In Depth How to Build Bridges to Make Amends, Repair, Healscroll down arrow

photo by ryan orange


Only Bridging Can Heal a World of Breaking

Illustration by Alessandro Gottardo / YES! Magazine

Illustration by alessandro gottardo / YES! MAGAZINE

At a time of heightened polarization and intense inequality in the United States and around the world, social differences run the risk of being turned into fault lines, and exploited for divide-and-conquer politics. As political scientists Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi recently observed, inflammatory us-versus-them rhetoric “instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”

Diversity can be a great strength, but it is susceptible to manipulation when not accompanied by community leaders from all backgrounds willing and able to bridge across difference. The idea of “bridging” provides a path to healing the practices of “breaking” across communities of difference that are so prevalent today.

Now used more broadly, bridging originates in social capital theory. It’s a concept used to investigate trust and social cohesion, as well as reciprocity and civic bonds. It describes relationships between and among different groups of people in society, and is a form of social capital, which examines connections that connect people across a cleavage that often divides society (such as race, class, or religion). Bridging occurs when members of different groups reach beyond their own group to members of other groups. Examples of this would be moving into integrated neighborhoods or joining sports clubs or places of worship where people hold different identity markers than oneself.

Several years ago, here at the University of California, Berkeley, we began to examine bridging through the lens of “othering and belonging.” “Othering” occurs when a person or group is not seen as a full member of society, as an outsider or “less than” or inferior to other people or groups. It happens at an interpersonal level across many dimensions such as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and others, but is also expressed at the group level. When governments and other elites participate in the othering of certain groups, othering reaches its most dangerous level, and can lead to violence, and even genocide.

One of the mechanisms of othering is the practice of breaking — the antithesis of bridging. Breaking occurs when members of a group not only turn inward (known as “bonding,” in social capital terms), but also turn against the “outsider” group or the other. The otherness and threat of the out-group can be used to build psychological or physical walls. It tells the other, “You are not one of us. You don’t belong and you should not get the same public resources or attention and regard that my group gets.” Breaking emerges from a belief that people who are not part of the favored group are somehow dangerous or unworthy. It is largely based on fear, and a feeling of insecurity. These emotions may be grounded on a belief that “those people” — whoever they are — are stealing our jobs, harming our neighborhoods, or that they pose a threat to our sacred values and norms.

In the U.S. political environment today, there are multiple “others.” Immigrants, Muslims, and people of color are prominent “others,” and our current administration advances breaking policies and employs divisive rhetoric that enflames fear of these others. But even well-meaning liberals undermine bridging and perpetuate othering through strategies such as assimilation.

For example, the notion of “not seeing difference” or assuming that one group is just like another, more favored group, can undermine the building of bridges. Saying that “Muslims are just like Christians even though they attend a mosque instead of a church” erases any differences, and tries to assimilate the marginalized group into the dominant one.

Meaningful bridging — like real integration — must acknowledge, respect, and appreciate difference as a starting point, not try to erase differences. Bridging requires more than just acknowledging the other but listening empathically and holding space for the other within our collective stories. This, of course, is not easy. As author bell hooks reminds us, bridges get walked on.

There are different types of bridges. Short bridges require less effort, less risk, and less vulnerability to erect. Longer bridges are those that require more of us and our communities. They entail greater risk, but also greater reward.

To bridge requires strength and empathy, but it does not require that we sacrifice our values or our identity. It also entails vulnerability, as when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to New Zealand’s mass shooting by affirming values of diversity, refuge, and compassion.

Bridging is so important because only bridging can heal a world of breaking, which is the dominant practice and discourse today. Breaking not only feeds off broad-scale social changes and polarization, it also propels them.

By imagining together, we can use bridges to hear the other and help construct a larger more inclusive “we” where no group dominates or is left out.

john a. powell

Deradicalization in the Deep South

How a former neo-Nazi makes amends.

Shannon Martinez, right, does her deradicalization work at home on a phone, surrounded by her family, including daughter Jane Foley.

Shannon Martinez, right, does her deradicalization work at home on a phone, surrounded by her family, including daughter Jane Foley. Photo by Sara Wise

On a late summer morning in Athens, Georgia, Shannon Foley Martinez sits barefoot on her back patio, still in her pajamas, and clicks “follow” on the Twitter profile of a White nationalist named Adrian. He has almost no followers, so he notices her within minutes. “Hello,” he types via direct message. “Hello!!!!!” she responds as her 3-year-old son plays nearby.

Martinez is a former neo-Nazi who now works to deradicalize people who are still in the movement. She was referred to Adrian by a friend of hers who researches right-wing extremism. When Adrian (not his real identity because of the sensitivity of the conversation) first started speaking to the friend, also via Twitter, the friend asked Adrian if he’d like to talk to someone who used to hold similar beliefs. “In response to your offer of a turncoat to talk to, that would be great,” Adrian replied. “As small a chance as it is, there is still a technical possibility I am misguided, and I owe it to myself to see that if I am.”

Adrian and Martinez talk about the findings of an earlier study she’d conducted on the online viewing habits of the far right that he’d also taken part in. Birds are chirping, the sky is blue and the temperature is in the 70s. Then he asks her, “What convinced you that the Jew’s [sic] were right after all?”

From the Editors

The Bridges We’re Building

“The United States has yet to live up to its foundational ideals of a union where “all [people] are created equal,” and deserving of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Cover of YES! Issue 92

Today, we find ourselves polarized along so many different axes — race, politics, gender — that many people have retreated to the extremes. We look at those different from us not just as others, but sometimes as enemies.

We can no longer afford to waste time debating how we got here. We must look forward to what we do about it. How do we make amends with those who’ve been harmed, build bridges with those different from us, and heal a deeply wounded nation? As every marriage counselor knows, an apology isn’t enough. How do we build trust and goodwill when serious harm has been done? Can we rebuild burned bridges?

In this issue of YES! Magazine, we focus on those doing that work.

Ferguson, Missouri, a battleground in the modern civil rights movement, is the scene of a convening about reparations for slavery and the oppression Black people have endured post-emancipation. Reparations is not just about money, but the overall healing that’s needed in Black communities and the work that needs to be done, even among well-meaning White people — who too often want to avoid the discomfort of accepting hard truths and skip ahead to feel-good reconciliation.

As this issue goes to press, we’re in the midst of a presidential impeachment inquiry, and our two political parties have never been more divided, disagreeing even on basic, provable facts. But a group called Better Angels is gathering people on opposite sides to talk and debate. It may not change our views, but it could change how we view each other.

In Iowa, farmers are confronting the divisive issue of climate change together. By focusing less on what happened and more on what they need to do, they’re finding common cause in confronting the most pressing existential threat of the 21st century.

In Georgia, a former violent White supremacist is bridging one of the widest gaps of all, leading other radical extremists out of the movement and back to civil society.

We also explore the role men can play in the era of #MeToo to create a nontoxic form of masculinity. And we look at a literal bridge between two South African communities, one rich and White, the other poor and Black, which became its own metaphor for the unfulfilled promises of a post-apartheid nation.

Healing schisms is good, but it’s not easy. These stories show how we’re finding our way — and even if it’s done one person at a time, it is possible to bridge those divides.

Return to the story

Martinez, smoking an American Spirit, is unfazed. She works without an office and smokes without an ash tray. She alternates between her back patio — knees up, feet propped on the base of the deck table — and her front porch, where she reclines, legs crossed, in one of those low-to-the-ground camping-and-soccer-games chairs. She bartends about 30 hours a week, and her husband works at a restaurant. She is raising her seven children, ages 3 to 22, and a teenage stepson with autism. Her phone is a portal to her jumbled network of “formers,” academics, activists, law enforcement officers, policymakers, and amateur experts who are collectively working to counter the rise of far-right extremism. And it’s a means of connection with “actives” like Adrian, whom Martinez hopes she can help to heal.

She steers their conversation away from doctrine (she’s given up on the idea of changing people’s minds via argument) and toward emotion. “Most of my change in worldview,” she types, “had literally nothing to do with the ideology. It had to do with why the ideology was seductive and felt empowering to me in the first place.”

“And why did it?” he asks.

“Because I needed an explanation for why the world seemed like a threatening and brutal place for me. Because I wanted to believe in something that felt like it mattered and was part of something bigger.”

“Do you now believe in a different explanation or none?” he asks.

“Well … I guess I have more understanding about why those needs rose to such an acute level in my life. And also an understanding that what I chose didn’t functionally meet my needs over the long term.”

She sees conversations like these as her responsibility, as amends-making for the four-and-a-half years she spent perpetrating violence on everyone — Jewish, gay, or Black people — her ideology told her to hate. “My entire life,” she is fond of saying, “is predicated on apology.” This doesn’t mean she’s mired in guilt. Instead, it means naming and working to repair the harm that she caused. “Anywhere my voice is invited to be, I will go,” she says, from Holocaust museums to universities to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There have to be White role models for what it means to unearth and begin to deal with our relationship with White supremacy.”

Shannon Martinez does her deradicalization work at home on a phone.

Shannon Martinez does her deradicalization work at home on a phone. Photo by Sara Wise

She sees conversations like these as her responsibility, as amends-making for the four-and-a-half years she spent perpetrating violence on everyone — Jewish, gay, or Black people — her ideology told her to hate.

Often, Martinez isn’t entirely sure of the real identity of the people she talks to. That doesn’t normally concern her. “I just need to know that I am not interacting with a bot. Which is pretty easy to tell. As long as they aren’t making direct threats I meet people where they are at,” she says.

Adrian wants to know if she empathized with a famous scene from American History X in which a Black educator asks a White skinhead, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

“This is where it gets complicated,” she tells me. “Because honestly, at the time, my beliefs did help me.” Without them, “I probably would have killed myself.”

One night in 1974, Martinez says, her father was up late doing homework for college when her mother interrupted him to say she was going into labor. “And he was kinda like: ‘Now?’” Once they got to the hospital in Lowell, Massachusetts, little Shannon came out so quickly that her mother nearly gave birth to her in the bathroom. Her upwardly mobile middle-class family valued conformity and perfectionism, and she was inconvenient: “the little girl almost born on the toilet” who “seemed to come wired asking ‘why?’”

In first grade, for example, no one could give her a satisfactory answer as to why she needed to do her homework. “It didn’t make sense to me, so I just opted out.” She could never seem to get a handle on what exactly her parents wanted from her, so “from pretty early on, I treated the rules and expectations as irrelevant.” As she got older, and started coming home late, her parents decided she would be spanked with a ruler, once for each minute she was late. “My takeaway from that was not ‘be on time.’ It was ‘I can do whatever I want if I’m willing to endure the pain.’”

A 1990s photo shows Shannon Martinez when she identified with hate groups.

A 1990s photo shows Shannon Martinez when she identified with hate groups. The man in the photo, Christian Picciolini, also does deradicalization work now, along with Martinez. Picciolini has a documentary series called “Breaking Hate,” about helping others escape the movement. PHOTO from Christian Picciolini

The kids in her neighborhood tended to self-segregate, but she had Black friends at school. She said she wasn’t explicitly taught to hate, though her parents did reflect the sort of socially acceptable racism of the era, cracking racist jokes, for example, or hurling racial epithets in traffic.

At the age of 11, Martinez’s family moved from Delran, New Jersey, to the much Whiter town of Temperance, Michigan. She wound up in a largely childless neighborhood and started hanging out alone. She had trouble starting over and fitting in. She started dabbling in hippie and leftist culture, from early Vietnam War literature and The Autobiography of Malcolm X to The Beatles and the Beats. She also took solace in sports, where she had always thrived. But when she started attending a Catholic high school across the Ohio state line, she was no longer allowed to play. Though she was elected class president, she still didn’t feel like she fit in.

When Martinez was 14, two White men in their 20s forced her into sex at a party. She woke up the next morning with blood in her underwear and thought, “OK, I guess that really happened.” Her next thought was “I can’t tell my parents.” It was the late 1980s, and she didn’t have today’s language and understanding of sexual assault and consent. She figured this was just the unfortunate way she had lost her virginity, and it would be about a decade before she realized it was rape.

She tried to move on, but the trauma metastasized into a burning rage. Her music and books started getting darker. She drifted from the skateboarders to the punks, then realized the angriest people at the punk shows, the ones always getting into fights, were the skinheads. She started listening to their White power music. Things continued to fall apart with her family. “There is no access to goodness in me,” she decided. “It won’t be seen in me.” So she turned to the skinheads, figuring she was joining people who couldn’t judge her and would have to take her in. After all, “who’s worse than the Nazis?”

From the time she was 15 until she was 20, Martinez bounced around the country, living with her parents and various skinhead boyfriends. She said she dated five neo-Nazis, and four of them were physically abusive. Meanwhile, her own extremism mirrored her relationships: after the honeymoon phase, the isolation set in, and the violence started, and once it started, it escalated, and kept escalating. She became addicted to the sense of power her violence-based hate afforded her, and, in true addict form, she kept needing to take bigger and bigger risks to get the same payoff.

She posted racist flyers, including ones featuring images of lynchings, in neighborhoods and under windshield wipers and on the doors of houses of worship. She shouted racial epithets at strangers and neighbors. She started fights at shows over the tiniest of slights and jumped people of color for no apparent reason. She attended Klan rallies. She fell in with gun runners. She started engaging in paramilitary training, learning tactical maneuvers on paintball ranges and heading to the woods for target practice. She was convinced a long-promised race war was imminent. The work of dehumanization was demanding and constant.

In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma.

One night, Martinez and her friends were driving in Houston and noticed the door to a gay nightclub was propped open. They hurled a can of tear gas through the door, closed it and blocked it from the outside with a cinderblock. Their plan was to head around back and beat people as they clamored through the exit. The only thing that stopped them was the approach of police sirens, and they fled the area.

It was around this time that Martinez, who was no longer welcome in her parents’ home, was in Texas and moved in with her then-boyfriend’s mother, a teacher named Carol Selby. Each time Martinez tells this part of her story, she insists she was an angry and imposing mess of a human when she showed up at Selby’s door.

But Selby remembers things differently. “I thought she was cute,” Selby says of Martinez. “She had this real short hair and big eyes and a beautiful smile.” Selby saw, or chose to see, not a vile skinhead, but more of a “precious little elf.” And this perspective gave her young charge room to breathe. Martinez did dishes and helped take care of Selby’s younger sons and realized she didn’t want them to be exposed to her “scumbag friends.” For the first time in a long time, she began reflecting on the impact of her actions on other people. Within months, the White supremacist ideology, which Martinez had already begun to question, fell away.

But even as she was leaving, the movement was transforming. Quite intentionally, the neo-Nazis were becoming less obviously threatening in order to become more dangerous. As Christian Picciolini, another former who was in the movement at the same time as Martinez, once told NPR, “our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American White racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.”

Shannon Martinez does her deradicalization work at home on a phone.

Shannon Martinez participated in a tattoo project last year called The World Piece, in which 61 people from all over the world got tattoos that visually connected them to each other. “A living manifestation of the bonds that unite us across cultures and borders,” according to the project’s organizers. Photo by Sara Wise

Michael Jensen has spent the last five years studying individuals who have radicalized in the United States and committed illegal acts motivated by their extremist belief systems. A senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, his dataset stretches back to 1948 and has information on over 2,000 radicalized individuals. While it is not limited to any single ideology, one group stands out.

“Far-right perpetrators have committed more attacks in the United States than any other ideological group,” Jensen says.

When it comes to the most recent trends, he says, “what we’re seeing really is a movement towards more of an emphasis on this kind of mass casualty terrorism that’s being motivated by far-right extremist ideologies.”

Jensen’s assessment is echoed by several other institutions. A recent report by New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security Preparedness showed that more than half the suspects involved in 32 domestic terrorism incidents in 2018 were White supremacists. And a separate report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) concluded that right-wing extremists were responsible for all but one of the 50 domestic extremist-related killings in 2018.

The ADL report also noted that last year was the fourth deadliest in terms of domestic extremist-related deaths since 1970. In first place is 1995, due in large part to the Oklahoma City bombing, which Jensen identifies as a “big watershed event.” That attack caused an outpouring of research and law enforcement activity to be “focused on the extremist far right in the United States.” Accordingly, “we saw a number of law enforcement operations to disrupt the far right,” he says.

“All of that changed on Sept. 11.”

After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government focused its massive resources almost exclusively on preventing Islamist terror attacks. “All while that’s happening, the extremist far right is still very active in the United States,” Jensen says, adding “they’re not getting the attention that jihadists get.” Until recently, Jensen adds, the media was following suit, making it harder for him and his team to even identify far-right crimes in the first place.

In 2009, a security analyst at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security named Daryl Johnson wrote a report that stated right-wing extremism was “likely to grow in strength,” potentially driven by such factors as gun restrictions, economic uncertainty, immigration, a perceived rising influence of other countries that undermines American sovereignty, and the election of the first Black president. Republican lawmakers condemned the report and forced the department to retract it, ushering in an era of virtual silence on far-right violence, and of treating instances of far-right terrorism as hate crimes, which are classified as a lower priority and afforded fewer resources.

Even when the Obama administration reframed its counterterrorism work as “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, few resources went to combatting right-wing extremism. In 2017, the administration issued a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a formers-led organization cofounded by Picciolini with which Martinez was volunteering at the time. (Neither is still involved with the group.) But the Trump administration changed the name of the administering office to the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, revoked the grant, and slashed the budget and staff.

In October 2018, as domestic terrorism incidents continued to mount, they only received a cursory mention in the administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism. It wasn’t until the end of the summer of 2019 and the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that Kevin McAleenan, then the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, issued a Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence that explicitly named White supremacist violence as a crucial threat to the nation. (McAleenan resigned Oct. 11, 2019.)

One of the formers with whom Martinez works is Caleb Cain, who was radicalized online from his home in West Virginia and recently left the far right. He explains his trajectory by drawing a five-tiered pyramid which he said he had climbed: from libertarian to conservative (watching Fox News, listening to Ben Shapiro) to civic nationalist (watching Alex Jones, reading Breitbart, following Lauren Southern and the Proud Boys). Cain said he was just about to advance to the next level, White nationalist fascist, which he defines as those who explicitly embrace fascism or neo-Nazism, or advocate for a White ethno-state, when he finally started to climb back down the pyramid. The only step left would have been accelerationist: those actively seeking to commit violence.

It’s grueling work, and Martinez isn’t exempt from what she refers to as “fash fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from fighting fascism.

In Cain’s eyes, “civic nationalist” is also the level President Trump occupies. Indeed, just a few days after McAleenan’s report, Trump went before the United Nations and delivered an explicitly nationalist speech. In doing so, he was continuing the pattern he set when he launched his campaign by referring to immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists, called for a Muslim ban, responded to Heather Heyer’s 2017 murder at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally by arguing there “were very fine people on both sides,” and uttered countless other far-right viewpoints.

Meanwhile, CVE work remains underfunded and poorly understood. Organizations like Life After Hate and Free Radicals (Picciolini and Martinez’s new group) are unregulated. There are no industry standards and few empirical studies to guide deradicalization work. Their lack of measurable outcomes, in turn, makes securing funding even harder.

Nonetheless, Picciolini says he’s helped hundreds of formers get out of violent extremism. Martinez says she’s worked with about 75, and that about a third of those have been intensive, ongoing relationships. She lands the occasional paid contract, as in the case of the research study, and sometimes — but not always — receives speaking fees. But most of her work is entirely unpaid.

When she feels overwhelmed, Martinez often drives to nearby Moore's Ford Bridge.

When she feels overwhelmed, Martinez often drives to nearby Moore’s Ford Bridge. There, in 1946, a White mob shot and killed two Black couples. The murders are considered the last documented mass lynching in America. A state highway marker placed in 1999 was the first official recognition of a lynching in the state of Georgia. Photo by Sara Wise

“After five years of that way of life,” Martinez types to Adrian, “I began to see how it really kept me looking at the world through victimhood, and that blaming/targeting Jews, blacks, and other races/ethnicities didn’t make me actually feel any safer or more empowered. It just kept my world really small and kept me focused on hurt and pain.”

“So, your current position,” Adrian responds, “is a sort of centrist self-improvement drive?”

A pattern was starting to emerge. Martinez would seek to explore the emotional needs that had drawn her — and him — to violence-based extremism. Adrian would try to pin down her new ideology: what simple answer of hers had replaced the simple answer to which he was still clinging?

But she had no simple answer. Her unidimensional worldview was instead replaced with complexity. She tells him she doesn’t have a label for herself, nor does she know all the answers. “What are your biggest issues?” she asks him, trying to pivot their conversation. But it doesn’t really matter if he answers, especially not during this first round. He is engaging with her, and that is enough for now.

One of the few things most experts agree on about extremists is that ideology is often secondary to the process of radicalization. In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma. Sometimes it’s extreme, as in the case of a young woman interviewed for this story who was repeatedly raped as a child by her grandfather — and then, once in the movement, raped again by a White nationalist boyfriend. Daisy (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) got out of the movement, then found out her father and grandmother had known about her grandfather’s abuse, and it was at that moment, Daisy said, that she almost killed her family members and shot up a church. She calls Martinez “Mom” and reaches out to her regularly for advice, encouragement, and in one case, financial support.

Sometimes the trauma is less extreme, but there are always fundamental and unmet needs, Martinez says: the need to love and be loved, to speak and be heard, and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Deradicalization involves identifying the trauma, and finding new resources, behaviors and networks outside extremist groups to meet those needs.

It’s grueling work, and Martinez isn’t exempt from what she refers to as “fash fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from fighting fascism. When she feels really overwhelmed and wants to quit, she drives over to Moore’s Ford Bridge, less than half an hour from her house. It’s a nondescript span over the Apalachee River. There, in 1946, a White mob shot and killed two Black couples, among them a woman who was seven months pregnant. It’s widely considered to be the last documented mass lynching in America, and no one has ever been found guilty or held accountable.

“For me, it’s grounding,” Martinez says. The bridge is a reminder, when she gets too steeped in books and studies and Twitter conversations, that this isn’t just about ideas. “The reason that this [work] matters is that there are actual human beings who are harmed and communities that are devastated.”

Too often, she says, White supremacy is seen as an extremist ideology belonging only to a small group of terrorists. “And so, we have something outside of us, as White people: that ‘bad White supremacy out there,’ which then recuses us from having to do the internal work of identifying our own ways that we participate in and gain advantage from White supremacy.”

There’s a temptation, she says, to blame it all on YouTube algorithms, or sinister terrorist recruiters, or other outside forces. But in fact, we are all implicated. “We have to look at our children as potential White supremacist terrorists. And maybe that requires us to do something.”

In 2018, Martinez took a few of her children to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the lives of those who were killed at Moore’s Ford Bridge and thousands of others who were murdered in racial terror lynchings since the end of the Civil War. She watched as her son’s “12-year-old consciousness came to terms with the reality.”

Afterwards, she said, they headed to the memorial’s sister site, the Legacy Museum. There, a security guard, noticing her devastated son, suggested she take the boy to get some ice cream and cheer him up. She couldn’t, she told the guard. “Ice creaming it away is not going to help him as he grows up as a White man in America. It’s not going to help any of us.”


Reparations is no longer only about a one-time payout to Black descendants of slavery.

The Collective Healing That Is Owed

Photo by Silvio Kopp / Getty

PHOTO by Silvio Kopp / getty

On a spring day, I stood at the corner of Madison and Pennsylvania avenues in the nation’s capital, transfixed on the building in front of me.

Passersby zigzagged around me.

In my trance, I imagined a “magnificent brownstone front, its towering height,” with “spacious windows.” A “splendid” sight indeed. Through those windows I imagined “its marble counters and black walnut finishings,” and “a row of its gentlemanly and elegantly dressed” Black men and women “clerks, with their pens behind their ears and button-hole bouquets in their coat-fronts.”

It was “beautiful,” just as Frederick Douglass had described, nearly 140 years ago.

Someone brushing past me snapped me back to the present. I climbed the stairs of the building — across from the White House — to read the two plaques affixed to the Treasury Annex. The first read: “On this site stood the principal office of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company founded on March 3, 1865 to receive deposits from former slaves. Frederick Douglass served as its last president. The bank was closed on June 29, 1874. The building was sold in 1882, and razed a few years later.” The other, simply: “FREEDMAN’S BANK BUILDING.”

Sitting on the stairs, I started to consider the historical significance of that moment. Black people had — in nine years — amassed tens of millions of dollars, following 246 years of the most brutal and unimaginable treatment of any human being — kidnapping, trafficking, rape, castration, torture, uncompensated backbreaking labor.

I tried to imagine a world where 70,000 Black men and women who’d deposited nearly $60 million into the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company had not been swindled out of that money by White bank managers.

What if they had been able to invest their own dollars, and grow their own capital? What if Reconstruction hadn’t been disrupted and those newly freed men and women were allowed to keep and develop their 40 acres? What if reparations had been paid to them rather than to their enslavers? What might they and their descendants have collectively achieved?

The modern-day movement to repair the harm done to the descendants of enslaved Africans is rooted in a history that reaches back more than 400 years to before our arrival on U.S. shores. To truly understand the debt this country owes to Black people is to be liberated from the bondage of miseducation that we’ve remained shackled to in the so-called land of the free.

I tried to imagine a world where 70,000 Black men and women who’d deposited nearly $60 million into the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company had not been swindled out of that money by White bank managers.

The case for reparations didn’t begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 bombshell article in The Atlantic that based our claim to reparations not only on the enslavement of African people on this land, but also for the post-emancipation exclusionary policies that followed: Jim Crow, Black Codes, redlining, mass incarceration. Coates’ article created an awakening, granting new life to a movement that dates back more than a century and a half.

The hard work of hundreds of organizations and individuals means the mainstream can no longer ignore the demand by questioning if reparations are warranted.

The discovery of wreckage from the slave ship Clotilda near Mobile, Alabama, earlier this year presents an ideal test case for reparations. Descendants of the ship’s owner are among the city’s wealthiest citizens — with land worth millions — while descendants of the 110 Africans brought over on the Cotilda “scrape by” on working-class wages.

Making atonement to the descendants of enslaved people was the subject of a Congressional Hearing on Reparations in June and the question of reparations is a live topic in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

The conversation now isn’t should it be done, but how. After all, paying reparations in this country is not a novel idea or deed. The United States government has compensated Sioux Indians for stolen land, Japanese Americans for internment, and supported Holocaust survivors in their reparation demands from Germany and Austria.

Nevertheless, many Whites are still threatened by the idea of reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans, and some Blacks are antagonistic toward it. But the attempts to recover the debt owed to Black people can no longer be ignored.

Recovering that debt will require the continued work of a critical mass, of not only Black people, but also White folks, whom presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said “are still passing the baton of horror and guilt and toxicity and emotional turbulence from generation to generation.”

This sometimes contentious conver-sation has fomented a more holistic conception of reparations: No longer about a one-time payout to Black folks, reparations today are about collective healing that’s going to take more than a check, a one-time fix — or any single remedy. Says Mashariki Jywanza, national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA): “They should have just paid us then.”

Reparations Timeline

The first efforts to atone for the damages of slavery and seek reparations for formerly enslaved Africans came in 1865 during a meeting between 20 Black pastors and General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The meeting led to Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which sought to redistribute 400,000 acres along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts confiscated from Confederates following their defeat in the Civil War.

The newly freed families were each given 40 acres of land, and some received surplus mules from the army, but Sherman’s order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson just months later. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has since come to represent the broken promise to pay compensation for centuries of slavery.

In the years to follow there would be innumerable efforts to collect reparations for Black people.

In 1890, William Connell, a Nebraska Republican, introduced the first “ex-slave pension bill” in Congress. He did so at the request of Walter Vaughan, an Omaha Democrat, who had received a letter from Frederick Douglass marveling that the U.S. government had failed to compensate Black people for 250 years of unpaid labor, including building the Capitol and White House.

This diagram was produced in 1788 to illustrate how captives destined for the Americas were crammed into the hold of the slave ship Brookes.

This diagram was produced in 1788 to illustrate how captives destined for the Americas were crammed into the hold of the slave ship Brookes. It shows 454 people, the maximum allowed by British law at the time.

The idea of pensions for the formerly enslaved, one of several such proposals at the time, was modeled after the Civil War-era program for military service pensions.

Then in 1898, a formerly enslaved woman, a widow and mother of five named Callie House, who worked as a laundress, and an educator and minister named Isaiah H. Dickerson, created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, which grew out of the advocacy created by Vaughn’s campaign for reparations.

As secretary, then leader of the organization, House traveled extensively in former slave states preaching the gospel of reparations. By the early 1900s, her association had grown to about 300,000 members. But her work was thwarted by White people — government officials and constituents alike — threatened by any attempt to elevate Black people.

Meanwhile, influential Black leaders of the time, like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, largely ignored the reparations movement, focusing instead on their own ideas to advance the race — higher learning and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, respectively.

In 1915, politician and lawyer Cornelius J. Jones filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury for $68 million in compensatory reparations. Jones argued that, “through a federal tax placed on raw cotton, the federal government had benefited financially from the sale of cotton that slave labor had produced,” according to Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. The case was dismissed because the federal appeals court ruled that the United States could not be sued without its consent, a legal principle known as sovereign immunity.

For 60 years, beginning in the early 1900s, Queen Mother Audley Moore pushed for reparations, co-founding among other organizations the Reparations Committee of Descendants of United States Slaves, which demanded land and recompense for Black people.

Her activism and petition to the United Nations in 1962 led the intergovernmental organization to declare the trans-Atlantic slave trade a crime against humanity at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Moore died in 1997, just months before her 99th birthday.

Then there was James Forman, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who in 1969 delivered his “Black Manifesto” challenging White churches and synagogues, which he believed were complicit in slavery, to pay $500 million in reparations. The money was to go for projects that would benefit Black communities, including a southern land bank, a Black university, and media networks.

Raymond Jenkins, a Detroit real estate entrepreneur, spent 40 years raising the topic of reparations everywhere he went. Known as “Reparations Ray,” he was the inspiration for House Resolution 40, the reparations bill former U.S. Rep. John Conyers first introduced in 1989.

Jenkins was moved by his own trauma from witnessing racial violence including, when he was a child, seeing a White playmate shoot and kill a Black playmate for not calling him “Mister.” Also, he was encouraged by two successful actions in the 1980s. The first was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 order requiring the federal government to pay $122 million to the eight Sioux Indian Tribes in compensation for the illegal seizure of their lands 100 years earlier. The second was in 1988, when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to 60,000 survivors.

Contrary to what opponents of reparations have argued, the concept is not one of a handout — it is an effort at indemnification.

Education, Litigation and Legislation

Having studied the movement work of those before her, Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann focused on researching and educating others about the need for reparations. She drew lessons from cases like Jones’ in 1915 and then Cato v. United States in 1995, which too was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, as well as the statute of limitations because it came so long after slavery ended.

Called the Rosa Parks of the reparations litigation movement, Farmer-Paellmann brought a suit in 2003, In Re: African American Descendants’ Slave Litigation, against corporations who earned their wealth through slavery. There were 18 companies in total, including Aetna, Fleetboston, CSX, JPMorgan Chase, New York Life Insurance Co., R.J. Reynolds, and Lehman Brothers.

In a phone interview, Farmer-Paellmann wanted to clarify that she did not lose her case. While parts of it were dismissed, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that she and other plaintiffs whose cases were combined with hers had standing in their consumer fraud and consumer protection law claim. The court maintained that “The injury is the loss incurred by buying something that one wouldn’t have bought had one known the truth about the product.”

“We were successful,” Farmer-Paellmann says adamantly, referring to a Harvard Review article that describes the case with “great precision.” “We just never finished the litigation.”

Farmer-Paellmann says the plaintiffs ran out of money, so they couldn’t pursue the consumer fraud claim, which “still has a great chance of winning.”

She believes the judicial approach against corporations is the most likely to succeed in any case for reparations. And, she says, there’s another claim that has never been argued before a court of law: genocide. She believes it has a greater chance of success than even HR 40.

“What I would love to see is they create a private right of action within the Proxmire Act,” she said, referring to the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987. This, she says, cannot be dismissed by claims of sovereign immunity. “It allows for the kinds of conditions that we suffer from the vestiges of slavery,” referencing, for example, the destruction of an ethnic and national identity.

Farmer-Paellmann believes the judicial approach against corporations is the most likely to succeed in any case for reparations. And, she says, there’s another claim that has never been argued before a court of law: genocide.

Meanwhile, reparations proponents like Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century have been working on a reparations action plan, with the hope that HR 40 will be made law.

While the bill has never been debated, in 2017, he points out, HR 40 went from being a “study bill,” charged with creating a commission to study the need for reparations, to a “remedy bill,” calling for the creation of a commission to develop proposals for and implement reparations.

A decades-long advocate for reparations and Black self-determination, Daniels points to the work of the National African American Reparations Commission, of which he’s a member. The Commission created a 10-Point Reparations Program for people of African descent in the United States, similar to that of the Caribbean Reparations Commission’s Ten Point Action Plan.

The U.S. program includes a formal apology and establishment of an African Holocaust Institute; the right of repatriation; the right to land for social and economic development; resources for health, wellness, and healing of Black families and communities; education for community development and empowerment; affordable housing for healthy Black communities and wealth generation; and repairing the damages of the “criminal injustice system.”

The foundation has been laid and the work is being done globally, Daniels says, adding that what is still missing are sufficient resources to support the effort.

There have been actions on multiple levels — individual, municipal, and institutional, with banks like Wachovia, and colleges and universities like Brown and Georgetown and Virginia Theological Seminary acknowledging their role in slavery and the perpetuation of it.

In September, California lawmakers introduced a resolution to investigate what statewide reparations would look like and how best to use them to fix inequities, acknowledging that California had a role in reinforcing slavery in the United States.


Not since the late 19th and early 20th centuries has there been this much momentum around reparations, says David Ragland, director of the nonprofit FOR Truth & Reparations, and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

In addition to political attention and increased support for two reparations measures in Congress, the Movement for Black Lives has released a Reparations Now Toolkit to help answer questions about reparations.

And on the weekend marking the fifth anniversary of Mike Brown’s death, Aug. 9, I attended the national grassroots reparations convening in Ferguson, Missouri, hosted by FOR Truth & Reparations and the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

About 20 organizations participated in the discussion on healing as a means of reparations. Ragland and other panelists explained that reparations aren’t just about monetary compensation. Black folks need to heal from the generations of trauma we’ve endured from slavery and the vestiges thereof.

This healing must be done internally, says Hakim Williams, associate professor and interim chair of Africana Studies and director of Peace and Justice Studies at Gettysburg College.

Williams, one of the panelists, said that for him the main part of reparations discourse needs to center on how we stop injuring ourselves and others and start to rebuild our communities through our own lens. “Now, that’s not to say it’s mutually exclusive from holding former colonizers accountable for the harm that they have rendered,” he said. “But while we are arguing for that, and while we’re waiting for that, we need to do our own healing.”

If that healing doesn’t happen, Williams says, “no amount of money that comes will be helpful.”

In fact, he adds, “I think the class chasms might widen if [we don’t] have a vision of what to do with that money. We don’t want to be just another capitalist cog in the global capitalist economy … we want to re-envision our society.”

Christine Schmidt, a New York-based psychotherapist and clinical consultant, asked the question: “What specifically do Black people want or need for White people to do?”

Afterward, I spoke with Schmidt, who is White. “I think that’s something that must be determined by the people who are harmed. What do people who have been harmed need to heal?” she said. “The material compensation is not something that White people can decide.”

That, she said, would be charity — not reparations.

“I think that we have to be there and prepared and willing to offer and say that this is our responsibility,” she continued. “[And] I think that the responsibility is both material, and psychological and emotional. But it’s also really, really important that we are not going to be in the lead, that we need to be actively engaged responders.”

Her question was reminiscent of the one Sherman asked the 20 pastors 154 years ago: What did they need to take care of themselves?

Their response then was twofold.

Separation: land of their own, separate from the control of Whites; and Assimilation: the freedom to exist among Whites without the threat of harm.

In so many ways, those desires have not changed. Resources and the space to heal are necessary for both.


The consensus of the many people I’ve talked to about reparations is that there is no dollar amount that can make up for the harm of slavery and the exploitation and oppression of Black people that followed. However, the trillions owed are a start, and can be disbursed in a number of ways.

Proponents of reparations have adopted a multifaceted understanding of them as defined by the United Nations. It includes restitution, or return of what was stolen; rehabilitation, mental and physical health support; compensation, both monetary and resource-based, which includes a meaningful transfer of wealth; satisfaction, acknowledgement of guilt, apology, and memorial; and guarantees of non-repeat. Or, as Ragland explains: “Don’t do that shit again.”

Jywanza, who also attended the convening in Ferguson, said she sees value in collaborating with institutions already doing this work.

“There’s no need for us to be divided and conquered,” she says. “Let’s call everyone (economists, social scientists, psychologists, activists) together and see what full repair can look like in our communities. Whether we ever get a dime. We should take on that responsibility.”

The Way Climate Change Unites Us

The Practical Farmers of Iowa waste no time on partisan politics as they face the challenges of extreme weather and depleted soils.

A summer 2019 demonstration for the Practical Farmers of Iowa

A summer 2019 demonstration for the Practical Farmers of Iowa was held at Paul and Karen Mugge’s organic row-crop farm. They showed how to install a beneficial prairie insect habitat. Photo from Practical Farmers of Iowa

Welcoming everybody to his farm on a searing August afternoon, Ron Rosmann lets the pleasantries go for 12 minutes before getting to the heart of things. Around him, about 70 growers sit like school kids on bales of hay, braced to hear him.

Rosmann has been farming organically for 36 years on western Iowa’s fertile hills, and his voice is as gravelly as the road that runs alongside his land. You might think farming without pesticides would get easier over time, but you’d be wrong. An impossibly rainy planting season and runaway giant ragweed have made this year his toughest yet.

“What are we experiencing?” he asks the group. “Warmer temperatures, more rainfall, warmer nights, 10 years in a row of cold, wet springs. I’m getting more and more nervous.”

The growers, all members of Practical Farmers of Iowa, or PFI, are here to learn how Rosmann copes. A rare alliance of organic and conventional farmers, their views on climate change run the gamut of opinion. They meet on different farms around the state to share practices and today have come out for a “field day” to observe how Rosmann and his family produce beef, pork, chickens, eggs, popcorn, and grains on 700 acres — without chemicals.

While long-term climate change is prompting growing activism, farmers like these often register its near-term effects first. It contributes to soil erosion and severe weather events. It has increased annual precipitation in Iowa at least 8% over the past century, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. And the effects keep multiplying. 

The field day includes a hayrack tour of the Rosmanns’ pesticide-free fields. On one section, turnips are planted as a cover crop, and volunteer oats and barley also pop up. Down the road, the group visits naturally ventilated “hoop house” pig shelters: metal arcs covered with greenhouse plastic, in which deep cornstalk bedding decreases manure runoff risk. They stand in front of long compost mounds, where butterflies land as Rosmann describes how to balance straw and manure. The farmers end their tour back in the barn, dining on the Rosmanns’ organic coleslaw and pulled-pork sandwiches. 

While they may not agree on what has gotten them here, growers like Rosmann and Peterson are thinking beyond politicized climate change arguments to figure out solutions.

As Rosmann, a self-declared independent Democrat, pontificates about climate change, Mark Peterson, a conservative Republican, studies his phone. The two Iowa growers admit they don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue.

Peterson, who grows grain conventionally an hour away, believes changing weather patterns may be cyclical. “I respect his opinion,” Peterson says after Rosmann’s climate talk. “It’s scary, there’s no doubt about that. But the cause — I’m not sure that’s as important as figuring out what we’re gonna do about it.”

While they may not agree on what has gotten them here, growers like Rosmann and Peterson are thinking beyond politicized climate change arguments to figure out solutions. They’re trying to adapt to the differences they’re experiencing, and even trying to mitigate them.

Along with fellow PFI members, they’re approaching agriculture more regeneratively: focusing on soil health, planting cover crops, reducing chemicals, and minimizing the runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s fishless “dead zone.” In the age of climate change, their sharing of experience is increasingly vital.

“PFI, in my view, is the best example in this country right now of the blending of science and local wisdom,” Laura Lengnick says. She’s a North Carolina-based resilient-agriculture researcher who travels the country talking to groups like these.

Organizations like PFI remain rare, Lengnick says. The group has “been a constant star in my career, literally from when I was an undergraduate student, because they’re so unique.”

Daniel Rosmann

Daniel Rosmann belongs to the Practical Farmers of Iowa. photo by lynn freehill-maye/YES! MAGAZINE

Most people don’t keep diaries of the weather. Only novelties, like big storms or long stretches of unseasonable temperatures, register as unusual. It’s up to scientists — meteorologists and climatologists, mainly — to tell us about how today’s weather fits into larger patterns.

Farmers are different. Weather doesn’t just affect their Saturday at the park; it dictates their livelihood, and they keep exhaustive mental and written records of it day by day, year by year. 

That’s why in 2019, you don’t need to tell many farmers that climate patterns have been shifting. When Lengnick started working on her resilience book in 2012, things were touchier in agriculture. Many farmers didn’t want to go on the record about climate change. “I see a sea change since then,” she says. “Everybody’s talking about it.” 

In August 2019, Alan Sano, a central California farmer, argued in The New York Times that drought, heat, and wildfires have put growers at the climate-change frontlines. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just warned that soil is being lost up to 100 times faster than it is forming. “We don’t need to read the science — we’re living it,” Sano declared.

Sano and his farm manager, Jesse Sanchez, are part of the Conservation Agriculture Systems Center, a working group at University of California, Davis. The working group pulls a mix of California farmers together to share eco-friendly practices like reducing tillage. Like PFI, they often host field days to help farmers share techniques.

In New Mexico, the Quivira Coalition, which was formed in 1997 and believes ranching should support a healthy ecosystem, brings livestock producers together to build resilience. Today Quivira includes 750 members of all political stripes. “Out here, people are coming from extremely rural areas, and there’s a complexity of views that is hard to characterize,” executive director Sarah Wentzel-Fisher says. “But I think the underlying commonality we have is that people really care about the land they steward and animals they care for.” 

Practical Farmers of Iowa has a longer history. Fifty members formed the organization in 1985 as a way to learn from each other. These days it numbers more than 3,500 and prides itself on being big-tent — with wide-ranging views around politics and the environment.

Fred Abels, for instance, a staunch Republican, is passionate about improving water quality through environmentally sound practices like maintaining wetlands and buffer strips. Dan Wilson leans firmly conservative, but farms completely organically. 

Iowa made national headlines for this spring’s record flooding that has PFI members still reeling.

“Disgustingly wet,” the otherwise affable Peterson growls.

At his Bent Gate Farm, Peterson’s two Labrador mixes, Emmy and Riley, jog out to greet a visitor. Dogs and cats are the farm’s only animals, but Peterson has a friend’s cattle graze on his cover crops.

It begins to rain, and from his Chevy Silverado, Peterson surveys the cover-crop mix of buckwheat, sunflower, radishes, and turnips he’s growing on 50 acres to help manage soil erosion. Each 1% increase in soil organic matter, scientists say, helps soil hold up to 20,000 gallons more water per acre.

The soil here is healthier now, Peterson says, and will yield more corn later. The field’s traditional wet spots haven’t been as big or lasting. The winter wheat will anchor the topsoil. As he talks, three geese alight. Lately Peterson has seen three coveys of quail, and up to seven pheasants in a one day. “I see that as a sign of overall farm health,” he says.

Peterson still uses the herbicide glyphosate, in the form of weed killer Roundup, although sparingly. On fellow PFI member Denise O’Brien’s Rolling Acres farm 45 minutes northeast, even that would be anathema.

Denise O'Brien of Rolling Acres farm

Denise O’Brien of Rolling Acres farm belongs to the Practical Farmers of Iowa, an alliance of organic and conventional farmers that meet to share practices in the face of extreme weather and soil degradation. photo by lynn freehill-maye/YES! MAGAZINE

O’Brien has farmed organically for 43 years. On this day, she and a mentee, Amber Mohr, are digging up potatoes out back.

 Rows of veggies stand at attention around them. O’Brien is just as proud of her sustainable high tunnels. Working like greenhouses, they require irrigation but extend the growing seasons. O’Brien installed the hoop shelters on tracks in 2013. “This is the way vegetable farmers are going to be mitigating climate change, with high tunnels,” she ways. “It’s going to protect the soil.”

She and Mohr grab the harvested vegetables and move into a barn as storm clouds loom. O’Brien works barefoot as she hoses stubborn dirt clumps that stick to some carrots, later grabbing a higher-pressure hose to finish the job. Outspokenly liberal, she confesses to occasional frustrations with PFI.

She recounts losing her temper in August, when one farmer on PFI’s general listserv asked how to deal with sprayed pesticide drifting over from her neighbors’ farm. Pesticide drift is a hot-button issue with the farmers. During the Rosmanns’ field day, a crop-duster buzzed overhead. “Incoming!” farmers pointed. “Hope it’s not gonna spray us,” one muttered. 

The pesticide-drift post was moved to PFI’s smaller policy listserv, which O’Brien protested. After nearly 40 years as a member, she threatened to quit. “I don’t like to end on a threat, but this … makes me sick not to discuss,” she wrote.

Such flare-ups aren’t uncommon, the natural byproduct of bringing people together across ideological lines.

Within a couple days, O’Brien had decided to stay, though she wishes the group would take a firmer stand on agriculture policy. Still, she’s glad a rare organization like it even exists, with its mix of growers and ideas. “It’s really neat that conventional farmers are a part of PFI, because they to me are the farmers of the future, figuring out how to use more sustainable practices,” she says. “The other thing is, I’m still learning a lot from other farmers.”

Healing a Divided Nation Begins

So say the Better Angels of the partisan divide.

Illustration by YES! MAGAZINE

Illustration by YES! MAGAZINE

Three weeks after the 2016 presidential election, a group of 21 people came together in South Lebanon, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, to talk.

The group comprised 11 people who’d supported Hillary Clinton for president and 10 who’d supported Donald Trump.

After the contentious election, there was a question lurking under the surface: “Could we as a country avoid a civic divorce? Could we build a more perfect union?” says David Lapp.

That meeting marked the beginning of what would become a national movement called Better Angels, that Lapp and two colleagues formed to create friendly spaces for potentially unfriendly conversations.

It’s among dozens of such arrangements — from weekly dinners to meetups to formal debates — that have emerged after the 2016 election to look for common ground across the political divide.

Better Angels got rolling in 2017, with a summer bus tour of 15 communities between Waynesville, Ohio, and Philadelphia, convening a similar mix of people in what they called “Red/Blue Workshops.” A fall tour followed, from Washington, D.C., to Nashville, Tennessee. Along the way, Better Angels has trained 130 volunteers to moderate future workshops.

The meet-ups, Lapp says, are “not an effort to change each other’s policy views or political views, but we are trying to change our minds about each other.”

“Political polarization” has become almost a buzzword, deprived of real meaning, given how frequently it’s deployed in national media. Slicing and dicing the electorate and the country into political tribes, oversimplifying entire state populations by assigning each a single color, and reducing national elections into contests over specific census tracts in a few key states have led to a widely shared view that the United States no longer is united around common principles.

Much has been made of the effect of social media on politics, too. Nearly three-fourths of Americans talk politics only with people who share their political views, researchers found in 2017. Given how social media algorithms serve us with content that we like (or “like”) and shelter us from what we don’t, that’s unlikely to change on its own.

That’s where Better Angels comes in. In addition to Lapp, who is a scholar at the Institute for American Values, the co-founders were David Blankenhorn, the founder of the Institute, and Bill Doherty, professor and director of the Couples and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.

The name was borrowed from the final line of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861, given on the eve of the Civil War as a plea for unity when seven Southern states had already seceded: “The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

That assumption — that everyone has the potential to act in a more civil manner — is what drives the group and its outreach to everyone from die-hard Trump supporters to left-wing progressive activists.

“A lot more people are interested in working with people on the other side politically than our stereotypes would represent,” Lapp says. He says the group is intended to reflect the entire spectrum of Americans’ political convictions.

Centrists also are welcome, he says, but “We are not a centrist organization.”

Several early participants in the Better Angels workshops would agree. Ray Warrick is a Tea Party organizer, who describes himself as a strict conservative: “Republicans, by and large, aren’t conservative enough for me.” He has participated in several workshops in the Warren County, Ohio, chapter, where he says the discussions are civil and work to break down barriers.

“I’ve often felt, you don’t hate people who you know, and I’ve had liberal friends for years,” Warrick says.

And it turns out there are areas of agreement that transcend party membership. “There’s pretty solid consensus that A, the politicians aren’t serving us, and B, the money in politics makes it wholly corrupt,” he says.

left double quoteThere’s pretty solid consensus that A, the politicians aren’t serving us, and B, the money in politics makes it wholly corrupt.” — Ray Warrick, a Tea Party organizer

On the other side is Rob Weidenfeld, a self-described pro-life Democrat who credits Better Angels for opening his eyes to how he was behaving, especially online. He and one of the Republicans in the Warren County group formed a pact of sorts to check each other on Facebook, giving likes to constructive posts or frowns to divisive ones.

“If you actually spend time with these people and talk to them, you realize they’re actually not that different from you,” Weidenfeld says.

Diana Mutz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the mechanisms of political polarization, says that a lot of the divisiveness is made worse by lack of contact between different groups.

“When politics is sort of at the forefront of mind all the time, it makes these cross-cutting relationships harder,” Mutz says. She is author of the 2006 book, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy.

Civic life wasn’t always so politicized, and there have been times when, even during fraught periods, the polarization didn’t seem so extreme, she says. She recalls that when President Richard Nixon resigned, most Republicans, including her father, agreed with the Democrats that the president had committed acts that warranted his removal from office.

It’s different now, with disagreements even over what is considered objective reality. “Will that happen again, or will Republicans and Democrats just deny what the other side said?” she says.

Getting past that may mean taking a step back from politics.

That’s the reasoning behind an initiative launched as an outreach project by KUOW-FM, an NPR-affiliated radio station in Seattle, whose listenership, like the city, tends to skew left. Called “Ask A … ,” the project brought about 10 people into the studio to talk to another 10 individuals who have been misunderstood in broader society.

The goal of the events, titled “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a police officer,” “Ask a Trump supporter,” and so on, was to provide a series of conversations in an environment that focused on understanding rather than argument.

Ross Reynolds, the station’s executive producer of community engagement, says the spark of the idea came in 2015 when he heard then-candidate Trump talking about banning Muslims from entering the country.

“I kind of wondered if this guy had ever talked to a Muslim,” Reynolds says. “Then I wondered if any of us had ever talked to a Muslim.”

The first “Ask a Muslim” event was held at the station in 2016, focusing on six-minute one-on-one conversations, in the style of a speed dating event, between people in the local Muslim community and in the general listening public. That was followed by a shared meal.

Reynolds says, “I felt like something had really happened.” But there was some question as to whether the effects of those conversations were lasting.

He secured a grant from the University of Washington and reached out to Valerie Manusov in the Department of Communication to create a series of questionnaires to be given to the participants before, immediately after and three months after the talks. The “Ask A … ” conversations continued throughout 2017 and 2018, featuring groups such as gun owners, Special Olympians, Trump supporters and so on, usually depending on what is trending in the news, Reynolds says.

Manusov published the results of her study in the Howard Journal of Communications. The questions measured participant’s knowledge about, attitude toward, and empathy for people different from themselves.

No matter which group was featured, she says, all three measures increased from before to after the event, and for all the groups, the follow-up surveys three months afterward showed that levels of knowledge stayed higher and attitudes toward the group were more positive than before the event. Empathy tended to rise initially, but it didn’t “take” as well as the other two metrics.

Despite the groups’ small size, the results were consistent with numerous other studies conducted over the years based on what’s called Intergroup Contact Theory, which was created in the 1950s to look at ways prejudice can be reduced between groups.

That was the case with Teresa Maxie, a Black woman who owns several firearms for hunting, but also favors more gun restrictions, such as background checks. She wanted to participate in the “Ask A … ” program because she felt it was important for people, including students in the national youth movement against guns who attended the session, to meet a gun owner who didn’t look the part.

“The looks on their faces when we had dinner with them — and there was [another] enthusiastic NRA member there trying to convince one to come out on the course and shoot a few, and she’d fall in love with guns. You could see on her face that she was completely horrified,” Maxie says. “That impacted me quite a bit, and I feel impassioned about educating people about gun ownership.”

Douglas Campbell, a gun owner who grew up in Alaska, said meeting non-owners and seeing the debate from their perspective changed his own, especially regarding assault-style weapons.

He recalls sitting down across from a woman who had grown up in a refugee camp, and listening as she “explains to me what guns symbolize to her, which is tools of state violence,” Campbell says.

“To actually see another person who’s been deeply affected by this, and to see the disconnect where she’s fleeing violence and she comes here and — it’s creepy, is what it is,” he says.

Those one-on-one interactions are what makes the experience so powerful for some, especially over a shared meal, which Reynolds says is “where the magic happens” during the “Ask A … ” events.

Overcoming positive bias is a challenge, in that, even once you factor in the local political environment, people coming to these events are doing so because they want to engage with people different from themselves. Not everyone feels that way.

“Clearly you can’t force someone to sit down and talk to someone else and you can’t force them to listen,” Reynolds says. But he thinks that even people with strong views who come to these events might go back into their communities and share their experience.

Better Angels has turned that goal into a national movement, with local chapters in each state hosting Red/Blue Workshops and also a series of subject-specific debates on timely topics like gun laws.

Everything follows the “Better Angels Rule” of including both sides in everything. “We don’t even go to breakfast if we don’t have a red and a blue,” Lapp says.

He says the causes of today’s polarization won’t go away after the 2020 election, regardless of the outcome.

“Right now, the source of the polarization is if you’re pro-Trump or anti-Trump, and that subject does come up in the workshops,” he says. “But the polarization between conservative and liberal has been coming along for a while. Something tells me we’ll still be around.”


Yes, You Can Change Someone’s Mind

Two particpants in a San Francisco Make America Dinner Again event

Two particpants in a San Francisco Make America Dinner Again event give empathy and storytelling a try. That’s what researchers say is needed to increase understanding. PHOTO BY MAYKEL LOOMANS

There’s something fascinating about stories that recount a major change of heart. Like the one of C.P. Ellis, a White member of the KKK, and Ann Atwater, a Black community activist, who in 1971 were thrown together as co-chairs of a group focused on school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina. Initially mistrustful of one another, they soon saw how much they had in common. Eventually, Ellis renounced his Klan membership and the two became close friends.

Or the one about John Robbins, the animal rights activist, who tells of visiting a pig farmer who housed his livestock in cramped, inhumane conditions. Over dinner and conversation, the farmer — a stoic, rigid man — broke down, remembering his grief over having to kill a pet pig as a child. Eventually, Robbins reports, the man abandoned pig farming altogether.

What brings about these kind of deep changes?

We all have closely held beliefs that form the basis of much of our thinking and actions. What does it take to shift them — and how can others facilitate the process?

I’m asking this as we enter the 2020 campaign season and a presidential election that is probably the most significant in a generation. Sure, it’s important to respect others’ opinions; none of us has the corner on the truth, and we can have wildly different ideas about which policies are best for the country. But racism, sexism, xenophobia, meanness, hate? No. Those are never acceptable responses.

So whether you’re talking to your Trump-loving father-in-law, a neighbor who repeats Fox News talking points about “criminal” children detained at the border, or a friend from college who’s been grumbling about “welfare freeloaders,” it’s fair to try and change their minds.

The question is, how?

First, don’t look to facts to do the trick, researchers say. As compelling as they may be, facts aren’t how we fundamentally build our opinions. “People think they think like scientists, but they really think a lot like attorneys,” says Pete Ditto, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. That is, rather than developing our beliefs based on the best available facts, most of us decide what we believe and then select the facts that support it. So when we hear arguments that don’t align with our beliefs, we tend to disregard them.

That’s because we develop our beliefs through our feelings, not our brains. And that’s how we’re changed as well: by connecting with others and having an emotional experience.

The most basic way to shift someone’s thinking, particularly about a specific population, is to put them in a mixed group — a concept that’s known in psychology circles as the contact hypothesis. Developed in 1954 by social psychologist Gordon Allport and widely accepted, the hypothesis states that under certain conditions, interpersonal contact is the best way to reduce prejudice between members of a group. In 2006, researchers Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp convincingly showed that Allport’s conditions weren’t actually necessary; mixing between groups could reduce prejudice even if all of Allport’s conditions weren’t met. And the positive effect of contact grows stronger with closer relationships.

We develop our beliefs through our feelings, not our brains. And that’s how we’re changed as well: by connecting with others and having an emotional experience.

“The more contact we have, the less anxious we feel about being with people who are different from us, and the more able we are to empathize with them in terms of what they’re going through,” explains Tropp, who is now a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continues to focus on the topic.

It’s a particularly significant finding today, when many of us live in segregated societies with people who look and think and earn just like we do. If we don’t interact with people who are different from us, we increasingly rely on stereotypes to explain them.

“Because it’s not based on our personal experience, those other people are too easily regarded as irrelevant to us,” explains Tropp. “But what happens when we get to know other groups personally is they start to matter to us; they’re no longer abstract ideas to us. And once we see them as fully human, we begin to see that they deserve the same treatment that we get.”

One answer, then, is to befriend people who disagree with you and connect folks who might not otherwise meet. Or encourage others to join you in reaching out to different groups of people — through civic or religious organizations, social activities, or community efforts.

But it’s also possible to take a more active role in aiming to change someone’s mind, using conversation. The approach, though, is key: if they’re on the defensive, people generally won’t shift their positions. So, that means those vicious Twitter debates aren’t budging anyone.

Instead, says Justine Lee, “it’s about really developing trust between two people: hearing each other out, internalizing what’s being said before making judgments.” Lee’s organization, Make America Dinner Again (MADA), was established in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and brings together liberals and conservatives over a two-and-a-half to three-hour dinner. The group focuses on increasing understanding, not changing minds, but the process is similar.

Lee, like other leaders of similar groups, emphasizes that building a personal connection is a crucial step in cultivating a productive conversation. After all, people’s beliefs, no matter how abhorrent, usually come from an emotional place. We may forget that in the heat of the moment, but treating someone respectfully — asking questions, truly listening to the answers, and talking about our own feelings — will be vastly more productive.

Justine Lee, standing far right, said she created the Make America Dinner Again group after becoming disheartened by the polarizing language of the 2016 election.

Justine Lee, standing far right, said she created the Make America Dinner Again group after becoming disheartened by the polarizing language of the 2016 election. A host organizes a small dinner, and guests with differing political views sign up for respectful conversation and guided activities. Photo by Maykel Loomans

“I think the best way to change minds is to see each other’s humanity,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations, an open-source group that, like MADA, gathers Democrats and Republicans for dialogue. “I often talk about attitudes softening” — on both sides — “when we understand why people feel the way they do.”

Lee tells a story of two men who forged an unlikely friendship over a series of dinners hosted by MADA. One was an older White Trump supporter; the other was a liberal trans man who’d been adopted from Korea. They bonded over fatherhood and similarities in their backgrounds. And because of that connection, they were able to discuss more loaded issues, like Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally that had occurred shortly before one of the dinners.

“It was clear they didn’t agree, but they were hugging each other,” says Lee. The older man said he’d never met someone who was transgender — and while he probably wasn’t going to change his fundamental stance, Lee says, knowing the younger man had obviously affected his outlook. “It’s a reminder that humans are nuanced and complex,” says Lee. “As soon as you meet someone, there are things that can soften your thinking about them.”

A narrative can be a powerful way to shift someone’s thinking. The Richmond, Virginia, chapter of Coming to the Table, a national organization aimed at dismantling racism, hosts film and book clubs and has found them to be particularly useful.

“People, in my experience, are changed more by stories than they are by arguments,” says Marsha Summers, one of the book club’s leaders. Her co-leader, Cheryl Goode, agrees: “I think real changing of minds happens because we learn the perspective of other people.”

One new method combines all of those elements — contact, trust, and storytelling — to explicitly, successfully change minds. Deep canvassing is a door-to-door technique developed in 2015 that’s been proven to shift opinions on particular issues, with effects that last for months. Rather than running from house to house with a 60-second script, canvassers engage respondents in longer conversations: asking about residents’ link to the issue at hand, talking honestly about their own experiences, and connecting on shared fundamental values.

“We’re trying to really understand what motivates [voters],” says Adam Barbanel-Fried. Barbanel-Fried is the director of Changing the Conversation Together (CTC), an organization that’s ramping up to train and lead a national corps of deep canvassers supporting Democratic candidates. For that, he says, “we find storytelling to be the most effective tool: to offer a little bit of vulnerability and show the voter that we’re not going to judge them. It’s through those kind of stories that you get people opening up.”

Barbanel-Fried says he’s stood in doorways and talked about his family’s experiences with anti-Semitism — and in response, residents have often responded with their own jarring stories of encountering hate or xenophobia. Many, at the end of a conversation, report that they’re now more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who supports civil liberties.

But that specific outcome isn’t the only one that matters, says Carol Smolenski, a dedicated CTC volunteer. “Even if I wasn’t able to get someone to say that I’d moved them down the scale to be more likely to vote for a Democrat, I had a feeling that I certainly gave them something to think about that they haven’t thought about.”

That’s the thing about changing minds: it might not happen right away. But even if you don’t see an obvious, immediate change, hardcore beliefs may already have begun to crumble.

And that’s a start.

Can We Build a Better Man?

Millions of pages have been devoted to demystifying the relationship between men and women, unpacking gendered power dynamics, and more recently, to interrogating toxic masculinity and finding ways to hold some men accountable for their bad behavior. What is now known as the #MeToo movement began more than a decade ago, when activist Tarana Burke launched a conversation around sexual harassment and assault often experienced by women and femmes with the powerful phrase “me too.” But what role do men have to play in ending this epidemic, and divorcing themselves from the toxic masculinity that underlies this behavior? We asked authors, organizers, journalists, and leaders to weigh in on the same question: What is men’s role in the #MeToo movement, and what does a new or nontoxic masculinity look like?

Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke Founder of the “me too.” movement

“Men’s first and most important role in the ‘me too.‘ movement is as survivors. If we want to have less-toxic men, then one thing we can do is create spaces for them to be vulnerable and have access to healing. So much of the dominant narrative around ‘me too.‘ is about attacks on men and ‘manhood‘ that it places men on the defensive. They think they have to ‘protect‘ themselves from #MeToo, when they can play a huge role in shifting the culture that props up sexual violence by listening to how much it affects the material lives of women. Men could be less defensive or dismissive about #MeToo, beyond how it might help their ‘moms, wives, sisters, nieces and daughters,‘ and think about how their behavior creates the space for violence — physical, emotional, mental and cultural — to happen.”

Alex Myers

Alex Myers Gender identity educator and author of Revolutionary, Continental Divide and The Story of Silence

“As a trans guy, I sometimes tend to emphasize the trans, ignore the guy. But this moment in masculine response requires a special attention to weight, to balance. Balance between the part of me that was raised and socialized and moved through the world as a girl and young woman, the part of me that was touched and talked to and treated in a way that so many girls and young women are. The part of me that wants to say, loudly and clearly: that was me, too. And the part of me that now lives as and moves through and takes up space in this world as a guy.

Guys get more space. Guys get more airtime. And it’s important that I cede that right back to the people and the stories that have been denied it. And yet, trans guys have a place in #metoo. We have stories that matter in this moment. Like so many other aspects of trans identity, it’s a question of finding the words, finding the room, finding the balance.”

Sady Doyle

Sady Doyle Journalist and author of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power

“I think men on the whole need to cultivate the art of listening. They need to cultivate more empathy for women’s experiences, and I think one of the ways we do that and break down toxic masculinity is for men to cultivate deeper [platonic] relationships with women in their lives.

We have a really weird culture, wherein men and women don’t actually sit down and talk to each other on a deep level, unless they’re about to get married. That creates a world where it’s really easy for men to not know what women are going through. It’s really easy for men to not understand the sheer pervasiveness of sexual violence and sexual harassment. They don’t have women in their lives who trust them enough to talk about it, so they give their guy friends a pass, they don’t understand what’s going on or how common it is, and when an individual story floats up, it’s easy to disbelieve it if it doesn’t sound like all the other stories you’ve been hearing.”

Tony Porter

Tony Porter Chief executive officer of A Call to Men

”Although I’m cautious of it, I’m supportive of the term ’toxic masculinity’ because it keeps the discussion alive and engages people in this conversation in new ways. If we allow men to separate themselves by saying, ’I’m not that bad, those guys are the ones with the toxic behavior,’ we are missing the greatest potential for change. The vast majority of men are not abusive, do not sexually harass [or] sexually assault. But the vast majority of men are silent about the violence, harassment, and abuse that women and girls and other oppressed groups experience. That’s why I’m not willing to separate men into categories: ’bad,’ ’just ignorant to the issues,’ ’good.’ Doing so reinforces privilege by allowing men the option to stay quiet, to opt out of the conversation, or distance themselves from the issue. #MeToo has brought about an era of forced self-reflection [for men, and] it’s uncomfortable. [But] we can use that discomfort to create change. In that process, we must listen to women, believe them and validate their experiences.”

Earth-Feather Sovereign

Earth-Feather Sovereign Founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington

”Traditionally with our people, men are seen as protectors. And I believe we need to encourage them to be more protective of their matriarchs, their women, their mothers, their children. We need men to know that it’s OK to have feelings, that it’s OK for them to cry, to be angry, but to handle that anger in a way that is healthy and not toxic.

A lot of our women are missing due to toxic masculinity — men wanting to sexualize and objectify women. I think the voices of men matter just as much as women’s voices matter and we should encourage them to use their voices to uplift women. We want men to feel confident of being protectors and providers, not in a domineering and controlling way, but in a loving and caring way, and not to be scared to express their feminine side.”

Find more opinions on “Can We Build a Better Man?” at

Bridges Only Work When Both Sides Cross Them

A new walkway connects two post-apartheid neighborhoods, but economic and racial equality are still out of reach.

Sandton and Alexandra, Johannesburg

On one side: Sandton, Johannesburg, the financial and shopping district, is one of the wealthiest areas of South Africa. During apartheid, only White people could live here. On the other: Alexandra, Johannesburg, the Black township is one of the poorest urban areas in South Africa. It houses service workers who support Sandton, and many live in shacks. photo by johnny miller

A19-foot tall bronze statue of the late Nelson Mandela stands proudly in a courtyard just outside the Sandton City Shopping Centre. It is the gleaming centerpiece of what is commonly known as the richest square mile in Africa — a little slice of Manhattan on the continent’s southern tip. Sandton, a business district of South Africa’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, is home to most of the continent’s richest companies.

Lining its neatly gridded streets are elaborate skyscrapers — home to Africa’s richest banks, law firms, and insurance brokers — and luxury housing estates where members of the professional class live with their swimming pools and spare rooms.

Mandela dreamed, famously, of a “Rainbow Nation” — a South Africa where men and women of all races could live together in harmony and prosperity, free from the horrors of the apartheid regime. A casual observer can just about believe that, in Sandton, his vision has come to pass.

But Mandela is no casual observer. Whether by accident or design, his statue faces due east. And if you follow his line of sight, past the skyscrapers and strip malls and along a much-hyped pedestrian bridge, you will see that he is looking directly at another famous Johannesburg suburb, without which Sandton in its current form could not exist.

This is Alexandra, which was designated as a “township” by apartheid’s spatial planners. Whereas, until 1994, only White people could own or live in Sandton, Alexandra was a Black area conceived as a dormitory town for the minimum-wage workers needed to serve their rich neighbors. The inequalities that were legislated then have persisted into South Africa’s new, democratic dispensation.

A township of at least 180,000 people, Alexandra goes by many names. Some residents call it Gomorrah, after the Old Testament town that was destroyed by God for its wickedness. Houses in Alex, as it is often nicknamed, are mostly shacks built from whatever material is at hand: corrugated iron, plastic, wood. The shacks are built on top of each other and spill over onto the narrow, crowded sidewalks.

In an attempt to bridge the inequality — quite literally — Johannesburg constructed a pedestrian bridge linking its richest suburb with one of its poorest. Inspired by Mandela’s memoir, The Long Walk to Freedom, the Great Walk Bridge is 977 feet of gleaming steel and concrete suspended from a central pylon, and the centerpiece of a 3 mile walkway linking the two suburbs.

Since opening in 2018, it has helped ease the commute for the estimated 10,000 workers and other pedestrians who make the daily, hour-long trip from Alexandra to Sandton every day. Almost all the traffic flows in that one direction — Alex to Sandton — except on weekends, when runners and cyclists from Sandton use it for recreation. But the bridge also serves to highlight just how far apart these neighboring suburbs really are — and the lingering legacy of segregation in post-apartheid South Africa.

Rich and poor. White and Black. Employers and employees. Although just a couple of miles apart, Sandton and Alex could not be any more different. The divide is so stark, in fact, that it has become something of a symbol for South Africa as a whole — which, despite the formal end of racial segregation, remains the world’s most unequal country, according to World Bank statistics.

In his award winning series “Unequal Scenes,” photographer Johnny Miller captured this inequality in overhead images that show South Africa’s vast wealth alongside its vast poverty. Even for him, the gap between Sandton and Alexandra is exceptional. “The story of Alexandra and Sandton is a story of the most stark divide of wealth in South Africa,” he said.

The pedestrian bridge, bus routes, and bike lanes were part of a project aimed to cut down on commuting hours.

The pedestrian bridge, bus routes, and bike lanes were part of a project aimed to cut down on commuting hours. “Shame on White people for demanding bicycle lanes while Blacks use bucket toilets,” says Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters. photo by simon allison / YES! MAGAZINE

The Great Walk

John Charnley is what is referred to as an Alexandra original. The 56-year-old was born in the township and has never lived anywhere else.

Charnley spent most of his career working in Sandton, most recently as a projectionist at a movie theater. Every morning, until he retired recently, he joined thousands of other people from Alexandra who work on the other side of the highway, commuting there by foot. He is part of a labor force which Sandton depends on in order to exist.

Until 2018, Charnley’s one-hour commute took him across the Grayston Interchange, which crosses the M1 Highway, a major north-south thoroughfare that connects suburbs in the south with areas to the north. With seven lanes, Grayston was designed for cars, not people, and pedestrians who use it are forced to weave in and out of traffic.

This design is no accident. Much of Johannesburg’s highway network was built during apartheid, and serves a dual purpose: In addition to improving transport links, the highways were intended to form a physical barrier between White and non-White areas.

This school of urban planning is known as apartheid spatial development, and it is one of the most insidious legacies of the apartheid era. While the legal framework that underpinned the former regime has been dismantled, it is proving much harder to rip up these physical manifestations of its White supremacist ideology.

The Great Walk Bridge, formally known as the Grayston Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge, which gives pedestrians and cyclists a safe route across the motorway, was one attempt to overturn the old order.

It was part of the city-wide “Corridors of Freedom” project, first announced in 2014 — a 10-year, 100 billion rand ($6.6 billion) push to overhaul Johannesburg’s creaking infrastructure.

As Noel Reddy, the project manager for Royal HaskoningDHV, the firm awarded the contract for the bridge, explained at the time: “The planned pedestrian bridge will provide safe and convenient pedestrian and cyclist access into Sandton. It literally bridges the gap between two communities with opposite economic backgrounds whilst creating a visual gateway into the economic hub of the country.”

Charnley does not see it that way. He began using the bridge when it opened in May 2018. It’s safer, yes, and it makes his journey less stressful. But to travel from one end of the bridge to the other was still to be reminded every day of the fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable differences between where he lived and where he worked.

“In Alex we are suffering, but Sandton is heaven,” he says. “As Black people in the township, we were oppressed by an apartheid regime. But we thought when people who look like us took leadership, things would change; but nothing has, especially in Alexandra. It’s even overpopulated now.

“When you try to open your window, you hit someone’s wall because they’ve built right there. In Sandton, there are huge yards for one family but in Alex, that yard will have 50 families living in it. How is that right? How is that fair?”

To travel from one end of the bridge to the other was still to be reminded every day of the fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable differences between where Charnley lived and where he worked.

Corridors of Freedom

Like so much of post-apartheid South Africa, construction of the bridge did not go smoothly. In October 2015, just months after building began, temporary scaffolding collapsed onto the highway below during rush hour traffic. Two people were killed as the debris crashed into their vehicles: Adrian Doodnath, a 27-year-old businessman; and Siyabonga Myeni, 27-year-old minibus taxi driver.

Even as the bridge opened in 2018, to great fanfare, the inquiry into its collapse was ongoing, pitting the families of Doodnath and Myeni against the principal contractor, Murray & Roberts, a prominent South African engineering firm that made a large chunk of its fortune building mines during the apartheid era. The families are still awaiting the promised compensation.

The bridge also hasn’t become the centerpiece of a radically transformed public transport network officials had hoped for. The “Corridors of Freedom” project was conceived by Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau, from the ruling African National Congress — Mandela’s party.

Designed to address apartheid-era spatial planning, the project aimed to cut down on commuting hours for passengers across the city through the establishment of rapid bus routes and dedicated bicycle lanes on major roads and bridges such as the Great Walk Bridge.

But when Tau lost power in 2016, he was replaced by Herman Mashaba from the opposition Democratic Alliance, who wasted no time undoing his predecessor’s legacy. Mashaba was especially angered by the network of bicycle lanes envisaged by Tau — of which the Great Walk Bridge was a key node — and immediately halted further construction.

“When every road in Johannesburg is tarred, maybe then we will look at bicycle lanes again,” Mashaba told the Johannesburg City Council in 2016, promising to divert the funds instead toward basic services.

Another major opposition leader, Julius Malema, from the Economic Freedom Fighters, echoed this position. “Shame on White people for demanding bicycle lanes while Blacks use bucket toilets,” he said.

Young men who work cleaning car windshields witness the daily flow of bridge commuters

Young men who work cleaning car windshields witness the daily flow of bridge commuters and have considered why it hasn’t succeeded. Even with the best of intentions, it may take more than flashy infrastructure projects to overcome centuries of inequality. photo by simon allison / YES! MAGAZINE

The Forgotten People

As vehicles exit the motorway onto the Grayston Drive interchange, they are greeted by four young men who offer to clean their windshields in exchange for tips. These men spend up to 12 hours a day at the interchange, and witness the flood of commuters going first one way and then the other.

Lucky is 23. He is very chatty, but does not want to give his last name. The tools of his trade are a small plastic bottle filled with liquid soap, and a squeegee. He loves the new bridge that looms above him. “It is so beautiful, so attractive,” he says. “At night when the blue and red lights come on...even tourists like the view, they come sometimes to take pictures.”

But commuters are less enamored with it, he says. He estimates that only about one in five commuters bother with the pedestrian bridge. Even on this weekday, most pedestrians are choosing to brave the traffic on the road bridge. “The first reason is people are scared of the bridge,” Lucky says. “You know it fell down? If it fell down once. … ”

The second reason, according to Lucky, is that the bridge’s winding design means that although it is safer, it also adds several minutes to people’s travel times because commuters can’t take shortcuts through traffic, and because they spend time waiting at traffic lights. “The bridge is a good idea; maybe it is the people that need to change,” he says.

Lebo, a clothing store supervisor in the Sandton City shopping mall, walks over from Alex every day, but rarely uses the new bridge, and instead dashes through highway traffic. He declined to provide his last name. “For me, the bridge is too long,” he says. “It was a good idea because this road is just too busy, and it’s not safe for kids. So it’s good that there is an option for them.”

left double quoteThe bridge is a good idea; maybe it is the people that need to change.”

The reluctance of ordinary commuters to embrace the pedestrian bridge perhaps underscores the difficulties facing South Africa’s leaders: that even with the best of intentions, it takes more than flashy infrastructure projects to overcome centuries of inequality.

That is certainly Thomas Khosa’s view. The 50-year-old lives in Innesfree Park, a tiny settlement sandwiched in between Sandton and Alexandra that pedestrians can see as they cross the Great Walk Bridge, and is the informally elected community leader. Unlike its prominent neighbors, Innesfree Park is of limited metaphorical value, and as such is rarely mentioned in conversations about inequality and division.

Khosa’s problems are more immediate than bridges or bicycle lanes. He has had to fight bitterly to get proper toilets installed in the settlement, and he knows that some of its shacks are unfit for human habitation.

“There are people who live in a dangerous part of the settlement. They live right by the river and when it rains and the water level rises, they are unsafe because their houses flood. People here live under pressure and government keeps on making promises,” he says.

For Khosa, the end of apartheid has not delivered the liberation he expected. He is not living in a Rainbow Nation, and the glamour and riches of Sandton seem impossibly far away — even though it is literally next door.

“I feel bad [about the differences between us and Sandton] but there’s nothing I can do,” he says. “Racism continues today but it doesn’t look the same way it used to back in apartheid. If you are poor, you have nothing to say,” he adds, resignedly, gazing west, toward the glittering skyscrapers and the bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. “It’s a crime to leave people living like this.”