Last week, a small group gathered together virtually, as we have every week since March 2020. There is no membership — just a nonprofit, the library and a group of people who want to talk about the big issues we face today.
The topic of the day was mask mandates. But before we got started, one young man admitted he hasn’t been vaccinated, and doesn’t plan to be. “I wear my mask,” he said, almost defensively. He shared the passive aggressiveness he experiences at work, the frustration he feels when he is told getting the vaccine is the only acceptable moral answer. “I wear my mask, I wash my hands, I socially distance. I’m protecting my mom,” he said. But when she gets vaccinated, he’s not sure if he’ll continue to be so careful. “I’ve already had (COVID-19). The risk for me is low.”
Another young woman spoke up. “I’m glad you shared,” she says. “I also haven’t been vaccinated. My husband, parents, neighbors, friends — all of them have been. I don’t tell the others at work because I’m afraid of judgment.” She keeps a table by the front door of her house with masks and hand sanitizer, wears a mask at work and maintains distance, especially from people she knows are vulnerable.
The rest of the group, all vaccinated, listened. Without casual interactions, our lives have become strictly business, and our perceptions of the “other” are primarily created by what’s reported in the media.
“I have to check my mask rage. If my toddler can wear one, why can’t adults?” a mom inquired.
“This all goes back to Donald Trump,” one person declared.
“If we can’t trust what the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says, who can we trust?” asked another.
Trust. That’s the issue, we decide. How can we learn to trust one another again?
We all assume a lot by the way people wear a mask (or don’t). Under the nose? Only wearing it because they have to? That person probably leans conservative, we think to ourselves. Well-fitting and custom made? Definitely a liberal. Unmasked this early? Probably not vaccinated.
In reality, the truth isn’t straightforward. “I’m fully vaccinated, and I quit wearing a mask when the CDC said it was OK,” another person in our group shared. “I thought I was brightening the baristas’ day by smiling at them. Now I’m wondering whether I made a mistake.”
The past 15 months have been hard. COVID-19 was a big reason for that, obviously, but also economic insecurity, a nationwide racial reckoning, political unrest, contentious elections, virtual school, vaccination debates. We are so quick to judge one another from behind our screens and masks.
Now we must work to rebuild our trust — not only in our institutions, but in each other. But how?
There’s a surprisingly simple way to start: by listening. As a nation, we’ve stopped listening to one another. We begin every interaction with assumptions. We want so badly to tell others what we believe that we’ve forgotten that maybe, just maybe, we don’t hold all the answers.
Listening to understand is not new, but it is transformative. It breaks down stereotypes — and it’s hard to demonize someone face to face.
Our country has so many divides and so much pain. The way forward is clear: We must find a way to find common ground, listen to understand and break down our divisions. One opportunity to do so is to participate in America Talks on June 12 and 13. This innovative event matches people across the nation with their political other, and provides them with the tools and space needed to begin rebuilding our national trust. It’s a beginning we desperately need.
Heidi Holliday is the executive director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Consensus KC, which is dedicated to engaging the public for the public good. To sign up for the weekly Weaving Community chats or other upcoming events, visit consensuskc.org. Find out more about the America Talks virtual event at americatalks.us.