Tending and Befriending: Reflections on the Depolarization Summit
I was listening to a podcast recently, and a guest on the show spoke about the theory of “tending and befriending.”During the stress response, our bodies engage in fight or flight. This ancient tactic for survival allowed us to hide in places from predators and stand up to them when our safety was at risk. But more recent research has pointed to the possibility that the response is more complex. Our bodies do respond in fight or flight, but in some scenarios, they respond by tending and befriending. Our instinct to tend is our desire to dig deep and care for self and others when it gets tough. And our instinct to befriend is our ability to make social networks in our most stressful moments. At the core of this response, I see the human tendency to help, care, and heal. In this moment, when divisions seem insurmountable, we need to realize the more complex and nuanced options we have in this paradigm and begin tending and befriending.
At Fetzer, we—along with many others—are tending a vision of democracy that honors the sacred dignity of each person. We see those who build bridges across difference realizing this vision, and our friends within faith and spiritual traditions help us integrate our sacred truths into our public lives.
As a part of the After Charlottesville project, the Fetzer Institute in collaboration with former Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, the Anti-Defamation League, Stand Together, and many others embodied the posture of tending and befriending. They asked, “how do we help heal a city in great pain?” and, “how do we create strong social networks among many to prevent violence in the future?” In the wake of the devastation in Charlottesville, this group gathered different stakeholders to share the lessons learned nationally. To continue and expand the conversation, the Fetzer Institute, Millions of Conversations, and Mike Signer hosted a Depolarization Summit on November 19. Nearly 300 participants gathered to hear the perspectives and best practices from many different sectors and learned how to build resilient and proactive networks within their own communities to address polarization.
The work of tending community is not simple, it includes healing and building. It involves efforts in our most local contexts and considering how they interact with our national conversation. It requires us to hold the tension between what is needed in the short-term versus the long-term. And, it calls each of us to simultaneously seek justice and peace. As Rachel Brown of Over Zero, one of the panelists of the Depolarization Summit asked, “What does it look like to address polarization and bring people together while also addressing long-term injustices and their current manifestations and legacies?” Nealin Parker of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative later responded, “Peace is meant to be in service of justice, and justice makes sustained peace possible.”
As I reflect on the Depolarization Summit, I am aware that it is my own responsibility to carry these tensions. Within each panel, I heard that building bridges locally, from neighbor to neighbor, is more effective and necessary than our attempts to depolarize national conversations. It is by building relationships over time, across differences, and extending our circle to include all within our ecosystems that we build these communities of resilience. The sacredness of relationships is at the center of the work of tending and befriending.
The Depolarization Summit affirmed the need for a national network of support for practitioners working in the depolarization space. As a result, the organizers of the Summit are creating a living document of shared resources from participating organizations. This document will combine research presented, toolkits, many of the best practices shared at the Summit, and ways to get in contact with experts. We look forward to sharing this resource and continuing to learn from the many working in this space. The complex task of healing and building, seeking justice and building peace, requires the voices of many to help realize a future that does not yet exist. As we create this future together, may we extend our arms wider to include more people, and dig deeper to bring forth what we hold most sacred.
Meghan Campbell is a program associate at the Fetzer Institute.