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How Does Humanity Unite?

This post first appeared on Humanity United’s blog on July 18, 2016 as part of a blog series from Dr. John Paul Lederach, Humanity United Senior Fellow, exploring the challenges of social fragmentation and conflict with a focus on reconciliation, social healing, and human flourishing.


How does humanity unite? I asked this fundamental question the first time I met with the Humanity United Board of Trustees. It was not the first time I sought to understand how the extraordinary gift of boundless diverse human threads weave or fray the tapestry that is and will remain our global family. My vocational impulse pursues understanding and contribution to how we hold our differences, divisions, and conflicts in ways that respect dignity and increase flourishing over harm and animosity. Given the events of the past weeks, with the deep divisions ever more present within our communities in the United States, I want to open this blog series with some thoughts about the challenge of to all of us as leaders when we live in settings of social fragmentation and at the same time are committed to pursue justice and healing in our relationships.

Imagining leadership in an age of fragmentation

Over the past year I have noticed that we symbolize our social memory by cities where our global humanity has locally suffered. Paris. Aleppo. Brussels. Orlando. Istanbul. Juba. Dallas. Nice.

Sometimes we err in complex explanation what can be found in a few words.

We live in an age of fragmentation. And far too quickly our fragmentation breeds dehumanization.

How we will choose to lead into re-humanization while living in the cauldron of fragmentation presents the core challenge of our times. The powerful dynamics of social fragmentation suggest we have not adequately engaged the qualities we must nurture to catalyze leadership for re-humanization.

Over a decade ago in the book The Moral Imagination* I explored the question of how local communities in war zones found ways to break cycles of violence while still living in the core conditions that created them. I suggested four qualities of imagination that have direct correlation to the challenge of leadership caught in systemic reactivity of highly polarized settings and open war zones. These extraordinary people and communities, from the Somali-Kenyan border to campesinos overrun by armed groups in Colombia, offer wisdom rising from hard won experience that speaks to all of us seeking to live and lead into re-humanization. What were the core qualities leaders in these communities mobilized?

First, they organized around the capacity to imagine themselves embedded within a web of relationships that included their enemies. I sometimes refer to this as the ‘grandchild’ imagination: The simple recognition that the well-being of my grandchildren intimately ties into the well-being of my enemy’s grandchildren. In reference to contexts where social polarization explodes this requires us to both understand and think beyond the dynamics that drive conflicted human communities toward ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. These are powerful social forces that invade the very ways our language and our responses falls into the false binary of ‘us’ against ‘them’. As polarization escalates we can find ourselves retrenching to the safety of conversations only with those who agree with us, and too easily falling prey to the patterns of blame, defensiveness, and reactivity. To take one step back and imagine our common web of relationships sparks and mobilizes the concern for the wider common good, and stands for and with our shared humanity beyond the borders and boundaries of whatever our divided identities.


Re-humanization requires that we nurture compassion, the quality of character to notice, acknowledge, and reach out toward the wider suffering of others and serves as the seedbed where the innate power of seeing each other as people first can flourish.


Second, these communities imagined themselves actively engaged with the unknown and the not-so-well understood, even when it required moving toward and being in conversation with people and ideas they found threatening. In a word, they cultivated a deep and insatiable curiosity. In the heart of violence in Colombia, the movement of campesinos in Medio Magdalena agreed to a singular principle in the pursuit of dialogue with all of the armed actors that affected their lives. In their words: We have no enemies. We commit to understand those who do not understand us. All of us as leaders need to stay connected and awake to the limits of our understanding, particularly as we navigate the extraordinary diversity and complexity into which we have been born and live. The most direct ways to cultivate this imagination: Stay in sustained, honest, and open conversation with friend and foe. Push to expand our tolerance for ambiguity precisely because choosing to stay open to new and deeper understanding permits us to learn about others, about ourselves, and about the extraordinary gift of our complex human ecology.


Re-humanization must cultivate humility, the quality of character that places us alongside rather than over others, as the seedbed that nurtures curiosity where life-long learning into deep complexity can grow.


Third, given the system dynamics of social fragmentation and violence these communities faced on a daily basis they had to continuously adapt and innovate creative responses to old patterns showing up in new ways. This quality comes within the very notion of imagination – the fundamental belief in the human capacity for the creative act. Across our fragmentation we share this human trait: We are creative beings capable of giving birth to those things that do not yet exist. Transformative leaders engage in a shared and committed search to innovate constructive change in the midst of what can appear to be impossible dead-end cycles of destructive behavior. In my work in protracted conflict this constitutes the essence of peacebuilding: We must together find new ways to transcend the dynamics that create repeated dehumanization.


Re-humanization requires us to recall and unleash our resilient purpose, – this quality to bounce back and create agency that senses the bigger picture and contributes toward our ultimate desire for flourishing relationships and human dignity, that provides the North Star inspiring us as leader-artists to continuously innovate around the around the challenges of social fragmentation.


Finally, all of the community leaders responding to polarization and violence inevitably faced and mobilized their imagination of risk. Risk required them to take a step into the unknown without controlling the outcome. In most of their cases this was a question of life and death. Today, in far too many places from local to national levels, leaders have become risk averse. If we take our cue from local community leaders who shifted the patterns of violence, risk responds to two connected but very different relational challenges. First, we will need the imagination of risk to reach out to adversaries as fellow human beings, even toward we those we fear and find threatening. Second, we will need the imagination of risk to stand with integrity and challenge our own community, our friends and allies, when dehumanizing impulses rear their heads within our ranks.


Re-humanization requires and must cultivate courage, the quality of character that stays in touch with and reaches out from the heart, that serves as the seedbed from which imagination of risk is possible.


I conclude with this reflection as a practitioner and educator in peacebuilding. In the mainstream, we have rarely brought compassion, curiosity, humility, resilience, and courage to sit at the center of our professional leadership development. Perhaps it is because these qualities are rooted within the core of our inner character and require us to take up the journey between our inner and outer worlds as leaders. Our education and training initiatives find it easier to focus on the technical skills, analytical capacities, tools, and templates – the outer vessel of our response. Addressing the deep patterns of dehumanization requires the bold embrace of the less visible inner world of leaders where the wells of these qualities of imagination reside. To lead into re-humanization while living in the midst of fragmentation we must envision the life school of wholeness that permits us to be fully human with each other, even with those we fear, while we seek the creative strategies that transcend division and violence found in our shared journey and future.

Photo credit: Humanity United

*The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press, 1995.

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