As we reflect on the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. national mood feels unquestionably different today than twenty years ago. Then, we felt a collective sense of deep grief and unity. Today, we live in a toxically polarized environment which we all helped to create.
This can only happen if we, as collective stewards of our democracy, can dig deep, push past our fear of one another, and love past the negatives that are holding our country back.
For example, when I was in elementary school, my parents occasionally left me home alone on bowling night. Mostly, I’d watch TV. When I needed to leave the safety of the living room, I leapt off the couch, ran down the hall, switched on every light as I ran past the ‘gleaming eyes.’ The gleaming eyes were just the reflection of the base of the kitchen chairs, but they were scary! I hopped back onto the couch until Momma and Daddy arrived. They’d ask, “Were you scared?” (Of course I was scared). But I always answered, “No, I wasn’t scared.” Eventually, it became so.
This year, I was invited to act on this belief by joining a national community of leaders called the New Pluralists. It consists of thought leaders, activists, religious leaders and practitioners from a range of ideologies. We are asking ourselves how the U.S. has gotten so polarized that we question the very humanity of people with whom we disagree. Our hope is to create space for something new to emerge.
As I considered the invitation to participate, I faced a number of challenging decisions. Was I open to the experiment? Is healing possible? Are the conveners’ motives pure?
On the day of the first gathering of the New Pluralists, I felt like the new kid in school. I cupped my hands around the coffee mug and tea that had been mailed to me in a pre-event package of materials. I reanimated dress clothes that had lay dormant for most of the pandemic.
High heels? Of course.
They are all part of my suit of armor. I had to move past the skepticism peering around the corners of my mind.
Ultimately, choosing to dive into community with people very different than me has caused me to consider the intersection between fear, love, and courage. In one of the most poignant scenes in the Netflix series Casa de Papel, Nairobi declares to her opponent, “You’re too cowardly to admit the truth. To love you need courage. Look, I have courage.” She then turns to her best friend and declares her love for him, saying, “Helsi, I love you. I love you so much I would have a family with you!” Then she turns back to her opponent and says, “See? This is bravery. I feel it and I say it. And that you don’t know how to do.” As I prepared for the New Pluralists event, I channeled Nairobi and got up the courage to love people who may not love me back.
Despite my doubts, I accept the invitation to walk into a new space with an open heart, even if it breaks my heart. On second thought, perhaps it will open in ways that lead to lasting change. As a leader in the U.S. movement for social change, I’ve journeyed alongside leaders whose ideologies traverse the spectrum. I’ve helped shape the trajectory for my national organization Faith in Action for most of my adult life.
A prerequisite for being a change agent is believing in the impossible.
To be a faith leader, I must love my neighbor.
Imagine what will happen when we choose to run past our fears. Just like that little girl so many years ago, we will stare down the ‘gleaming eyes’ and come out with more courage. May we as a nation choose the hardest path, and accept the challenge to love past the negatives that are holding us back.
Denise Padín Collazo is a social justice leader, mentor to fellow women of color, and family-work integrator. She is the author of “Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change.” She serves as Senior Advisor for External Affairs at Faith in Action National Network. Her work has been featured in Forbes.com, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Miami Herald, Hip Latina, and the Nonprofit Quarterly. Please feel free to reach out to her at DeniseCollazo.com