United Vision Project is Building Bridges to Defuse Extremism in Rural America

On May 12th, the Rx Foundation hosted its first session in a virtual series on Power as a Social Determinant of Health. Attendees heard from Adrienne Evans and Bri Xandrick of United Vision for Idaho. A progressive multi-issue organization, United Vision for Idaho aims to unite Idahoans across the state and place Idaho at the center of a national movement for systemic change that makes social, economic and environmental justice a reality for everyone.

Over the past several years, with partners like People’s Action Institute, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard, United Vision for Idaho has created the United Vision Project (UVP) to contact hundreds of thousands of Americans to have authentic conversations. They hope to dig into people’s beliefs, both divergent and shared, as a critical component of building a truly people powered movement that can fulfill the promise of an American democracy that works for all people without exclusion.

Since its inception, the United Vision Project’s army of trained volunteers across multiple states has engaged in digital deep listening, using texting technology, empathy, and curiosity to draw out over a half a million people’s views on issues ranging from health, mental health, and reproductive care to voting rights and policing, and to have conversations to better understand what is causing such deep divisions across the country. Through texts, UVP has created a rich dataset of over 94,000 individual conversations across five states, gaining insights into the views of rural, White, conservative voters. In the process, UVP has also collected the largest ever database of information about US residents who are sympathetic to extreme nationalist movements and ideas.

United Vision Project has created a powerful set of tools and information demonstrating that it’s possible to build bridges, even in a context of highly polarized views and beliefs. The results of this effort will be to understand how white America views polarization; and how to address the growing threat of White nationalist, extremist, and anti-democracy movements.

Below are a few after-thoughts from Adrienne and Bri, exchanged via email after their presentation.

Megan, Rx: How do you think we can begin to displace fear as a driver of radicalization and isolation? How do we begin addressing the divide, logistically speaking – what does that look like?

Adrienne, UVI: I guess I would say that the realities that people face are attributed to external forces that direct blame towards something outside of their own control. Fear is used to stoke the idea that something more will be taken from one and their conditions will worsen. Often the fear takes on an irrational nature and when asked to describe that fear, it is common that individuals struggle to anchor that fear to the material conditions and realities of their own experience. Though fear is a powerful tool that is used by extremists, most people don’t want to live in that state. By approaching people with oppositional views and biases with openness, curiosity, and empathy we interrupt the binary of good vs evil and begin to reshape our perceptions of one another. Through these conversations there is typically an element of surprise that “we” would want to hear what “they” think and feel without argument. As conversations evolve and we explore the fundamental tenets of what loss looks like, it provides an opportunity to unpack and explore how we might both believe in, say, freedom. The value associated with freedom is similar, but our ideas about what freedom means reveal many of the hypocrisies. For example, freedom for someone we text might mean that they don’t want their voices silenced, whereas freedom from another perspective might mean the freedom to attain education that reflects an accurate and whole telling of history so that every individual has the agency to determine what they believe. By identifying these issues and values and presenting different perspectives we can begin loosening the threads of division. By modeling respect and care for one another and our shared experience we are able to break down the notions that we are against one another, and perhaps we could work together to find ways to enhance our collective wellbeing.

Bri, UVI: We are conditioned to want our circumstances to have a reason, to make sense in our heads and to clear the idea of the unknown. In that, it becomes simpler for us to create a villain, to give ourselves as humans an external source of our pain. Right now, our country feels the divide more than ever because we are allowing those villains to reside in the “others,” the unknowns outside of our own experience. The first step to defeating this othering is to remove the unknown, but asking and listening. When we open ourselves up to understand those opposed to us, we remove that fear and give it a face. They are no longer the shadowed figure pulling the strings to all of our problems. They are humans, just like us, struggling like us, feeling like us, and caring like us; and slowly, we start seeing them as people, not villains. Once we are able to see the humanity in all of us, we can understand that we aren’t heroes and villains, we are all just people struggling with the challenges of life.

Stay Connected With the Rx Foundation

Sign-up to receive the monthly Rx Foundation newsletter with news, interviews, events and job postings from the Rx Foundation network.

Megan, Rx: What are you hearing from folks in your project directly – what do they think is contributing to the growing divide in the United States? How do they conceptualize or make sense of it? What have you learned from your conversations about where we are collectively?

Bri, UVI: It has been shocking how many times I find myself agreeing with the emotions and fear behind what we hear in these conversations. Feeling helpless or powerless in your own life, feeling like you can’t trust news sources around you, and seeking a sense of community are thoughts we hear from all sides. Right now, it feels like the only way you gain a sense of community is by committing to a group or ideology that hates the opposition. The stronger the hate, the closer the community. The irony behind that is that the motivation behind this hate is actually a search for belonging and love.

We also see a lot of pain being redirected at different groups of people and creating a causal link where one shouldn’t exist. For example, I have had conversations where people blame low wages or difficult cost of living not with the institution they work for but on things like immigration or the immigrants themselves. And we know as humans, that once we create a link in our mind, we begin to build up “proof” to reinforce these ideas, and the more we feel this pain, the more we push hatred toward that group. These unsubstantiated links are part of what we are finding in these conversations that add to the blame and othering causing this divide.

Adrienne, UVI: Overwhelmingly we hear an anti-frame, meaning most respondents don’t talk about what they are for or who is for them. The villain across all our engagement in five states is seen as liberalism, progressivism, the Democratic party, government corruption and democracy itself. While it may be tempting to view this as coming entirely from the far-right extremist elements, framing one’s position as under threat from the “other side” is widespread. Again, rather than framing what we are for and who we are for, arguments often are anchored in feelings of scarcity rather than abundance. For many their alienation from the government is an attempt to avoid the never-ending conflict. Whatever one’s political leanings, we are hard pressed to find anyone who believes the government, or its institutions are working very well. What is alarming is the lack of faith that the folks we are talking with have that anything can be done about it. We are keenly aware that the threat to our democracy is grave, which is reinforced in the exchanges of dialog that reveal that a growing number of people already believe that democracy has failed. The utter lack of trust in government extends to every level and politician, the solution they feel is to circumvent if not eliminate the system in favor of someone who will usher in radical change that will improve their lives. These conversations reveal the degree to which people have come to feel helpless, hopeless and have stopped dreaming about what is possible.

Megan, Rx: How do folks understand or articulate their personal journey towards taking an “anti-“ stance or position on democracy and/or the government? What led them there, as they see it? What was the driver – a moment, a person, a thing?

Adrienne, UVI: The notion of white replacement is on prominent display, and it is reinforced through conservative media and channels of mis and disinformation. When asked to elaborate on when and how they formed their ideas about their expressed racial bias, rationale often starts with rants about “woke culture” and the efforts of racial justice movements. When asked again about their personal experience there are a range of responses from “I’m not racist, I have a friend of color, I’m being blamed for being white,” and the like. Probing further about how they formed their ideas, most are hard pressed to offer any real experience. In this program, we remind volunteers that it’s not about what we say, it’s about what they say. This is an opportunity for the respondent to question their own ideas and beliefs and the contradictions they reveal.

That people are engaging in these conversations over days and often weeks illustrate depths of isolation and how people are craving connection and longing to be heard. This outreach couples people from extremely polarized positions who engage in meaningful exchanges with deep listening. We avoid using words that are loaded and evoke emotions that are anchored to entrenched bias. Instead, we talk about what a healthy system could look like. It is here that we are gaining invaluable insight about how to shift our cultural understanding toward a people driven, people powered system that works for all of us and away from authoritarian ideologies. And we are learning what language and approach works and which don’t or perhaps even deepen division.

Bri, UVI: Unfortunately, a lot of the time when we probe as deep as we can, there isn’t a specific reason. We find that these things are conditioned, taught, and reinforced. In a world that pushes the binary of right and wrong, we all want to be right. Once we have an idea that our pain might lie in another person or group, we subconsciously seek information that validates this. We ignore items of opposition and collect reinforcement, digging us deeper into a trench of our own beliefs. When people tell us why they feel this way, they tend to list these reinforcing ideas, not what caused them to feel that way initially. We don’t often like to admit that our beliefs did not originate with us, so instead we convince ourselves that they were created and not taught.

Megan, Rx: Finally, in All About Love, bell hooks writes: “When I travel around the nation giving lectures about ending racism and sexism, audiences, especially young listeners, become agitated when I speak about the place of love in any movement for social justice. Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. Yet young listeners remain reluctant to embrace the idea of love as a transformative force”. What role do you think an ethos of love plays in the work to address an anti-democracy stance, if any?

Bri, UVI: In today’s society, love is harder than hate. You are judged less when you hate something than when you openly love something. We view love as weak and hate as strong. Our political and social systems have been ruled by hate because it is the low hanging fruit, it is both easier and perceived as stronger. It is easier to unite based on a common hatred than it is to unite based on a common love. From a neurological standpoint, we are more likely to remember negative events than positive ones. This is because evolutionarily, in order to survive, we have to learn from danger, whereas, our positive experiences are not necessary for our survival. Being primed to accept hatred so readily, we forget the humanity in others. We forget to care about our neighbors or fellow citizens, because in hating them, we can shut out that need to care for them. We have to fight this idea, because with a democracy, we can all succeed together, and we can care for one another, and that will be where the power is found.

Adrienne, UVI: We must understand that we are being out organized by factions that offer connection and community to people who have largely been abandoned by progressive organizations and felt the effects of decades of policies that have not centered their realities or struggle. Any social justice organizer knows that too often the policies that have the best chance of winning are themselves compromised solutions. For people who have felt compromised, these often feel like another nail in the coffin despite whatever benefits they may actually produce. They simply don’t trust the decision makers or the mechanisms of a democratic system. The antidote, if there is one, has to begin by rebuilding the trust in each other. We then have to offer something different. That difference that most of us seek is a system that lives up to its promise for all of us. A litany of policies espoused by political parties falls flat. Instead, we need to offer a real vision of what democracy in the hands of people could be, rather than what political parties produce. We have to paint a picture of what we could build together. When we ask and think about what inspires, for most of us that is rooted in love; who we love, what we love and how we love. Finding those areas of commonality is the only path that will defuse hate.

Green Arrows

Connect With Us on Social Media

Follow-us on social media for the most up-to-date news, resources, and events from the Rx Foundation and its partners.