Our Role in Building Greater Unity: Reflections on Recent U.S. Political Events

By Chuck Howard, IOA Executive Director

Americans—and much of the world—watched in horror at the violence and insurrection at the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021. However, this spectacle was only one of the most visible manifestations of the toxicity of intolerance that has leached into our politics and society over many years.

Not since the War of 1812 has the United States Capitol been under such an attack. As shocking and damaging as this outpouring of anger and retribution was, it is only one of the crises that we—collectively—are facing.

The events of 2020 also revealed deep divisions due to a global pandemic; whether the crisis is real and over how to respond to it. Millions of people lost their jobs or businesses and any semblance of economic security, while others felt little or no economic impact. The pandemic, with its disproportional impact on minorities and poorer communities, also revealed fundamental inequities in our society. The Black Lives Matter movement has now been made real to many non-black people with the very visible murder of George Floyd and other police shootings of African Americans. These events revealed how far we still need to go to eliminate racial bias and make our professed belief of justice and equity a reality.

The impact of the forces of disruption and division are not just limited to our politics and society at large. They are present in our communities and in our institutions: our schools, universities, businesses, and civic organizations. 

President Biden, in his inaugural address and in his call for unity addressed these issues. He called on all of us not to see each other "as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature."  And he pointed the way, "Let's begin by listening to one another again. Hear one another, show respect for one another...Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war." 

The deep divisions and failings of our politics and society will not disappear overnight. But it will require the commitment of "enough of us" who believe in our shared principles more than political goals to begin to work together. Our most basic institutions—our schools, businesses, and civic organizations—also need to take it upon themselves to be champions for these goals. More than that, they need to model these goals by providing the resources for people to raise issues and resolve conflict in constructive and empowering ways. 

The role of the organizational ombuds is perfectly suited to this purpose. Although established by organizations for their employees, students, or other constituents, ombuds are committed to providing confidential help to people to resolve conflict or surface issues of concern. They do this by their adherence to the principles of independence, informality, neutrality, and confidentiality. 

Ombuds are designated neutrals—not representing or advocating for any party—who can provide information, options, and guidance to people. They are advocates for fair process and equity. As skilled conflict resolution professionals, they are expert listeners made available to help any and all parties with their concerns or conflicts. They help "lower the temperature" by finding creative ways to resolve conflict in their organizations. And while they will not breach the confidentiality of the communications with their visitors, they are also skilled in identifying and surfacing systemic issues that should be of concern to their organizations. 

In short, Ombuds can be a valuable tool for both people and organizations to foster constructive resolutions to conflict and reconciliation. They can be a beacon of light to help people navigate their way through the current crises. This beacon can be a source of illumination for organizations to learn about failings or systemic issues that might never otherwise come to light or that might surface in less constructive ways. 

There is always a need for this light, but never more than now.

As Amanda Gorman so eloquently ended her inaugural poem: 

            For there is always light,

            If only we're brave enough to see it

            If only we're brave enough to be it.

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Comments on "Our Role in Building Greater Unity: Reflections on Recent U.S. Political Events"

Comments 0-15 of 2

Steven D. Prevaux - Monday, February 22, 2021

Thank you Chuck for reminding us all that light still shines through the darkness!

Liz Hill - Sunday, February 21, 2021

Thanks for the inspiration, Chuck!

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