Years ago, I’d heard about a dinner event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a fundraiser arranged by some environmentalists who wanted to save a wetland area in Iowa that was at risk of being developed.
On arriving, I noticed quite a few large pickup trucks and SUVs in the parking lot. I may be embellishing a little here, but from what I recall, there were lot’s of Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, and NRA decals on these vehicles. I parked my tiny fuel efficient car and went inside.
The event was held at a hotel. When I found the conference room, I was a little disoriented. These weren’t like my Iowa City liberal environmental friends. This was some other group of people that looked like they were auditioning for a Carhartt commercial.
I sat down at a table and started talking with some of the people there. I like to find out what people are interested in, and learn more about them. Everyone at the table had similar interests: trucks, hunting, NASCAR, farming, football, juicy steaks and beer.
I inquired about the hunting. One of the men explained that they take birds and put them in cages. Then they go load their shotguns and let the birds out of the cage, shooting at them as they try to fly away. As a vegetarian concerned about animal welfare, I was shocked to hear this description. I’d heard about controlled hunting because it had been in the news after Dick Cheney was engaged in the controversial practice. That kind of happens, you know, the President or Vice President, engage in some activity and it helps to normalize it and create more interest in the activity.
Hearing about the Vice President shooting at released birds was more distant and less visceral than sitting to eat a meal with a group of these people.
For a moment I really thought about just leaving. I really didn’t belong there.
I don’t know what it was, but for some reason, I decided to stay. I really was compelled to figure out what the deal was with these people. I moved to some other topics.
We talked about the point of the dinner fundraiser – the preservation of a wildlife habitat in Iowa – a wetland area that was at risk of being developed.
One of the men spoke up: “Yeah, these darn developers want to pave over everything. All they care about is profits. It’s just wrong. We need to protect natural habitats.”
We started talking about or common concern for the environment. They wanted to preserve wildlife habitats so there would be fish, birds, and other wildlife to hunt. I wanted to take pictures of the wildlife. They wanted to shoot them. So, we were at odds on that issue, but we all wanted to preserve the environment.
I’d explained more about myself, that I’m a vegetarian, and why my car didn’t have a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on it.
What we realized is that we were from two entirely different worlds. Yet we had some things in common. Despite our differences, we could talk with civility and respect. We could at least understand where the other was coming from, even if we didn’t necessarily agree, we cared enough to learn about the other. Some of the uniformed vilification of ‘the other’ was stripped away that day.
As I recall, the Iowa wetland we were wanting to save was eventually preserved and protected.
That experience really impacted how I view activism and what it means to be an effective agent of positive social change.
Years ago, I created the Resources for Life website with the Activist Resource Group as the hub of the entire site. The focus of the entire website has been to inspire, equip, and empower activists in society who are trying to improve the world.
As an activist, that dinner changed my approach to the work I do. I realized that sometimes we need to work with people we may not entirely agree with, in order to achieve a common goal that would otherwise not be achieved. If we’re always fighting and at odds among special interest groups, we won’t ever achieve the goals that really need to be achieved.
So, while I’ll be vocal about things I disagree with, I lean toward the practice of listening to ‘the other’ and figure out what opportunities there might be for agreement. It’s also through listening, and understanding, that we better understand how people arrived at having their own set of beliefs and goals. That’s at the core of any effective attempts at engaging and transforming the world.