presence of justice, something Martin Luther King, Jr. calls "a negative peace." "It's especially important for white folks," Aman notes, to consider "how this negative peace recruits our closest relationships to maintain white supremacy.  After all, those in Charlottesville who carried torches and flags will likely sit around a Thanksgiving table this year and interact with family members from all over.  Our children will sit at the table and notice what's being said, or not said." 

       If anyone knows how to break the silence around a divided table well, it’s a community organizer who criss-crosses Virginia, a state divided by pockets of deep blue amidst a crimson sea.  Virginia Organizing is a grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities to address issues that affect the quality of their lives.  At the crux of its work, Virginia Organizing is about building relationships, so it’s no surprise that connecting with others is, according to Brian Johns, “key to everything.”  

       “If you build a relationship,” Johns advises, “you can better relate to that person and figure out the best way to engage them in conversation.  For example, I worked on an anti-hydrofracking campaign with folks who never would have identified themselves as progressives or environmentalists.  They were involved because they were worried about their water quality.  However, after meeting lots of folks and starting to build relationships with them through the campaign, these same folks wanted to make a statement supportive of immigrants when that issue came up at a Board of Supervisors meeting.  Since they met folks in the immigrant community, it was much harder to deny their rights and humanity.”

       What does this mean for the divided table?  First, understand your relationships.  As Johns notes, “There are some people who I am never going to persuade.  Once I have determined that, I try to keep my conversations with those family members light (especially the few who like to get a rise out of me) and to call out blatantly racist, classist, or sexist comments very directly.  I realize,” he continued, “that all of this relates to my own privilege to ‘keep things light’ when I feel like I need to.”  Specifically, if a family member demonstrates no interest in truly listening, Johns concedes it’s okay to walk away from a heated topic or avoid it altogether.  This is not the same as letting bigoted statements slide.  Again, Johns shares from experience: “I had a close friend who would occasionally make very racist or sexist jokes several years ago.  After I went to my first Dismantling Racism workshop I resolved to stand up the next time he made a joke.  I was terrified, but I did it by saying something simple like ‘That's really sexist.  Please don't make those jokes around me anymore.’  Because he knew me and we were close, from then on, he respected that, and I haven't heard him make any jokes like that since.”  

       Second, listen for opportunities.  The opportunity to tell a story, share a fact (they do still exist), or even “find a connection between a loved one and a person in a marginalized community,” can shift the trajectory of a conversation and invite curiosity or compassion.  As Kimber Simpkins notes in a recent article for white folks with racist family members (in other words, all white folks), “Refrain from shaming others the way you would like others to refrain from shaming you...Even Alabama Gov. George Wallace—the angry white man who stood in front of university doors to prevent integration in higher education—eventually came to reject his own virulent racism. Imagine that within every oblivious white person is a racial justice ally waiting to come out.”  Remembering the stories, books, and relationships that spurred your own insights and motivated you to dig deeper may reveal what moves others as well.

       Third, connect with a family member through a shared narrative, and explore differences through that lens.  What are the values with which it’s difficult to disagree?  Kids should be treated fairly.  Caring for a family’s health shouldn’t bankrupt them.  Families should be protected.  Use such a narrative to frame an issue, knowing that once you name an area of mutual values, family members are more willing to listen deeply and delve into nuance.  

       Fourth--please do prepare yourself mentally and spiritually for this one--if the opportunity arises, ask questions and be prepared to listen.  What is the Trump Administration doing well and what are they doing poorly?  How are your expectations being met, or not?  How has your view of Donald Trump shifted since he’s become President?  What worries or excites you most for the next generation?  What should we do about the deep division that pervades American life today?  These conversations may not couple well with turkey at the Thanksgiving feast, but might be side conversations over an evening glass of wine or a leisurely brunch.

       For his part, Brian Johns listens for fear.  Fear for the future, fear of lacking or losing power.  When he talks to people who express such fear, in communities where he organizes or within his family, he pauses to listen more deeply and create connections.  “ I also feel called to work on long-term power building because I honestly believe we generally agree a lot more than we disagree, and building organizations of people who've felt powerless in the past can form bonds that break through polarization,” he notes.

       Perhaps most critical is cultivating hope.  When I asked Brian how he does this, day after day, working across the many lines that divide us, he replied: "I go to a meeting of people trying to figure out how to improve our communities.  I sit beside a new member who has never written a letter to the editor before as she figures out what she wants to write.  I support a person going to their first city council or school board meeting.  I listen to people of color, or women, or LGBTQ folks, or anyone who shares their experiences and--despite facing seemingly endless hurdles--still figures out how to get through the day.  I read Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, bell hooks, James Forman, Charles Payne, and Michele Alexander as they discuss how they've built power and fought to maintain hope.  I play with my kids."  Do that too this Thanksgiving.  Haul out an old family board game.  Enjoy a slice of your favorite pie with a steaming mug of coffee.  Give thanks that we walk the shores along the churning tide of history, and the most radical thing we can do this holiday season is to break bread with those who are so easy--and so difficult--to love, resisting the privilege to forfeit our deeply held truths for smooth sailing. 

 

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CREATED BY AMANDA HENDLER-VOSS