Illumine America: Episode 1
Addressing Economic Inequality: Russell Krumnow and Sharona Shuster
Illumine America is a podcast created by the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. It explores some of the major issues facing American society, such as economic inequality, racial justice and race unity, the sustainable development of our planet, and more. Just as much as we’re troubled by the challenges inherent to these issues, we’re also inspired by constructive approaches to them that we see being piloted everyday. Our podcast highlights, or illumines, the work of some of the individuals, communities, and institutions that are bringing fresh insight to these urgent conversations.
Addressing Economic Inequality
Americans are developing a shared sense that our economy is not working for most of us. It’s undeniable that inequality has become extreme. But why is this? And what should we do about it? In our Office, we’ve been asking: how can our society have conversations about reducing economic inequality without deepening divisions between people and exacerbating conflict? What conditions need to be met before we can have these constructive conversations? And what does it look like to have faith in the capacity of others to contribute constructively?
This short interview series explores the modest efforts of a few organizations and groups that are trying to answer these questions.
Several common themes emerge from these interviews. These include the importance of expanding and deepening our conception of participation: who is included in conversations about economic development and what does meaningful participation look like? Another is the need for greater awareness of our shared humanity and interdependence. These interviews also illumine the rich potential for applying to these questions the approach of consultation — a means of exploring reality that centers the collective pursuit of truth, the value of diverse perspectives, and loving yet frank dialogue.
Russell Krumnow and Sharona Shuster: Convergence
In our inaugural episode of Illumine America, we speak with Russell Krumnow and Sharona Shuster from Convergence. Convergence is a non-profit organization that convenes individuals and organizations with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues. It just celebrated its 10th anniversary and has worked on projects related to reimagining education, health reform, improving reentry, and developing a better federal budget process, among other issues.
Russell and Sharona talk with us in this interview about Convergence’s approach to its work and the “Working Up” dialogue for action to increase economic mobility for low-income workers and households in the United States.
Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Negar: Russell, Sharona, thanks so much for making the time to be with us today. We’ve been talking with different groups about the aspect of their work that has to do with creating conditions for constructive dialogue on issues that often seem intractable and inherently divisive. Convergence tackles such issues head-on, bringing together different actors with the aim of finding credible policy solutions.
To start us off, Sharona: in DC, there are a lot of organizations that focus on policy. What is it that Convergence does, and what’s distinctive about its approach?
Sharona: Sure. Convergence brings together leaders across the ideological spectrum and different sectors, and we engage them in sustained dialogue for a year or two-year period. What they’re doing is they’re tackling, like you said, the seemingly intractable problems facing the country, and as they reach agreement, we support them to take action together, to promote the ideas and solutions that they’ve developed, and to apply them within their own sphere as appropriate.
And there’s a few things, I think, that make us different from some of the other groups in DC that are working on policy. When we pick an issue, we spend a lot of time researching that issue, and talking to a wide variety of experts, really trying to get a 360 perspective on the issue. We are neutral, so we’re trying really to learn from the experts. Our work is emergent, like we don’t start with a solution or frame in mind, we build that frame through our conversations with experts, and then we test and refine it over time. When we tackle a problem, we try to define it in a way that will promote collaboration and cooperation. So, one of our longest-standing projects that now has become its own nonprofit is a project that was on transforming K-12 education. It started in 2013 with a bunch of interviews and at first it was a little hard for the project team to figure out what was the angle. So they finally honed in on this frame of reimagining education for the 21st century and trying to think about not just tinkering on the edges of the current system, but thinking about how you envision a system that really helps every child to thrive and fulfill their potential? That frame was really motivating and inspiring to people, and it also meant that they weren’t going to rehash the same debates that they’ve been stuck in for so long. By looking forward and designing a future together — I think it was one of those frames that really promoted collaboration.
Another thing that’s different about us is we intentionally help to build trust and relationships. We’re bringing together people who don’t know each other, sometimes they don’t like each other, or have stereotypes about each other. We really try to give them opportunities to understand each other’s perspectives more, to get underneath their positions and to really see where their values and their interests align. We make sure that people are eating together, we intentionally seat people next to someone they maybe don’t know or that we think that there’s an opportunity for them to overcome some barriers by getting to know each other better. We spend a lot of time, also, individually with each of the dialogue participants, which I think is distinct. Like after each meeting, we will call each of the participants and really try to get their thinking. How do they think things are going, what should we be focusing on that we’re missing, what’s working, what’s not? And, what are any doubts or concerns that they have about the potential of the process? And then we do shared learning, which I think is another unique experience. Sometimes, that means the group will undertake research because there seems to be things they feel they don’t know that are in the way of reaching agreement. Sometimes, it means that they will go and speak to people who have direct lived experience. So in a reducing recidivism project, for example, we had participants go and speak to people who are currently in jail, to ask, ‘Are these the ideas we’re generating relevant, do they resonate with the actual challenges that you’re facing?’ So I think those are some of the things that distinguish us.
N: Great, that’s really helpful. Can you say more about the consultative nature of the process? The people you’re bringing together aren’t necessarily folks that would be in the same room, talking to each other.
S: In terms of the consultative nature: we try to create an atmosphere that’s characterized by dignity, by mutual respect, where everyone knows that the conversations are confidential, but also where everyone is free to really speak from the heart, to say what they believe, and that open disagreement is acceptable. We need a space where people can be frank and really open, and we work with professional facilitators. We also come in with this attitude that we trust that people want to make a difference, we hold people in high positive regard. I think all of those things set the contours of the conversation in a really positive way that actually helps to promote better idea generation and more innovative thinking.
N: So maybe, Russell, we can talk a little bit about a project that you led last year, called ‘Working Up,’ which aimed at facilitating increased economic mobility for low-income workers. Can you tell us more about what that involved?
Russell: So the question from us for this group, to give a specific example of the type of work Sharona was describing was, ‘How do we increase upward economic opportunity and mobility, especially for low-income Americans, through work?’ So, we entered this debate with the belief that everyone wants to think that America is a place with equality of opportunity and if you work hard, you can move up, and you can do better than your parents did. And that’s not been true for everyone. It’s been true for many people through the middle of the 20th century, it’s increasingly not been the case in recent decades. More and more people are actually working longer hours, and not earning more than their parents did at a comparable age. So this group set out to think about solutions to that challenge.
What that meant in this project was we had stakeholders, as we call them, representing companies like Walmart, McDonalds, IBM, so companies certainly with knowledge workers, but many frontline, hourly-waged workers, sitting at a common table with stakeholders representing workers themselves. So organized labor, as well as other advocacy groups who were often at odds with those employers in many other contexts. But critically, it wasn’t just a conversation between people who were representing large businesses and people representing workers. It also included other important cross-sector perspectives: a community college president, some philanthropic leaders who were funding smart work in the space, a couple of key faith-based leaders, and then a number of people who were outside Washington, who are close to the lived experience of low-income Americans who are doing work on the ground, who are doing job training, who are doing economic development. We also had right and left-leaning policy thinkers, so it was a really diverse group geographically with regard to race, ethnicity and gender, and critically with regard to sector, because what we found is that many of the usual suspects have been talking about these issues for a long time and are very well-intentioned and have done a number of important things. We honor their work, we built on their work, and we study their work. We’d not seen a table quite like this built, where we had a higher education leader sitting next to a senior person in the HR department of Walmart, sitting next to a more progressive advocate that’s often at odds with Walmart, sitting next to a community-based person, who really understands what it’s like to juggle hourly-waged work, childcare, an inflexible work schedule, and being on knife’s edge and deeply, financially insecure. We were able to come to an interesting set of agreements, because of the players at the table, paired with the powerful methodology Sharona described that involves shared learning, and an arc from initial trust building, over the 18 months we met, to co-creating a set of solutions that could move the ball on this important issue
N: That’s really great. Can you share a little bit more about this notion of shared learning experiences? Why is that necessary?
R: Sure. So there are a couple of components to that. We conducted listening sessions with people who themselves face barriers to opportunity. It’s very hard to discount someone’s experience or caricature it when you’ve heard someone describe in a powerful way what their day really looks like. And the idea of moving up and climbing a ladder of opportunity if the floor underneath you is very uncertain and shaky is incredibly difficult. Hearing that from a person’s perspective versus one of us talking about it was very powerful.
But broadly, to answer your question, shared learning was important because everyone we invited knew a lot about the issue from their own angle. They didn’t necessarily have a 360 degree view. And they had not necessarily sat in a room with people who disagreed with them and had a chance to listen and learn and ask questions in respectful context. That didn’t mean that any individual changed their fundamental orientation, or entered the room strongly believing one thing, and left believing something completely different, but one can hold onto one’s strongly held beliefs about the right public policy approach, or the right attitude about an issue, and fill in context around it, and deeper understanding of other people’s perspectives and why they think the things that they do. So if we wake up in the morning, work for a large company that’s answerable to shareholders and has a balance sheet to meet, we have different choices in front of us than if we wake up and we work for a nonprofit advocacy group that’s trying to move the ball from a certain policy angle. So we were really able to do some shared learning together that involved outside speakers coming in, that involved compiling existing reports and studies on this issue of stagnant upward mobility, that involved looking a little bit at what other countries had done to some extent. That was all very powerful for us to do, not at our own desks, at our own offices, and our own contexts, but in a room that we never sit in, with people from different perspectives, under the guidance of a project team and a skilled professional facilitator.
S: If I could just add, I think shared learning also builds trust amongst the participants. It also helps to equalize some of the potential power dynamics in the group. That everyone recognizes that they have a part of the story, but not the whole story, and that everyone has something to learn. It can also be something that continues to unify the group and help them to come from a more collaborative stance.
N: That’s really helpful. So, with a group like this, there are inevitably some challenging dynamics that you face. What were some of these, how did you address them, and were there some breakthroughs that maybe you can share or highlight for us?
R: Sure. There were challenges and there were breakthroughs. I think the folks in the group would uniformly say they had a very positive experience, but it wasn’t as if every moment of the conversations was easy. Listening across difference is very hard. We have very little experience with that in our day-to-day lives, and so those aren’t muscles that we’ve developed and made strong. Listening across difference in a way where you really want to seek to understand what the person is saying is particularly hard versus just waiting for them to be quiet so you can make your own point. I would say an early success — and just about all of our projects do this — was we wrote a set of principles we all agreed would be a bit of a north star for the effort. As we came up with specific tactics, or proposals that might be in our final solutions that we created, we put them against those principles and questioned, ‘Did they move them forward or not?’
So, to give you an example from this particular group, we named the fact that everyone has not experienced disparate access to opportunity in the same way. We named the fact that certain groups face higher barriers to opportunity. Some of it is because of where they live geographically, if they live in a rural area, but sometimes it’s because of the very intentional choices that had been made in our public policy, sometimes because of racism. There are many reasons that people with different backgrounds, especially people of color, as well as those who have disabilities; people who have been long term unemployed were another group that we named; and certainly people who have been criminal justice system involved. These were some of the groups that our stakeholders named — right, left, and center — acknowledging that those groups face a harder pathway than everyone else. We can disagree about the right remedies, but that is just a fact. We put that into our principles early on, and then that was a helpful filter to put any of the proposals we wrote up against, and say, ‘Does this proposal move the ball for those groups we just named that face all of these hurdles, or not?’ If it doesn’t, if it doesn’t close any of those opportunity gaps, then maybe we haven’t quite gotten it right. It was useful as a test for us. That was one success, writing those.
Another important success was we broke the issue down into three component parts. One was increasing basic financial securities. The group was very interested in a set of creative solutions to just stabilize people in a basic way, before we can think about, ‘What does moving up over time look like? What does achieving a promotion in a career pathway look like, if I’m worried I’m going to be evicted, and then my kids are pulled out of their school and we’re facing instability?’ So there was a set of work around that. Secondly, there was a set of work around workforce. And this is where the business players we had involved were very important. We live in a capitalistic economy, we have people who have to go to jobs, we have employers who provide those jobs, and who pay the salary and benefits of workers. Their voice was very, very important. Even the actors in the room who were quite critical of large employers acknowledged that we need their engagement, we need their ideas. Better to have them in the tent as a part of the conversation. And then, thirdly, was “what is a quality job?” Those were the hard conversations about wages and benefits that we got into. I think the fact that we produced a set of solutions in all three of those is a huge victory in a group that included representatives from such diverse groups.
There are places where we would have liked to have gotten farther. There were places where, for example in wages, the group agreed that the basic federal minimum wage is not enough right now, and it probably should be higher. We were unable to agree on a specific number we could all call for. If you were only working with stakeholders who were largely oriented like you, you could probably come to an agreement on that. This was different, this was hard. But the group did acknowledge that where appropriate, regionally, there should be increases in wages that would allow for people to have a sustainable way of life and live with dignity. And that people who work full time should probably not be poor. We think, although that is a basic standard to cross, it’s currently not reality in our country, and so if we in fact adopted those ideas, that would be a big deal.
N: Another important piece that really comes across is how critical relationship-building is to the success of the process itself within the project, but then also its impact beyond. I was wondering if you could share a little bit more about what characterizes the kinds of relationships that were built, and what happens beyond a project?
R: Absolutely. One of our goals here is to create the connective tissue organically, that could result in many things that we would not be able to predict. The projects produce a work product that then could be used by policy makers, it could be used by actors in the private sector. That’s the goal from the beginning of the project. But there are always creative things that happen that we could not have predicted. There are now working relationships in the stakeholder group that we convened between worker advocacy groups and the US Chamber, representing employers around the country. Several of us from the dialogue went to a conference Walmart was putting on at their headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas shortly after, and one of the folks that is part of the group, her organization had a very adversarial relationship with Walmart prior. She didn’t drop all those objections because of the dialogue, but she was willing to engage because she’d built a personal relationship of trust with this one person, who she realized was a person of good faith. Does that solve every difference and problem in the world? Of course not. Is it a big deal to have that person’s contact info and a welcoming voice on the other end of the phone? I think so. That didn’t exist before. And some of the things that some of the private employers were able to implement or beef up or move on as a result, as a very clear impact of the dialogue, were informed by the rich 360 degree perspective of the other people at the table that they didn’t know before the project started. We can’t control the macro economy, what policy makers will do at any given moment, but if there’s a foundation set, with a set of really good ideas on a shelf that was built by a group like this, that can be quite powerful. So there are now conversations going on where people can at least have some open lines to each other that they would not have had in the past, that allow for more constructive conversation.
N: That’s really helpful. What kind of pushback do you get from people? What are some of the questions people have about this process, and what have been your responses to that?
R: Sure. I think one is that this takes time, and for lots of good reasons, and for some less good ones. Things move fast. The idea that one would step back and engage in repeated, daylong, day-and-a-half long facilitated conversations. That’s an enormous ask. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of sweat equity. There are many people who would say, ‘Look I kind of know the solutions, I’m going to push forward. Building a couple of allies would be great, but time is short.’ So that’s definitely a pushback. That’s a legitimate critique, in a culture that moves this quickly. I think though, once you spend some time in these rooms, getting to step back and not be reacting to the stuff in your social media feed, and even kind of turn that off a little bit, and think and speak deeply about these issues and what’s underneath them, the values that people hold. That is really powerful, and so rare, that people kind of crave it. But it’s a fair critique, it does take time. There are urgent challenges right now, so we absolutely want people to be moving on them in the short-term, but we also want to create space to think about what the durable, cross-sector solutions look like, as well.
S: Right. I would add to that that there’s a unique type of pushback that we’re experiencing in this current national, political context and moment, where people feel like there’s a sense of emergency, and urgency that the democracy is in crisis and that people feel like it’s better to fight than to talk. Or that they can only really be addressing that the ‘house is on fire’ and deal with the short-term. The way we respond to that is, we want to encourage a ‘both, and’ approach. We understand that there are unique crises in this current moment, and people feel the need to advocate and to respond in the short term. And, even from a year from now, for example after the election, there’s still going to be a tremendous amount of divisions that remain. There’s still going to be difficulty in moving issues forward. And we need to take steps now and into the future to really try to stitch the country together to overcome these deep divisions that are probably going to be more exacerbated in the near term. We need new leaders, new ideas and new processes to address the current, very fractious state of the country, and the toxic nature of the discourse, and the hatred on both sides. Responding to the short term will not actually get to those bigger, long-term needs. So I think it’s easy to get into either/or thinking, and I think it’s also easy for people’s orientation to shrink in a moment of crisis, where they can’t even necessarily see two or three years from now. So it’s hard to think about investing in something over an extended period of time.
N: If I could bring this to a close on a more personal level, what would you say, in your engagement in this work, is something that you’ve developed a deeper, or deepened appreciation for?
S: I think one of the big takeaways for me is how the conditions that are created can set something up for success or not. All the work that we do, even before people come to their first dialogue meeting, of helping to frame the problem in a way that’s going to promote collaboration, and helping to create norms of collegiality and respect. That’s some of maybe why it’s so difficult for people to work across difference is because the conditions that they need for that to be effective are not always in place, and there isn’t always someone responsible for creating those conditions. And that it takes a lot of time, and that’s something that is inevitable, it’s not good or bad, it’s just there’s no real way around that relationship-building. It’s meant to be a time-intensive process, and it’s valuable time, but I think this idea of preparing, and setting the conditions up for collaboration is super important for success.
R: Like I said before, listening across difference in constructive ways is really hard. On the optimistic front, people are capable of a lot. Not that I didn’t believe that before this work, but it’s been underlined and deepened seeing it up close. People are capable of quite a lot. They’re capable of thinking deeply, stretching themselves, even when all of their incentives are pushing them in another direction, it’s not toward engagement. Human beings can, in relationship, accomplish a lot together, and I think we should all hold on to that and recognize that, that’s the way we’ve done big stuff and good stuff before in the past and there’s no reason we can’t do that again. We get to decide what our society looks like, even though it feels sometimes like we’re in a strait jacket of anger and misinformation, and those things are very real, but I think our tables are evidence that we get to decide what the future looks like. Again, I don’t want to paper over the differences and I don’t want this to sound like kumbaya, that’s not what it is, it’s not about people leaving a one-day meeting, and suddenly agreeing about everything. That’s absolutely not what’s going on, but it’s about deep relationships being built so we can talk through things, versus going to war all the time around everything. So, I think my personal takeaway is that we should expect more of each other, people are capable of a whole lot, and if we come to the table with that expectation and that willingness to listen across difference, which is really hard, we can actually get somewhere.
N: Great. Thank you both for sharing, with quite a bit of depth, some of the work that you do, and the commitment and the great capacity that you bring to the work.