By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. America’s unofficial motto. It is on the Great Seal of the United States and the back of the quarter. It has been used for generations to describe the country, referring to the belief that many nationalities, religions and races come together to form one America. Of late it seems more of a motto than a reality as we appear to be divided by many things – party, ideology, ethnicity, religion, race. However, I recently had the pleasure of witnessing the realization of this motto at the SLLF Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
We began the program in mid-July following a week of tragedies in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas. It seems we were no longer one, but many – a divided nation. Liberals vs. conservatives. Democrats vs. Republicans. White vs. brown and black. Haves vs. have-nots. Police vs. citizens. People are angry. People are scared. While program participants are encouraged to check their party, ideology and preconceived ideas “at the door” of the classroom you could feel many of those divisions when we gathered for our opening sessions on Monday evening and Tuesday morning.
On the first evening of the program, small groups of participants discussed how, and even if, governments should respond to the economic and social challenges characteristic to The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. As I wandered from room to room, I could feel the tension in some of the groups between those who felt government had to “fix this” and those who were convinced that government was more of a cause than a solution to what ails our society. These tensions carried over into discussions on Tuesday morning as well. Despite the best efforts of faculty and participants, many of the divisions that are defining our country right now were evident in the classroom to a greater degree, it seemed, than in previous years. I was worried that this meeting, like so many formal and informal conversations around the country, would devolve into us vs. them, Republicans vs. Democrats, liberals vs. conservatives.
Fortunately, my worries were for naught. Beginning with small group and large group discussions of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” I watched these walls of division begin to gradually come down as participants saw themselves in various aspects of the characters (the teacher, the artist, the father etc.) in this moving story. The walls continued to fall as Dr. Ed Ayers led us in a discussion of the Civil War, leading us to the understanding that because of, not in spite of, this conflict, we are one nation.
As we travelled to Monticello and then gathered for a cookout in a light rain, I noticed something amazing. Democrats were sitting with Republicans. Liberals were eating with conservatives. African Americans laughed with Latinos and white colleagues. Southerners even communed with Yankees! Given that I am older than most of the participants, I did not join them at the lounge or the late evening excursions into town, but smiles, yawns and a few knowing nods on Wednesday morning suggested that the walls continued to come down into the wee hours of the morning. There was a noticeable difference in the group dynamics by Wednesday’s sessions when we tackled ethics cases. It was clear that pretty much everyone now felt comfortable speaking his or her mind and knowing that all opinions would be respected.
As everyone came together on Thursday morning, it was clear that all barriers were down—all were laughing, smiling and offering handshakes and hugs. As Dr. Freeman began his lecture, a dozen or so participants gleefully high-fived each other (grinning like five year-olds with a secret!). A few minutes later they did it again. It seems that sometime late in the evening, they had decided to high-five each other each time Dr. Freeman said the word “leadership”—a rather common occurrence at the Emerging Leaders Program!
After “leadership walks” where participants paired up to walk and discuss their visions of leadership and an opportunity to share letters written to those who inspired them, the program closed with an opportunity for participants to express gratitude to other participants in the classroom. It was at this point that it became clear that the many had indeed become one. A conservative Republican got emotional when thanking a liberal Democrat for his passion and integrity. A young Republican from a western state emotionally described the relationship she had built with an older Midwestern Republican. A white legislator complimented an African American colleague for his insightful comments throughout the week. The “cherry on top of the Sundae” came when a Republican legislator shared, without a hint of sarcasm or humor, that she and two other GOP colleagues had volunteered to assist a Southern Democrat when he fulfilled his dream of running for the United States Congress!
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. So it was for this group of fifty legislators from different parties, states and backgrounds in Charlottesville, Virginia. And so may it be for all of us.