Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Webster’s Dictionary defines zero-sum as “of, relating to, or being a situation (such as a game or relationship) in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side.” It also defines bigotry as “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.” These two definitions come straight from the dictionary and are not my own words. However, I believe one would be hard pressed not to see that to a large degree, when coupled together, they clearly define what we are witnessing in the hyper-partisan atmosphere in nations around the globe, including our own.
Politics have always been divisive by nature and to some degree by design. Yet there is a major difference between today’s politics and those prior to the twenty-first century. Today, politics are fed by a 24-hour news cycle driven by media outlets as angrily divided as our political extremes and an onslaught of social media platforms where misinformation runs rampant. The caustic politics of division have now reached a fever pitch which is hard, if not impossible, to avoid. To circumvent the damaging effects of our corrosive politics one would have to cut themselves off from the world around them completely, taking self-quarantining to an extreme level. A global pandemic and the strongest outpouring of civil unrest in decades happening during an election year serves to add fuel to the fire and fan the flames of division.
The picture of our nation and its politics I’ve painted above is not a pretty one nor should it be. As a nation we have very real, very relevant and very raw issues to deal with. Keeping this in mind, I would propose to you that no single political party or elected official can bring peace and calm to our nation or the communities we call home. Realistically, political parties are based upon the principle of dividing and conquering to win elections as opposed to uniting citizens from all walks of life in victories which will overcome the major issues of our time while helping to heal our nation. Asking political parties to heal our nation would be akin to me asking the guy who broke my jaw in a bar fight to set it for me and having faith it would heal properly.
So how do we fix a problem so entrenched and begin to heal a nation that is fractured in so many ways? Though there is no quick fix and it will take a sustained effort, I honestly believe there is hope. It is my firm belief that these efforts must begin at the local level with a heightened level of civic engagement and a commitment to actively engaging the next generation of leaders. Real change in our nation isn’t going to begin in Washington or on Wall Street, it’s going to begin on Main Street at the grassroots level with local leaders uniting those they serve and making their communities the best places they can be. Real and sustainable change for the better in our nation will not come through any of us putting our trust blindly in the hands of any political party. It will come from us putting our trust in ourselves and each other. At this critical juncture in world history, we must all be the change we want to see in our world.
I recently served as a panelist for a human rights forum on a local podcast called “Drop the Dis.” The other panelists joining me were civil rights activist Ray Montana, Captain Charles Mitchell of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department and Augusta University sociology professor Dr. Todd Powell-Williams. The two-hour conversation was wide ranging and covered the topics of defining/explaining the Black Lives Matter movement, Augusta and criminal justice, improving our world together and speaking to the people. During the open and honest conversation, we each respectfully listened to each other’s diverse viewpoints on race relations and social equity. All of us agreed that the forum was both enlightening and productive as we discussed ways we could all work together to proactively address racial issues locally.
At the end of the conversation I was asked by cohost David Bash what gives me hope for the future. My answer was simple: he, his cohost Chris Nabholtz and their generation foster in me a sense of hope. When asked to elaborate I shared with them the simple fact that two twentysomethings with a passion for addressing race relations in Augusta were able to put together an event which will help shape the future of our community was inspiring to me. They didn’t wait for someone else to put together a forum that can now be listened to and used to benefit our community as well as others. They stepped up to the plate to be the change they were looking for and I’m proud to call these young changemakers my friends.
Today we live in a troubled world, but this is nothing new. The great challenges facing our nation and all of humanity may shift from generation to generation, but there will always be challenges. For me, the fundamental question for leaders of all ages and every walk of life is: how do we unite to not just talk about these challenges but to address them head on?
Over the past year I’ve connected with changemaking leaders of the same mindset from around the globe. This shows me that a virtual world offers the greatest opportunity we’ve had to unite communities worldwide to address our greatest challenges. Although policy must ultimately be a part of the solution, policy makers must listen to those whose voices aren’t often heard in the political process who want real solutions as opposed to zero-sum politics as usual. Listening to the voices of the younger generation of leaders at home and abroad is key to fostering change in that they will ultimately inherit the issues that those who came before them helped to create.
In the end, creating positive and sustainable change in our communities and in our world isn’t up to politicians, it’s up to us.