How to answer Joe Biden’s call for unity without compromising your values

Like many progressives, I cringe when I hear the word “unity.”

In his Inaugural Address, President Joe Biden told Americans: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”

Like many progressives, I cringe when I hear the word “unity,” but not for the reasons you might think.

We are also told that if “unity” is the path forward, “civility” and “healing” are how we’ll get there.

Skeptics believe spouting these buzzwords are just political tactics meant to blunt opposition.

Some on the left say the calls are overrated, misguided and rooted in a desire to maintain the status quo. Some on the right acknowledge that achieving unity is difficult, but think it’s mostly a matter of rebuilding the platforms in which healthy debate happens.

As the co-creator of a national project centered on being civil and building understanding, I am regularly reminded that “civility” as a practice and “unity” as a goal are not universally embraced.

They have been used to silence people of marginalized communities, obstruct civil rights movements, and keep people from making meaningful, structural change.

I understand the criticism of civility. After facilitating dozens of small group conversations and an online discussion group among people on the left, right and center, I also believe there’s a version of this work that does not require compromising one’s values.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive at the White House on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021.

When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I felt despair, but also motivation. As a progressive Asian woman in San Francisco, I wanted to pop my bubble and better understand people who voted differently than me.

I partnered with my friend Tria Chang to organize a dinner between right and left leaning individuals rooted in listening and engaging respectfully. We called our project Make America Dinner Again, and four years later, we’ve organized hundreds of events in more than 20 cities and created an online discussion group with more than 900 members.

In 2020, I expanded my bridging work and joined Living Room Conversations, an organization founded in 2010 with a similar purpose of building understanding across differences.

Listen to your own passion

Engaging with perspectives from Libertarian anarchists, moderate Democrats, Constitutionalists, Democratic Socialists, Trump supporters and folks without a strong political identity has not weakened my own beliefs. Rather, this exposure has helped me realize what issues matter most to me.

One way I’ve learned is by listening to what stirs me.

In our discussion group, I’ve noticed that many of the views on race from white conservatives either glaze over or fail to acknowledge the long history of racism and oppression in our country, and the effects of intergenerational trauma.

Some seem to value data more than stories of lived experiences. Reading what I perceived to be sterile assessments in response to the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery,for example, made my skin crawl. I felt angry.

My anger, in part, motivated me to put even more time into learning the historical and present day forms of racism and dig deeper into my interest in environmental justice.

I filled my extra hours the way many people across the country did in response to heightened injustice and inequity in 2020 –– protested in the streets, read books, watched documentaries, wrote letters, made calls, donated and volunteered to be a poll worker on Election Day.

The MADA community has offered me many moments to reflect on my belief system and my gaps in knowledge. Reading others’ views in favor of the death penalty, helped fortify my view against it. I learned the existence of progressive gun owners and pro-Second Amendment groups. Moderating a thread on Trans rights highlighted my clumsiness in standing up to transphobia.

Being in the bridging space, I’ve not felt like I need to choose between fighting for progressive policies and healing political divides.

Many of my colleagues dedicate much of their time and energy to causes they care about outside of bridging. MADA co-creator Tria co-edits a Black Allyship column for an Asian American magazine. Fellow MADA moderator Ari Gabrek is a fierce advocate for the Trans community in Louisiana. Brialle Ringer, my colleague at Living Room Conversations, leads wellness retreats and promotes veganism.

Through interacting with hundreds of people with different opinions, I quickly learned my own biases around language and the assumptions I made about people.

Certain phrases I had taken to be neutral like “gun control,” “safe space” and “democracy,” I learned actually weren’t for many of our members. I noticed I had become comfortable making sweeping statements without qualifying them as opinion. I recognized the frequent assumptions I made about people based on their political identity, and I learned to ask better questions and to wait for people to share and show me who they are.

These are valuable skills not only in bridging divides between the right and left, but among people with more closely aligned politics, too.

In 2020, I more consciously brought my skill set to facilitating and having conversations about race. I began collaborating with Jeanelle Austin, a racial justice coach and activist, on a conversation series called Tea with the People. We facilitated small group conversations on race and democracy in the time of COVID-19 covering topics like inequities in health, public grief of anti-blackness, and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia.

I organized similar conversations among my Asian American friends and had phone calls about anti-blackness with my parents for the first time.

I felt more prepared to address tensions within these groups, having navigated outsized tensions between conservatives and liberals.

On a larger scale, I see these skills translating well in coalition-building among factions on the left. These are the skills we need to accomplish the vast work ahead of us like in developing a political agenda that progressive and moderate members of the Democratic Party can agree on, bringing together activists around issues like climate or women’s rights, or defining the ambiguous Asian American voting bloc.

Set boundaries to protect yourself

I have gotten to know one of our discussion group’s most vocal Trump supporters over the past three years. I’ve learned about his politics, but also, about his life. He shared stories about his hunting and fishing trips, what he was growing in his garden, and about a year into knowing him, he opened up about his divorce and the challenges of life being turned upside down. I listened and really felt for him.

When I told him I had never been to Arkansas, where he lived, he invited me to visit and talked about all the places he might show me. I considered him an unexpected online friend, and though I had to moderate his comments “for tone” a few times, he hadn’t crossed any of my personal boundaries.

That changed in April 2020 after I posted an article about the rise in anti-Chinese discrimination and hate crimes as a result of being blamed for COVID-19. I posed two questions: “How have you witnessed anti-Chinese sentiment?” and “How do we separate our need to understand COVID-19 without dehumanizing other people?”

He commented: “Isn’t that what people do? whites today get blamed for slavery in the 1800’s, anyone looking oriental blamed for covid-19…”

His communication style and crude language bothered me, but I was used to it. What upset me was that his first thought was to equate hate crimes experienced by Asian people to the experience of being blamed for slavery by white people. Those did not line up for me.

I wrote back inviting him to chat one on one in hopes that we could have a conversation to better understand where each of us was coming from. The chat we had continued to be frustrating — there were times I could feel the heat rise on the back of my neck, and knew I needed a break.

Since then, we’ve had a couple small exchanges; we’ve wished each other a happy holiday, and he reminded me of his invitation to visit him in Arkansas.

The actual work of healing is slow and its outcome is not guaranteed. To be sustainable, it requires prioritizing mental health. I can see my Arkansas friend’s humanity, and appreciate that he helps me better understand conservatives, while also knowing that I’m not ready to revisit race with him now, and might never be.

I’m aware that being able to reach across the aisle is a privilege. I’ve had a steady support system, and my relationship to this country is relatively new –– my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1979. The racial traumas I have had to work through are nowhere as deep or complex as for African Americans and Indigenous people.

For those trying to heal divisions and make amends with loved ones, colleagues and neighbors, the stakes are much higher. For people trying to make it through the day, this work is far from top of mind.

When I hear leaders like President Biden call for “unity” “civility” and “healing,” I cringe a little, but not because the ask is impossible or repulsive.

I cringe because leaders are missing an opportunity to shine a light on the path forward or to demonstrate the different ways coming together might look. They’ve failed to elevate the many thousands of organizations and people who have been doing this work for decades or to acknowledge the time, energy and emotional fortitude it requires.

They would be wise to emphasize that if you choose to do this work, you do not need to put your values aside. That, in fact, you might even find them strengthened.

Justine Lee is cofounder of Make America Dinner Again and a partner with Living Room Conversations. Follow her on Twitter: @justineraelee