There is no doubt that these are difficult days in our country. Communities large and small struggle with brokenness in relationships across race, ethnicity, language, economics and other divisive categories. Conflicts and suspicions seem to lead inevitably to violence. Many of us wait with suspended breath for the next terrible story to break in the media, which for its part is ever-ready to pounce on yet another sensational example of how wrong things are.
[restrict]And things are wrong. It’s not supposed to be like this. We are supposed to be better than this.
Experience teaches that difficulties are opportunities for change. After all, no one is very motivated to make things better when they already seem better! If, as people go through difficult times, they take time to step back and ask good questions, the result can be individual, organizational and community improvement in every area one can imagine.
As an example, during the current difficult times, much has been said about the need to have better and deeper conversations across lines of divide of every kind, but especially across racial lines. There are many creative ways to build stronger relationships. Bridges Out of Poverty plus Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World is one context in which we are seeing life-changing, long-term relationships being built. My own experience through facilitating Getting Ahead and doing community Bridges trainings through the Dubuque Circles Initiative continues to inspire me to build community stability through this powerful context.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in line at the grocery store with a few items and I noticed that Pauline was in line ahead of me. Pauline was a participant in our most recent Getting Ahead group. She was not able to complete the group because she had obtained full-time employment that conflicted with the meeting time. But she had been in the group for six or eight weeks, and relationships had been built.
Pauline and I differ in many characteristics. I can say that before being involved with Bridges and Getting Ahead, Pauline is someone with whom I would likely not even have made eye contact in the grocery store. This is honest stuff. But isn’t it true that we tend to connect with those who are most like us? And even if we are not conscious of it, we tend to avoid or—and I can only speak for myself here—outright ignore those who are different from us. The more the differences, the more likely that no connection will be made.
Instead, not only did we make eye contact, but Pauline and I had a little reunion there in the grocery line that was a joy to us both. I got to hear about her job and how that was going. She got to hear about how the group was progressing since she had not been able to come. I would like to think that anyone around us got to see two people who were clearly not the same interacting as friends and building community.
Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead are community-building tools that provide a context for working directly in the area of relationships. Dr. Ruby Payne’s definition of poverty, “the extent to which an individual does without resources,” emphasizes the importance of building more than just financial resources to help people achieve stability in their lives.
One of the eight resources included in Dr. Payne’s list is Relationships and Role Models. Communities that apply Bridges concepts through Bridges trainings, Getting Ahead groups and the rapidly evolving Staying Ahead support groups for Getting Ahead graduates are finding that when individuals from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds spend time in genuine discussions about common community issues, walls of division begin to fall and relationships are built.
If individuals in poverty need relationships and role models in order to build stability, it is also true for whole communities. The more relationships of mutual respect that are built within a community, the more stability that community will have. Bridges, Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead provide a context for intentionally developing those relationships, and I strongly recommend learning and applying these tools in your community.
But building relationships doesn’t have to start in a structured program. It can start at the grocery store. For every Pauline who is not like me, but whom I know and greet in the grocery store, there are who-knows-how-many-more people not like me whom I will meet in a given day. Bridges and Getting Ahead have helped me see these differences not as divisions, but as bridge-building opportunities.
In these difficult times where so much brokenness is exposed, we need strategies and programs that focus on relationship-building. We are supposed to be better than this, and we can be better than this! Communities using Bridges principles build individual and community stability through relationships, week after week. In so doing, they mend the brokenness across the lines that divide them and find productive ways to have genuine discussions about the challenges they face.