The events of the past week or so have left most of us feeling at best discouraged, and at worst, completely helpless and angry. At Friday’s Y Board Executive Committee meeting, it was hard to focus on the business at hand as there was a collective sense that we had somehow “lost our footing,” as board member Donna Wilson stated.
As I have personally reflected upon all that has occurred across our country, and the painfully predictable reactions to everything, I see some unfortunate parallels between the increasing polarization in our society and the endless, ancient and tribal strife in the Middle East. We are clearly not yet at a point at which our differences have painted us each into sectarian corners, but I believe we are drifting inexorably in that direction if we don’t step back and remember what it is that knits us together as a society. More and more, we are being asked to choose one “side” or another: conservative or liberal; law and order or social justice; business or labor; Government or individualism; capitalism or income equality; Republican or Democrat; the Second Amendment or gun control; Fox News or MSNBC; and, of course, Trump or Clinton. To me, those are largely false choices, and not ones I believe that most people who care about their broader community think are so black or white. However, our social structure is increasingly asking us to firmly align ourselves in one camp or another, and to associate ourselves with only those who believe in the purity of one argument or another. Personally, I’m unwilling to choose a side.
It seems to me that what makes for a healthy community is the capacity for people to foster understanding, empathy and progress across a wide range of differences within that community. A healthy community recognizes that erecting figurative or literal barriers between those who disagree with one another is a dangerous movement to a divided society. America’s great promise is pluralism, the belief in the notion that we are a nation that is strengthened by its multiplicity of views and cultures. I fear that we are losing that unique American quality. Too many of those who attract attention as “leaders” of one particular movement or another today call for a purity of perspective, asking us to believe that their side is right and the other side is not just wrong, but out to destroy us all. True leadership is about finding compromise while not walking away from one’s personal beliefs. It’s hard and often painful, but it’s the stuff that success is built upon. It’s easier to lead a “movement” when one chooses to ignore dissent, complexity, nuance and reality.
So what does any of this has to do with the Y? It’s a useful question, and one that I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about. It’s clear that we, as an organization, cannot solve all of our society’s large questions. At the core of what we can do, and in fact have been doing for a long time, is to broaden the concept of community. We believe that membership, participation and support in and of the Y’s work is fundamentally about investing in the well-being of individuals, families and communities. It’s about having a larger and broader conception of community than what that word is too often associated with. At the Y, we don’t believe that a community is simply those who live in a few block area. A community is not a set of people who look alike, think alike and are all in one set of circumstances. At the Y, we believe that a community is something larger, something that knits us together despite our differences and that reminds us that we are all in this together, regardless of income level, religion, race, place of origin, gender, political beliefs, occupation, etc. A healthy community invests in itself, understands its differences and listens to disparate voices. A healthy community finds common ground, fosters volunteerism, and looks to lower the boundaries that divide us. A healthy community has places that people from all walks of life come together to achieve well-being, to get to know each other and to encounter people that are different than each other.
The Y cannot solve all of the problems in our society; not in the least. However, our society can become less toxic and less divisive by embracing and respecting the Y’s promise of individual, family and community well-being.
We’ve faced much harder times as a country than we do today. Every time we stumble, we have found the capacity to re-center ourselves around that which affirms and broadens us. Rather than narrowing our conception of community, let’s do us all a favor and broaden than conception as wide as possible.
All the best,
John K. Hoey
President & CEO
The Y in Central Maryland