Are We Really All That Different?

As part of my job I serve on a statewide board made up of program directors from all the counties in the state.  When we get together, as we did this week, I’m always struck by both the differences and the similarities between urban and rural areas in our state.

There’s been a lot of political discussion, particularly after the last election, about the “urban/rural divide”.  Those discussions always make it sound like the urban areas are at one end of the spectrum and the rural areas are on the other and there’s not a lot in common.  In reality, things are not that cut and dried. There are liberals living in the most conservative parts of our state, and conservatives in my uber-liberal city.  No one area is all one thing or another.

For example, our state has a huge homeless crisis. Before I started doing statewide work, if you told me a small county had 100 homeless households, I would have scoffed about how that seems so inconsequential when my own county has over 3,000 households.  But as I’ve gotten to know the people in these rural areas and the work they do, I’ve come to see that 100 households in a community with few services and no shelter is as overwhelming for them as the situation in mine.  We have much larger numbers of people but we’ve also got lots of services and shelters.  What’s the same in both areas is that there are more people needing help than we’ve got resources to provide them.  That’s our common ground: we all care about homelessness, we all want to help, but we all struggle because we can’t help everyone when faced with overwhelming need.

Things are of course very different between areas.  The smaller counties complain how it’s impossible to get qualified job applicants and how stressful it is to try to find people to hire.  I’ve got the opposite problem: we open up a job and get dozens, sometimes a hundred applicants or more.  The stress is different — they are overwhelmed trying to find a good employee because of the dearth of applications, I’m overwhelmed by the plethora of applications. The bottom line is, we still both struggle to hire, it just looks different.

Which brings me to the point of this post — there are similarities in our differences if we just look.  By looking for commonalities, we can better understand our differences.

For example, I am a person who is concerned about jobs, I believe that the entire society benefits when there is economic opportunity for everyone. I voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election because I believed she was the better candidate for, among other things, job creation.  However, I have a friend in the Midwest who voted for Trump.  That friend is also very concerned about jobs, and has seen his town plunge into depression after the main employer moved to Mexico and many of his friends lost their jobs.  My friend and I both have the same concern, but how we think it should be addressed and who has the better idea is vastly different.  When my friend stopped thinking of me as some liberal Portland socialist and I stopped thinking of him as some ill-informed fascist we could agree to disagree and have at least some respect for our rights to different opinions on an issue we both care about.

I don’t share this to start any political debate, but to illustrate how getting to the core of what we believe often helps us better understand each other.  What things do we share in common with “the other side”?  Where are our values or experiences similar, even if the execution of them is vastly different?

I was in a training once where my friend told a story about a low-income mom who came into the school and was yelling at the teacher about something that happened with her child.  The teacher saw the mom as hostile and scary and inappropriate.  My friend, who is a social worker, saw a mom who really cared about her kid, cared enough to confront the authority figure in charge of her kid’s education because she thought it was the best way to be heard.  The teacher and my friend could disagree on the mom’s methods, but when it came down to it, they had to agree that this was a mom who was strongly protective of her kid, a mom who showed up, a mom who cared.

What if we stopped looking at things as urban vs. rural, red state vs. blue state, opponent vs. proponent and instead saw things as nuanced and along a shared spectrum? What if we all spent just a little more time trying to understand where others are coming from?  In these days of extreme polarization,  what if we all try to meet in the middle?

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