The year 2020 was an extraordinary one. COVID-19 and the political and social landscape have exposed the best and worst in what humans are capable of. We simultaneously feel torn further apart and drawn closer together. We rely on virtual interpersonal connectivity in ways we might not have considered possible a year ago.

Unhealthy media diet of sameness

News and social media feeds are constant, global, and algorithmically-designed to deliver content that confirms what we believe – not challenge it. This “confirmation bias” in our news diets narrows our perspectives, heightens our tribal instincts, and polarizes us.

When we engage in confirmation bias, we accept as true those ideas and facts that reflect our beliefs and disregard those that don’t. The result: we are channeled toward those who think as we do and run the risk of dehumanizing those who believe differently. Yet despite this, we crave a connection to something larger than ourselves, seeking meaning and purpose in our lives.

Creating safe spaces

Scoville Memorial Library director Claudia Cayne believes that the library can play a role in bringing people together to begin rebuilding our civic and social lives. Over the years, the Library has built a respected reputation for balanced, innovative, creative, and thought-provoking programming.

In 2020, Scoville was able to pivot its programming to adapt to COVID-19 realities. It hosted over 400 programs both in-person and virtually, which were attended by over 8,000 people. Throughout that time, Cayne observed that community members are growing weary of polarization, “I’ve noticed that people are interested in ending divisions and finding common footing with each other.”

With its robust public programming and role in the Salisbury Forum speakers program (Cayne was a founding member), Scoville Memorial Library is a vibrant gathering place and a respected community leader. These factors make Scoville well-suited to bring together diverse voices and identify topics and issues that people want to understand more deeply and talk about in a meaningful way. “People in this area have a hunger for big-picture ideas,” explains Cayne.

Local synergy

Recently, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) announced a special grant initiative funded by Berkshire Bank. Bridging Divides, Healing Communities supports community efforts to build connections and foster positive local change.

Cayne seized the opportunity and applied for a grant, which she received on behalf of the Library, to host a series of four conversations called Common Ground. She issues an open invitation to discuss rebuilding our civic lives and opening our minds and hearts to others. “For us to come together, we need a variety of people who think differently from each other. We want to hear from anyone willing to give their time and share their voice and perspectives and listen to fellow participants,” offers Cayne.

To help plan and facilitate the sessions, Cayne approached Dr. Mary B. O’Neill (author of this article). For eight years, O’Neill was an award-winning philosophy and ethics lecturer at Western Connecticut State University and now develops and delivers interactive and inclusive workshops on a variety of topics including confidentiality, effective communications, finding purpose, achieving work/life/family balance, situational ethics, and resolving conflict.

Creating spacious thought

For Cayne, the hope is that we will begin to listen more closely, talk to and not over each other, think more broadly, and embrace an appreciation for difference through small acts of inclusivity in our daily lives. These are the conversations worth having and the ones that are necessary to have as we move forward into 2021.

The goal of these sessions is not to solve big problems, change minds, or make everyone see the world the same way. Diverse views are healthy and necessary. Underlying that diversity is often shared values. Seeking and finding those commonalities means listening to accepting the “other” as an individual striving to create a life worth living – as they define it.

During the sessions, participants will learn skills for intentionally and empathetically listening and speaking to each other. They’ll then use these skills to discuss common values and concerns and think about how to heal the tears in our social fabric. In later sessions, they will focus on the need to attach to some larger purpose as part of the human experience and as a tool to build connections to each other.

The Zoom sessions will be interactive, with discussion prompts, small break-out groups, and opportunities to share with each other. No advance preparation is required and different questions will be explored each week. Participants can attend one or all sessions.

Calling all viewpoints

If you’re concerned about the loss of civility, connectivity, and respect in our civic and social lives together, maybe it’s time to act. Instead of lending credence to those divisive forces, embrace the power you have as an individual to end division, promote mutuality and respect, and establish common ground.

Cayne invites you to participate, “People who think differently are welcome. We need you. We don’t have to agree, but we must embrace and respect each other’s viewpoints. We want the same goods out of life. If we come together productively to achieve them despite our differences, we’ll end up with a more robust and inclusive civic life and learn from each other in the process.”

We can start with this baby step. Bring your curiosity, an open and engaged spirit, and a desire to actively listen to others. One hour at a time, we can begin to rebuild our communities and respect those who challenge our views. •

 Scoville Memorial Library will host Common Ground conversations on four Sundays from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. The dates are February 7 and 21 and March 14 and 28. For more information and to register, visit www.scovillelibrary.org. For more information about the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s Bridging Divides, Healing Communities grant initiative, visit www.berkshiretaconic.org.