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Depolarizing America: #ListenFirst and America Talks

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How can we push back against toxic polarization? Explore lessons learned by two brave leaders.

We examine two brave and successful attempts to get Americans of differing backgrounds and political convictions to engage in personal face-to-face conversations.

America Talks and the National Week of Conversation, both held in mid-June, were part of ongoing efforts to push back against deep divides and toxic polarization.

In this episode, we discuss lessons learned, insights gained, and the vital difference between talking and listening. Our guests are Kristin Hansen, Executive Director at Civic Health Project and Director at AllSides; and Mizell Stewart, Vice President, News Performance, Talent & Partnerships for Gannett and the USA Today Network. Both were involved in this new initiative.

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Ep. 33: Depolarizing America – #ListenFirst and America Talks

Kristin Hansen

Kristin Hansen is Executive Director at Civic Health Project, Director at the media technology company AllSides, and Lecturer in Management at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. She contributes her executive skills and experience to the movement across the United States to reduce polarization, improve civil discourse, and restore democracy. Kristin serves as an advisor for AllSides’ online civil discourse and dialogue initiatives including America Talks and AllSides Connect.

Mizell Stewart III

Mizell Stewart III is Vice President, News Performance, Talent & Partnerships for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network. He is the former Chief Content Officer of Journal Media Group and former VP/Content of the Newspaper Division of The E.W. Scripps Company. Earlier in his career, he led newsrooms in Akron, Ohio; Evansville, Indiana; and Tallahassee, Florida.

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Law and Reform

Guardrails of Democracy: Law and Reform

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America’s political system is being challenged. How can our democracy be strengthened?

American democracy is being challenged by hyper-polarization, widespread distrust of competing parties, and vocal extremists whose intrenched views further divide the nation. In a recent poll: Few in US say democracy is working very well, only one-in-six Americans said our democratic system is working very well, while nearly two-in-three voters told a Pew Research Center survey that major reforms are needed.

“I certainly feel we are more vulnerable than we have ever been in the modern era,” says our podcast guest, constitutional law scholar Rick Pildes, a professor at New York University’s School of Law and author of the book The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process.

In this episode, we discuss proposed changes aimed at strengthening democracy, particularly elections — from ranked choice voting and reform of political primaries, to limiting gerrymandering, and campaign finance reform.

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Ep. 32: Guardrails of Democracy – Law & Reform

Richard Pildes

Richard Pildes is one of the nation’s leading scholars of constitutional law and a specialist in legal issues concerning democracy. A former law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, he has been elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Law Institute, and has also received recognition as a Guggenheim Fellow and a Carnegie Scholar. In dozens of articles and his acclaimed casebook, The Law of Democracy, he has helped create an entirely new field of study in the law schools. His work in this field systematically explores legal and policy issues concerning the structure of democratic elections and institutions, such as the role of money in politics, the design of election districts, the regulation of political parties, the structure of voting systems, the representation of minority interests in democratic institutions, and similar issues.

He has written on the rise of political polarization in the United States, the transformation of the presidential nominations process, the Voting Rights Act (including editing a book titled The Future of the Voting Rights Act), the dysfunction of America’s political processes, the role of the Supreme Court in overseeing American democracy, and the powers of the American President and Congress. In addition to his scholarship in these areas, he has written on national-security law, the design of the regulatory state, and American constitutional history and theory. As a lawyer, Pildes has successfully argued voting-rights and election-law cases before the United States Supreme Court and the courts of appeals, and as a well-known public commentator, he writes frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and was part of the Emmy-nominated NBC breaking-news team for coverage of the 2000 Bush v. Gore contest.

new political party

Does America Need a Third Political Party?

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How can we fix our broken politics? Here’s why one former Congressman says it’s time to rethink the system.

Growing numbers of voters are fed up with politics as usual. In a recent survey, 62% of Americans say a third party is needed — up 5% from September of last year, and the highest it has ever been since Gallup polls first asked the question nearly twenty years ago.

Our podcast guest, former two-term Florida Congressman David Jolly, says it’s time to reconsider the system that reinforces the entrenched power of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Last year, Jolly was named Executive Chairman of the Serve America Movement (SAM), a growing organization that exists in some states as a third party, and in others as a non-partisan political reform group that backs office holders who work across party lines.

SAM calls itself a big tent political movement that brings people together who have different ideologies but shared political principles. In this episode, David Jolly makes the case for his movement’s ambitious goal: fixing our broken politics in America.

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Ep.29-Does America Need a Third Political Party?

David Jolly

David Jolly served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2014 – 2017.  A student of the institution, Jolly has held virtually every position in Congress, from intern to Member, and has worked outside the Congress as an attorney and political consultant, as well as in specialty finance. Today, Jolly serves as Executive Vice President of Shumaker Advisors Florida, and as a Political Analyst for the networks and media platforms of NBC Universal.

Known for his fierce independent streak and bipartisan approach, Jolly was first elected in a nationally watched special election in Florida, a Republican winning a Democratic-leaning district.  It was his first run for elective office and became one of the most expensive Congressional races in U.S. history at the time.  It made Jolly a fierce campaign finance reform advocate and his resulting legislative effort to prohibit Members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions was ultimately featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Jolly’s work has been published in Time, USA Today, Roll Call, the Washington Post, CNN.com, NBCNews.com, NewsMax, the Washington Times, and the Tampa Bay Times.

One Washington Post columnist penned, “Jolly speaks the truth.” The Tampa Bay Times, “It’s refreshing to hear someone take on the system.” And upon leaving Congress, one columnist wrote, “Farewell to the one Congressman willing to compromise.”

Jolly received his Bachelor of Arts from Emory University in 1994, and his Juris Doctor Cum Laude from George Mason University in 2001.

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Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide

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Can a former urban liberal learn how to appreciate the perspective of rural conservatives?

She lived in liberal Seattle and covered science, climate change, and the environment for NPR for more than a decade. Then in 2018, journalist Ashley Ahearn made a big jump, moving with her husband to one of the most conservative counties in rural Washington State.

In this episode of Let’s Find Common Ground, we hear about the profound rural-urban divide in America, and what Ashley discovered about her new neighbors and herself when she switched from the city to the country, now living on a 20-acre property with a horse and a pickup truck. We also discuss how politics and views of the land and climate differ greatly according to where people live.

Recently, Ashley Ahearn launched her 8-part podcast series, Grouse, which looks at life in rural America through the lens of the most controversial bird in the West — the greater sage-grouse. One of her great passions is storytelling, and helping scientists better communicate their research to the broader public.

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Ep. 28-Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide

Ashley Ahearn

Ashley Ahearn is an award-winning public media journalist who has covered science and the environment for NPR and member stations for more than a decade. She co-created, hosted, and produced the national climate change podcast, Terrestrial, in partnership with the NPR Story Lab and KUOW in Seattle. Ashley’s stories have appeared on Marketplace, All Things Considered, Here and Now, The World, and other NPR shows.

She has a master’s in science journalism from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California and has completed reporting fellowships at the Knight Center at MIT, the Vermont Law School, the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island, and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. A few years ago she moved to rural Washington State and started her own podcasting company, Ahearn Productions, which released an eight-part series about sage grouse in partnership with NPR member stations across the West. Grouse was listed as one of the top 20 podcasts of 2020 by the Atlantic Magazine. In her spare time, Ashley rides motorcycles and moves cows on horseback or plays in the sagebrush with her husband and dog.

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Depolarizing America: Ending Toxic Polarization

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Should we be aiming for unity and ending toxic polarization? A top expert on conflict resolution weighs in.

When Joe Biden became president he wanted to bring Americans together, to forge unity. But maybe unity isn’t what we should aim for. Our guest this week says instead of focusing on that elusive goal, Americans need to concentrate on what’s damaging all of us: toxic polarization.

In this episode we look at what toxic polarization is and how to end it, person by person.

Peter Coleman has advised the Biden administration on how to detoxify America. He is a mediator and psychologist who specializes in conflict resolution. A professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, he is the author of the forthcoming book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.

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Ep. 27-Depolarizing-America-Ending-Toxic-Polarization

Dr. Peter T. Coleman

Dr. Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies polarizing, intractable conflict and sustainable peace, and whose next book titled, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization will be released by Columbia University Press on June 1, 2021.

Dr. Coleman is a renowned expert on constructive conflict resolution and sustainable peace. His current research focuses on conflict intelligence and systemic wisdom as meta-competencies for navigating conflict constructively across all levels (from families to companies to communities to nations), and includes projects on adaptive negotiation and mediation dynamics, cross-cultural adaptivity, optimality dynamics in conflict, justice, and polarization, multicultural conflict, intractable conflict, and sustainable peace. Learn more.

 

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How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 3: Dialing Back Division

As Congress and the American people have grown more polarized, legislation has become increasingly gridlocked and political rhetoric more extreme. Can the country’s “exhausted majority” be mobilized to lead the country back to common ground?

In this final installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee talks with co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond about what it will take to dial back division and get Congress back to work for the people.


There’s a level of emotion, call it heat or call it hate, that comes into disagreements about almost any issue these days. How can we dial back from code red to code orange or yellow?

Erik Olsen: Well, what’s implicit in the question is, why is that the case? We’ve had differences of views in the past, but we haven’t had the degree of antipathy towards one another that we have today.

First of all, I would take the position that the way Washington conducts itself right now exacerbates that problem because it tries to say to the voting base, “We have to have our way on everything we want, or you’re not going to get anything you want.” So they have to have a majority in everything in order to get the agenda in office that they want to get accomplished.

That’s where I think looking to congressional representatives who come to the table with different perspectives makes a difference. One is a Republican. One’s a Democrat. And they say, “We come to the table with different perspectives. Let’s share those perspectives and see how we can craft legislation that finds at least a measure of agreement on each side.”

Also, there are issues that I think are presented in a polarizing manner that don’t need to be. Vote-by-mail is one of these. Vote-by-mail is intended to allow more people to vote. If one party has a problem with having more people vote, then the problem is not with the voting process. It’s with the message that they’re getting out to people. That’s what they need to focus on, not, “How do we get less people to vote?”

Bruce Bond: And there are a lot of voters who are supporting mechanisms that need to be addressed. We’ve got gerrymandering, that’s a problem, and you’ve got the money that goes to PACs, the propaganda out there that’s so negative toward opposing candidates, and that kind of thing.

So those are some things that need to be addressed. The executive order system just goes back and forth like a ping-pong, that the Republican executes some executive orders, and then the Democratic successor reverses them and vice-versa. And that just continues to cause anger, if you will, between the different parties. That is happening right now with the former and new administration.

So how do you convince an electorate that’s tired of all the anger to get up off the couch and care again, to vote?

Bond: Like I said, I think that shift from the silent majority to the exhausted majority is profound in that we now have an emotional element in the issue that we didn’t have before. The silent majority was sort of like, “Yeah. I don’t care,” if you will, they were apathetic. But when you have an exhausted majority, people are saying they’re fed up. They don’t want this anymore. They want change, and that’s the soil in which the good seed can grow.

Olsen: That’s the point, that changing voter behavior or influencing voter behavior is the most effective thing to do. The NRA’s influence, for example, is based on their effectiveness in reaching their members and saying, “Your right to own a gun is in jeopardy, and here’s what you need to do about it.” Experienced Congresspeople on our panels have stressed their educated view that this is the most effective thing that goes on in Washington – how you encourage people to vote the way you want them to, how you influence them to vote.

Bond: What you really need to do is get people out to vote for the candidates who are going to support those positions they have in their protests. So it’s all well and good to go out and protest and be with your friends and feel good about doing that. But it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you don’t get people to actually vote the way you want them to.

Olsen: Our view of the election results is that there was a huge turnout. It’s the largest voter turnout in 110 years or something like that, and it was a very close election. But what was significant is that Donald Trump lost, and yet Republicans generally, and Republican issues generally, won.

What that indicates to us is that, first of all, the country is pretty evenly divided in terms of their interests, and number two, that Republican voters, at least, were willing to split the ticket and support a polarizer–if I can use that term that way–like Donald Trump who’s just making the entire situation worse. He’s not interested in common ground. They were willing to vote him out of office, and also to reduce the Democratic majority in the House, because their interests of a right-of-center policy remain fairly strong.

It’s likely the Republicans might have kept the Senate had President Trump not pushed his view that the election was rigged and tried to intimidate state officials. So, unless you can sit down with people and say, “Let’s figure out how to work together to craft legislation,” you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re just going to continue to be in gridlock.

Bond: You can tweet Congress as much as you want, but you have to drive the cultural change, which is where we’re focused—we’re not focused on things like gerrymandering and all those other things. If you drive the cultural change where voters stand up and say, in so many words, “You know what? We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore,” then they’ll start supporting candidates that are common grounders.

There’s critical mass in this country where enough of the population says, “We’ve been doing this, and it’s wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this anymore.” And that becomes the culture of the nation. That number, research suggests, is 11 million people.

We have 330 million people in this country. So 11 million is not that large a number. It’s not inconsequential, it’s not just a drop in the bucket, but it is interesting how that’s a tipping point in cultural change. So, if we can help people get there—and our work suggests that we can, and we are doing that—we’re getting people to see that these things are possible, that they should expect other than what they’re getting from their leaders, now you’re on to something.

Don’t miss the earlier installments of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a look at the current political dynamic and strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.

magnifying glass with bias text wording

Is Common Ground Committee Biased?

Magnifying glass with bias text words

We need to talk with you about something important.

We at Common Ground Committee (CGC) have taken some heat from time to time about an issue that cuts close to home. We’re coming right out and addressing it head-on because it’s something we care deeply about and strive hard to get right.

It has been suggested that CGC appears biased toward a particular political ideology based on the type of content it presents. For an organization that is wholly dedicated to bridging the divide between left and right, committed to the importance of active listening and dealing with objective facts, it is crucial to us and to our mission that we not have a political agenda, nor that we be perceived as having one. We can say without reservation that as an organization we do not have a political agenda. We lean neither right nor left, having purposely built a board whose members span the political spectrum. But sometimes people of good faith and discerning minds perceive that we are biased in some way. We have been accused of having a conservative agenda and at other times a progressive one.

Working through Biases

Let’s consider for a minute what it means to be unbiased. As a concept, and as an organization, Common Ground Committee has no bias. It was formed expressly in the service of shared communication, in hopes that shedding light on the issues that divide us—turning it in the light like one would a gem to see from all sides—so that we can better understand one another. While there is no guarantee, understanding can lead to common ground or compromise, and finally to progress on the issue. Certainly, it can lead to increased civility.

Individuals, however, have bias. Everyone, no matter how hard they work to behave with impartiality, has a way they naturally lean, a set of beliefs that influences their perspective, the decisions they make, and the votes they cast. The most impartial of journalists have the moment where they step into the voting booth and pull the lever. But it’s how aware you are of your biases, and how you work to recognize and handle them, that makes you effective at objective discourse and achieving common ground.

Sometimes the biases slip out. In a recent podcast, former Senate Secretary Kelly Johnston, a Republican and founding board member of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, discussed a moment of his own “intemperance” – a message he regrets tweeting in 2018 that fanned the conspiracy flames about left-leaning financier George Soros helping immigrants bound for the U.S. border.

“I did campaign work, 35 campaigns in 25 states. That’s combat. So my instincts and my experience and my work was all about doing battle. Then, when I got into the private sector about two decades ago, Rob Fersh (a Democrat and Co-Founder of Convergence) actually inspired me to look at bridge-building as a much more productive activity. And I realized that I was part of the problem because I was busy tearing other people down and fighting on issues, and I was accomplishing really nothing to advance the ball,” he said. “And I realized, ‘You know what? I would like to really solve some of these problems.’ Do I fall off the wagon on occasion? Yes, guilty as charged. But I try to get back on, which is important.”

This sticks with us from that podcast, as it is a tremendously good point. We each have our biases and they can surface from time to time. We know we have differences because that’s why one person is a Democrat and another is a Republican.

Occasionally, we have found that something as simple as a slight difference in the choice of words — for example, the murder of George Floyd, rather than the death of George Floyd; or equality instead of equity — signals bias to readers of different parties. Such is not our intent, and we appreciate hearing your feedback on the nuances of language.

We also find that, every now and then, referencing buzzwords that are commonly used to frame issues to appeal to the values of a particular party — for example, voting access versus voting security, or immigration reform versus border security — can serve as a dog whistle in and of itself. But that shouldn’t make the topic itself taboo in our journey to reach common ground. It makes it all the more important.

Continuing to Find Common Ground

We hope we’ve shed enough light on this question of bias so that you’ll accept that we do strive very hard to keep Common Ground Committee on a track that leans neither right nor left. We know words matter. You might read a “trigger” word or phrase in our content, but we hope you’ll recognize that we use it in our effort to build the understanding that can bridge the particular divide we are discussing, not to take a position. And should that happen, we invite you to partner with us in this process of discussion and transparency, by giving us feedback so that we can continue to build Common Ground Committee’s brand as an unbiased, nonpartisan organization. Our emails are bruce.bond@commongroundcommittee.org and erik.olsen@commongroundcommittee.org.

Thank you for listening to us on this question that is so crucial to our work!

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 2: Implementing Strategy

Despite President Biden’s vow to unify America, legislation in the new Congress appears poised to continue along strictly partisan lines. Is common ground really possible – and what will it take to get there?

In this second installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, Common Ground Committee sat down with its co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about strategies that can lead to more progress and less division.


Your work focuses on inspiring the exhausted majority to seek common ground. Once you’ve gotten their attention, what do you do from there?

Bruce Bond: There are lots of different things. There are a lot of groups out there, including us, that have put out positions on, “Here’s how you have good, productive conversations with people that you disagree with.” We can really look into moving the ball forward when it comes to finding a solution or, at the very least, engaging with people to understand what’s really involved in solving a problem.

You have these conversations with people you disagree with to understand what their position is and why they have them. And when you do that, you learn a lot, you have a certain empathy for the people that you’re speaking with, and it just puts you in a completely different position to have a conversation.

We explored this dynamic in a recent podcast episode with two young men from different sides of the aisle who took a cross-country roadtrip together. Ultimately, their commitment to connecting at a human level transcended their differences.

So knowing how to have the conversation is a key element in solving the polarization problem. It’s been said “It’s hard to hate up close.”

Does this apply to the general population, or the leadership?

Erik Olsen: Both. That is the next thing: what we can do from a leadership level? How can we convince our leaders at the top, particularly at the federal level, who really set the tone for this? If you can solve the problem of Congress in particular being so divided, then you would see a much different view by the public about the value of Congress, and the value of engaging in productive debate — as opposed to debate to win the argument.

So, you’re talking about getting folks to value productive debate instead of the art of winning, or the art of the food fight. Does that also mean electing people who have that mindset already?

Bond: Yes. Along these lines, we developed the Common Ground Scorecard, which is a tool that helps voters identify the person running for office that are most likely to reach across the aisle and find common ground with those that are the other side of the aisle, so to speak.

On paper, these are little things, but they are significant. If you can learn to have a conversation, and you can keep an eye out for people in or seeking office that are likely to work to find a solution rather than win an ideological argument or not engage in the debate for fear of being primaried, for example, which is a problem that we have now.

If you can get those leaders to say, Finding common ground is a better way, now you’re on to something. Leaders tend to fear the voters more than anything else. If the voters start voting with favoritism toward those who are common grounders, as we like to call them, you start to see some change.

Olsen: We’ve been offering new members of Congress the opportunity to take a pledge we call the Common Ground Commitments. And they’re saying, “Yeah, we do want to make these commitments,” because they’re now interested in trying to make Congress more common-ground-oriented.

They need to somehow deal with the leadership on this, and I don’t know exactly how that will happen. But one way that it will happen is if people, representatives, and legislators who are in power have more interest in returning Congress to a more balanced body. They see that polarization as not acting in their best interest.

Congress needs to be returned to a governing body that recognizes that the best interests of the country lie in finding legislators who are willing to work together to try to find common ground. And they’re more likely to stay in office because they’ve worked to solve the problem instead of just creating more problems.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of what it will take to dial back America’s political division. Coming soon!

American Flag Divided

How Can We Fix Polarization? Part 1: Taking Stock

Inauguration day has come and gone, and we’ve had a more peaceful transition of power than many thought possible. There was no violence; the ceremony was beautiful, reverent, and calm; and the mittened Bernie memes might be the most bipartisan political laugh we’ve seen in years.

But that doesn’t mean “problem solved”; far from it. We have a tremendous job ahead of us—as a nation, a President, a Congress, and an electorate—to find a way across the aisle that’s become an abyss, and have productive legislative conversations. There isn’t a mandate of a clear majority in favor of Biden’s goals, policies, and views, and there’s even significant division within each party when it comes to how to move forward.

Common Ground Committee turned the microphone on its own co-founders Erik Olsen and Bruce Bond to talk about what it’s going to take to fix our polarization problem.


So here we are post-inauguration, a place that glowed on the calendar with the expectation of progress toward unity. But so much has happened in January alone. Are we in a different place than we were in 2020?

Erik Olsen: Yes. Some Democrats are reaching out to engage with their Republican colleagues to find common ground despite the violence on January 6th. However, the two parties are currently fractured, with three quarters of lawmakers still in the middle.

The country is tired and looking for a way forward. As we move past the inauguration and the news cycle moves forward, the President has expressed a desire for more unity. Now Congressional leadership has an opportunity to emphasize such unity. However, they need to strike the right tone. We are concerned that with the significant use of executive orders and the impeachment trial, we aren’t getting off to a great start.

How do we begin to approach fixing the polarized situation we’ve been steeped in for years?

Bruce Bond: It starts with people thinking, first, that we need to have a change, that polarization needs to be fixed. While there’s been a general view that polarization is a bad thing, until Jan 6 there was no sense of urgency. What we’re seeing since the occupation of the Capitol is that it’s becoming more important — that people are becoming more and more concerned about it.

There is a study done by More in Common in 2018, which essentially described 77 percent of the electorate as what they called the “exhausted majority.” And that’s significant, because that group wants change, wants leaders to work together, unlike the 23%, some from the left and some from the right, who are entrenched in their positions.

But with a closely divided Senate and House, the common grounders have an opportunity because they will be courted by both sides. That gives us hope for finding common ground and thereby making real progress.

What effect does an exhausted majority have on polarization?

Bond: That group used to be called the silent majority, and now it’s called the exhausted majority. That’s profound because what it says is that there’s now an emotional element attached to this not being on the extremes. The extremes are becoming irritating to people, and also, some are seeing that they’re not helpful but destructive. So that’s a start, and we see that as one of the first steps.

The next problem is that you have people in the exhausted majority, who may have hope that things can change, but they don’t know how it will happen or what they can do about it. One of the things that we’ve been working on here with our events, and our podcasts, and much of our programming has been demonstrating what good looks like – demonstrating people of note engaging in passionate but constructive conversation that exposes common ground.

And if you can do that, if you can show people how common ground is found, we validate their hope, confirm there is reason to believe that we can change this, and inspire them to make the effort to find common ground in their own experiences with family, friends and colleagues. And, to begin to expect their leaders to do the same.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our three-part blog series on how to fix polarization, with a discussion of strategies that can lead to more progress and less division. Coming soon!